Louise Giudici, The Friends’ School Hobart
I have been at teacher at The Friends’ School Tasmania for 16 years. I teach Humanities, Comparative Religious Studies, Social Psychology and Sociology. I am the staff nominee to the School Board and also year 11/12 Coordinator. A major part of my role as year 11/12 Coordinator is working with the “Clemes Council”, which is the student leadership council for the school. Life is busy! I have two children in the High School and my husband also teaches at Friends’ part time. So with little imagination, it is obvious that on many levels, the school has come to influence so many aspects of who I am, what I do, and the way I do it. Indeed it is true to say that my life at the Friends’ School has given me a “community” context to explore Quakerism, and recently I was welcomed to the Tasmanian Regional Meeting as a member.
“To reach a child’s mind, a teacher must capture his heart. Only if a child feels right can he think right” (Ginott, 1969 in Lovatt, May 2006).
Despite my busy life, my experiences as a teacher for 24 years compelled me to undertake a Diploma of Counselling while working fulltime at Friends’ during 2014-15. There had been several occasions throughout my time as a teacher when I had been involved with a student or colleague in challenging emotional circumstances. I wanted to stop feeling as if I was supporting them only through instinct (what my “gut” felt to be the right thing to do and say); instead I wanted to really make sure I was helping them as best I could, and for this help to be grounded in best practice and informed research.
I was both nervous and excited; I was going back to university after a break of 20 years! I could truthfully share with my students the struggles with essay writing, the perils of not keeping adequate records of references and most importantly, I could share my experiences of a “new beginning”, i.e. enrolling at uni, meeting new people, stepping way, way out of my comfort zone. Already this strengthened my connections with my students. My claims to understand their worries and concerns had a new authenticity; I really did understand what they were going through and they respected my desire to deepen my understanding of how best to support them.
In studying the course I was immediately struck by how significant it is that I have worked in a Quaker school as a teacher and year coordinator for most of my teaching career (now 16 out of 24 years), and how much the experiences I have had in my working environment have shaped who I am at my very core. Through my studies I realised that the most significant strength I bring to counselling is my experiences as a teacher.
The significance of personal reflection is often under-rated in professions like counselling and teaching. The social context of these work environments is characterised by the busyness of the working day, and often the benefits of reflection are forgotten in all that needs to be done in the 24 hours of one day. Just like schools all over the world, life at Friends’ is very busy. So “Gatherings”, our weekly Meetings for Worship with the students, offer a unique opportunity in the school day for quiet reflection, for solitude and disconnection from screens and “shoulds”. These moments provide a growing awareness of a sense of both self and other. In Gathering as a student or staff member, I have dedicated time to sit with myself and listen to the place where my “spirit meets the bone”*, I listen to others, mindfully and with compassion, I develop a sense of connection, a sense that there is more than just me.
As teachers, it is undeniable that mindful reflective practice can facilitate enormous personal growth because if we are “present” in all our interactions we understand so much more about the needs of our students and colleagues. In order to do this we must also understand the importance of developing our communication skills. In this light, Egan’s (2014) final words, stressing the importance of communications skills, in his text The Skilled Helper are noteworthy: “Prize them, develop them. Make them second nature. Use them every day in both your public and private life. Teach them to your children. Make dialogue your default communication position” (p.404). The very fact that “helping” people is central to both my profession as a teacher and my studies as a counsellor means that every day and every problem solving opportunity is a unique experience, no day is the same – I love that! It also means that I cannot escape from the need to be a highly skilled communicator in all that I do. Although I also love that aspect of my life, at times (usually at the end of a long and particularly challenging day) I find I am not always the skilled communicator I would like to be!
