I love my job, my calling, as a counselor educator, and I take my role and passion as a graduate student advocate, public innovator and social justice change agent to heart every single day. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
His words are my mantra in life. Each one of us touches the hearts of so many others and, thus, the very future.
But teaching in these uncertain, turbulent times has been challenging to say the least. A powerful, yet almost silent and unspoken subtle change has occurred in my classrooms. It almost feels like a gray mist or cloud that is not seen but clearly felt.
I have never tried to be political with my students or to discuss politics in the classes that I teach. I don’t believe in it. Just because a professor has a “captive audience” in a class and CAN speak his or her mind doesn’t mean that one should. I don’t shy away from state, national or global issues because they are often pertinent to the material we discuss. Still, I don’t offer my own political opinion on these issues, mostly out of respect, but also because I feel it’s the right thing to do.
I care a great deal about my students. I can see the concern and worry in their eyes. They are more unsettled than normal, and the mood is palpable. Approximately 80 percent of my students are Hispanic and bilingual. They share an immense pride in their heritage, culture and family systems. I honor their commitment to their communities, their livelihoods and this country that they dearly love.
My students bring in reports of their own counselees in schools and agencies who share stories of intense fear, anxiety and pain at the idea that they, or their parents, could be deported. We have a lot of “Dreamer” students (children of undocumented immigrants) at my university and many of these children and families in our surrounding communities. Their understandable angst is powerful, heart-wrenching and compelling.
Teaching in these challenging times
And now we are asked to continue to teach our students as though nothing has changed in our world. No matter how one voted (or chose not to vote) in our nation’s most recent election, one thing is for certain: It has been an incredibly acrimonious, divisive and challenging time for our entire country. I have my opinions, but they are not for me to share them with my students. Yet they share theirs, every day. They have to because it affects their lives, their families and the clients they serve.
Other counselor educators who are struggling with these same issues may be wondering: How do we respond in a caring, empathic, yet ambiguous, way and not take sides?
The danger in “taking sides” is that even if I find great personal solace in doing so, I may also inadvertently destroy a student’s belief that each person has a right to free speech and to believe as he or she sees fit. In my bully pulpit ramblings, I could possibly (even if unintentionally) insult or even scar a student who may hold vastly different opinions from my own. That would be inexcusable. That serves no one except for my own selfish gain.
What we can do
It tugs at my heartstrings, but the only conclusion I can see is to treat this situation as a counselor would with any client. We must be confident, genuine, caring and willing to listen. We need to share that we understand students’ (and their clients’) fears and concerns. We express great empathy for what they are experiencing and model, summarize and validate their honest emotions, using an overall person-centered approach from Carl Rogers.
This isn’t always easy with a large number of students on one’s caseload. I never want to appear disingenuous. I just keep telling them, and myself, that their feelings, and those of their clients, are real, significant and truly matter. I will not judge; that is not my purpose as an educator. And I will not just gloss over everything with the proverbial, “It will all be just fine” message, to assuage their fears and my own discomfort.
All we can do is let them know how much we care and then use our own therapeutic orientations that we hold dear to help them and their clients. For example, in using a brief solution-focused therapeutic approach (Steve de Shazer), they can explore their options and what they believe IS within their power to influence, and develop effective ways to cope and move forward. These are all productive ways of handling and making sense of difficult times. The basic tenets of Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy seem useful here as well — finding purpose and meaning, even within one’s suffering and turmoil, and a reason to keep going.
Wellness for counselor educators
It is also more evident than ever that we as counselor educators need to take the time for wellness and coping strategies for our own mental well-being. It is one thing to conduct site visits and observations to see each of my students working with children, adolescents and adults. I too hear their stories firsthand and feel great empathy for their situations. But now, we also hear the same concerns from our students in our classes, and it is hard not to feel their pain intensely.
I reach out to my professional colleagues for feedback and interaction. I value the unwavering support of my family and friends and cherish their input now more than ever. And I have become intensely aware of where my own “head” is at — and my emotions — and utilize my coping strategies to the fullest. I consciously try to “check my ego and attitude” at the door before I step into the classroom and hold fast to the belief that I am here to instruct, teach, lead and inspire. The American Counseling Association’s values and code of ethical conduct are bedrocks of sanity to hold dear.
I am guessing that things will continue to be tricky for many of us in the coming months and years. As educators, we need to help each other through these very different times and circumstances. Knowing that the counseling profession is strong, and that our colleagues are always there for us, brings great comfort and resoluteness. My fervent hope is that it brings the same to each of you.
“Carpe diem,” dear colleagues.
Suzanne A. Whitehead is a licensed mental health counselor and assistant professor of counselor education at California State University, Stanislaus. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.