Parker J. Palmer’s concept of the “new professional” describes those who fight for their true mission “in the midst of the powerful force-field of institutional life, where so much conspires to compromise the core values” of their work. I wholeheartedly embrace this definition, but it presupposes that I align with Palmer’s idea of my work’s core values. In what field do people all agree on ethical or other issues like whether or not to grow transgenic bananas or if too much homework backfires? Education is a tool that can be used to humanize or de-personalize depending on the environment’s and students’ agendas. Immigrants like my parents are good illustrations of how education can be used as a means to improve one’s life.
Parker states that, “The institutions in which we work too often threaten our professional values.” In my previous career as a communications executive, I experienced a few difficult conversations with managers when I disagreed with a plan of action. On one occasion, the plan backfired as I had predicted so I was prepared to help mitigate the situation. After that, I became a more valued—and heard—part of the executive team.
Challenging our supervisors is difficult enough—the idea that professionals are moral superheroes who have to shred the war machines of evil institutions sounds exhausting. Yet, perhaps I have done this already as a marriage and family therapist (MFT). During my student training in both master’s and doctoral programs, I have had to set a limit on my client caseloads because I could not ethically take on new clients without it negatively impacting my other clients and myself. As a student intern, though, you are not entirely in charge of your caseload; faculty both direct and guide treatment through the supervision process. I have been fortunate to have compassionate, understanding supervisors who explored my limits with me and respected my boundaries.
In these cases, I felt able to take a stand. Many students do not feel empowered enough to say no to a faculty member, and some may not even realize that they can discuss alternatives to their situation. For example, to further ease my caseload, my supervisors had me explore which clients would benefit from coming every other week instead of weekly. How can we obtain help if we do not ask for it? At the same time, academia must promote an atmosphere safe for all to come forward and bring up issues of concern.
Many MFT programs now incorporate students’ “self-of-the-therapist,” the awareness and exploration of personal issues that may impact therapy positively or negatively. This work does not just affect clients, it often sparks the self-development and personal growth of therapists themselves. My field easily lends itself to the tenets of critical pedagogy: inspiring students to develop critical consciousness, exercise creativity, and explore their passions. MFT students must develop clinical judgment treating clients, sometimes handling crises such as a threat of suicide. In the three graduate MFT programs I have attended, experiential learning was a crucial aspect of our training from role-plays to internships working with actual clients as a student intern at a clinic. In the doctoral program at Virginia Tech, we are challenged to consider cases from different perspectives to flex our therapeutic muscles and focus on the common factors of effective treatment.
Surprisingly, not all MFT programs engage their students in experiential learning despite the push to outcome-based education. A research project on MFT learning experiences I helped to conduct at Virginia Tech last year revealed that application of theory to practice made students’ education more meaningful. The lack of such opportunities was marked also as students’ least meaningful learning experience. The goal of the survey, the results of which are in press at the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, was to learn what inspires, motivates, and demoralizes MFT students. Thematic analysis helped us to explore the educational experiences of 68 graduates of accredited MFT programs, and we identified several themes in addition to praxis that we hope will serve to improve the quality of education in our field.
Mentorship was a key element of a meaningful learning experience, including having a supervisor who encouraged the student’s own growth without being too directive. Collaborative environments also fostered ideas for how to handle situations that arise in session. Other meaningful learning experiences related to the participants seeing their work pay off in observable client progress and developing the “self-of-the-therapist.” Not surprisingly, poor teaching was cited as a part of students’ least meaningful learning experiences such as when professors rambled, were uninspired, patronized students, and didn’t give them a voice in the classroom.
These results validate what is my true mission—to engage with people to help them improve their lives whether they are my students, clients, colleagues, or supervisees. Critical pedagogy has given me more a new way to talk about my values, and perhaps a collaboration of effort to shred those force fields holding back improving our world.