Because of my work at the Friends’ School I have had the opportunity to make reflective practice an integral part of my work habits and I have also taken time to think explicitly about what my values are, particularly in relation to those outlined by the school in our “Purposes and Concerns” statement. Central to both my own beliefs and the “Purposes and Concerns” of the school is that there is “that of God” in each of us and that “As a learning community, we are concerned for the academic, cultural, physical, social and spiritual development of each person in our care.” How this approach compliments Rogers’ (the father of Humanistic Counselling) “absolute positive regard” is obvious. As a teacher and counselling practitioner I am obliged to actively search for the “good”, the potential, the strengths, of all in my care. The “Purposes and Concerns” statement of our school also outlines our goal to: “help students develop into men and women who will think clearly, act with integrity, make decisions for themselves, be sensitive to the needs of others and the environment, be strong in service and hold a global perspective.” Here again this statement compliments a humanistic approach to counselling by stipulating that there must be an atmosphere of mutual respect and empathy. The crossovers are also apparent when considering that counselling aims to enable the client to develop skills which will “push start them toward more productive and life-enhancing ways of thinking, behaving, dealing with emotions, and coping with negative experiences. When our clients leave us they should be managing their problem situations more effectively or be well on their way” (Egan, 2014, p. 281). These are of course, all things I want for all students in my care. It is my duty as both teacher and counsellor to assist people to break negative and destructive habits, to build skills, and to teach strategies to adjust behaviour to a more productive and positive way. To engage with the multidimensional model of Quaker education, the aim is to ensure that at an individual level the mind, body and “spirit” are nurtured (inward looking, developing a sense of self), while simultaneously ensuring that students have multiple opportunities for meaningful connections with each other and all members of the community, (outward looking, developing a sense of other). The hope for our students is that they will flourish, through building a meaningful life. Here there are numerous crossovers with the aims of Positive Psychology; indeed, Seligman (2011) has much to say about this in his work on the role of engagement, relationships and wellbeing. The final sentence in our Purposes and Concerns statement reminds us that: “We believe that these aims can best be achieved with the active support of all members of our School community”. Importantly the nature of that support is “active”, i.e. we all have the responsibility to help each other reach our full potential. Regardless of the “subject” I have taught my students, these aims are what I would hope for my Year 12s as they finish their final exams and think about their future plans for a meaningful life.
Relationships are central to both the counselling process and to teaching, because as noted earlier, without effective relationships we cannot learn. Most significantly a mindful awareness of one’s emotional wellbeing cultivates deeper academic success. Academic achievement can only occur in an environment in which a child feels heard, positively regarded and respected; “lasting learning engages both hearts and minds; learning is fundamentally a social exchange; emotions have the power to freeze or free cognition; students must feel safe in order to learn” (Baldacci, 2014). In order for anyone to learn teachers of all “types” need to help students develop both their cognitive and emotional skills if learning is to take place; there are now several research-tested practices that support this assertion. For example if you, “teach students about the impact of thoughts and beliefs on their ability to succeed; and teach students how to work with their emotions” (Zakrzweski, 2014) there will be improvements in both their ability to learn and the overall learning environment of the classroom. We have a poster in our staff area I particularly love with the reminder- “We are ALL teachers of wellbeing”; again the commonalities between the goals of teaching and counselling are obvious. The importance of cultivating emotional and social wellbeing in my classroom has always been a passion for me and the resultant rewards are immeasurable. I know I have the unique experience of working in a job, that every day has the potential to change lives for the better; by teaching students about the world around them, by first teaching them about themselves. It really doesn’t get any better than that!
So, even though it was a hard juggling act, I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to formalise my counselling skills by undertaking study at the University of Tasmania, the skills learnt and the opportunities for formalised reflection have strengthened my skills as a teacher. They allowed me the unique opportunity to consolidate my passion for the Humanities, for Values Education and for the emotional wellbeing of my students and my colleagues, and, I get to practise what I have learnt everyday.
* From the poem “Compassion” by Stanley Miller Williams (1930 – 2015)
Baldacci, L. (2014) Social and emotional learning at Symposium 2014: Induction. New Teacher Centre, accessed 18 July 2014, <http://www.newteachercenter.org/blog/social-and-emotional-learning-symposium-2014>.
Egan, G. (2014) The Skilled Helper: A problem management and opportunity- development approach to helping. 10th Edition, BROOKES/COLE, Cengage Learning, Belmont CA.
Ginott, H.G. (1975) Teacher and child: A book for parents and teachers. New York, NY: Macmillan
Seligman, M. (2011) Flourish: a visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York. New York: Free Press
Zakrzweski, V. (2014) Two Ways to Foster Grit. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, accessed 18 July 2014, <http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/two_ways_to_foster_grit>.