Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Daniel J. Wiener, Ph.D.

Summary

I teach both classroom and supervisory graduate courses in the Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program of the Department of Counseling and Family Therapy at Central Connecticut State University. I have been teaching at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate levels throughout my professional career, since 1969. Since 1981 I have been providing MFT training and supervision to clinicians who had already obtained their terminal degrees in one of the mental health professions.

My Approach to MFT Training

I define my primary educational duty as stimulating and involving students in learning both the substance of MFT and developing themselves as effective healing and change agents for both their clients and themselves. The competent practice of MFT requires a synthesis of knowledge, judgment, and presence which cannot be imparted by conceptual learning alone. In my approach to MFT education and training I therefore emphasize “use-of-self” (also termed “person-of-therapist”). According to Laura Roberto, “Use of self” means becoming aware of one’s own embeddedness of “self-in-family-system”, and using this contextual awareness as a filter in the evaluation of clinical families and systemic hypothesizing that is necessary to family treatment.” I have been using experiential techniques (particularly action methods involving physical movement and dramatic enactment) in both education and psychotherapy for over 20 years (I first co-presented on action-oriented therapy at a professional conference in 1978). I have found that including experiential learning promotes growth in use-of-self far more effectively than does the exclusive use of didactic verbal-conceptual methods.

Since 1985, I have pioneered the adaptation of improvisational theater activities in both the practice and teaching of MFT, which I have named Rehearsals for Growth (RfG). I have published five books as author, editor or co-author and a number of book chapters and articles on this subject and have presented on RfG at numerous professional conferences (see resume ).

RfG developed as a result of my observations that good interpersonal relationship functioning and competent stage-improvising by dyads or teams shared a number of characteristics: attentiveness to others’ words and actions, flexibility in both initiating and accepting others’ directions and suggestions, and “making others right” (supporting others in “looking good”). This correspondence led first to applying RfG techniques to clinical assessment and as therapeutic interventions to teach interpersonal skills and alter dysfunctional relationship patterns. Later, I began using RfG to teach MFT concepts and hone students’ clinical skills. The work I have accomplished in developing RfG to date has led me to begin research on its clinical effectiveness and has led to my developing novel ways of training therapists. In a later section I elaborate on the specific contributions of RfG to MFT clinical training.

My Approach to Classroom Teaching of MFT

MFT is a mental health discipline, distinctive in that its praxis is built upon Systems theory. While everyone has firsthand knowledge of family process, learning in MFT is uniquely challenging for two major reasons. First, learning to “think systems” requires a loosening, if not the breaking of the dominant cognitive set of seeking individually-focused explanations for human experience. Second, applying systems thinking to families evokes subjective experience and meanings that are of an intensely emotional character. This intensity is further heightened by the resonance of family dynamics observed in others to one’s own family patterns and issues, particularly those which remain problematic and unresolved. The distortions and biases resulting from such resonance may lead the student to adopt either an over-distanced stance, in which family process in self as well as others is objectified and stripped of feeling, or an under-distanced stance, in which the student becomes emotionally reactive to, and part of, the family emotional process.

In promoting a use-of-self perspective to the study of family systems thinking and clinical practice I attempt to establish and maintain a safe, supportive classroom atmosphere that encourages inquiry and self-expression. I am continually monitoring the learning context to maintain a balance between the over-distanced and under-distanced stances noted above. It is important that students be engaged in looking at their perceptions and beliefs in comparison with my own and those of their classmates. It is equally important that they attempt to apply the concepts acquired through reading and lectures to observations of self and others. I utilize a mix of brief lectures, Socratic questions, and numerous experiential exercises in order to make each class meeting count.

While I recognize that, even in graduate school, many students are oriented toward meeting externally-imposed requirements and making effort only in order to get good grades, I do not see my primary purpose in assigning work and awarding grades to function as a guardian of academic standards. Rather, I regard students as fundamentally motivated by their interest in growing and learning and let them know that I am more concerned with their getting intrinsic value from the course than having them “prove themselves” according to my criteria. I assign work and give exams as learning experiences that permit them to test their own mastery of the material, although I do have standards in mind that I deem appropriate; indeed, I get feedback that some students regard me as setting too rigorous standards. Should they be dissatisfied with their results, I offer students the opportunity to remediate their shortcomings by redoing assignments or by additional work. In my experience, few students who persist in going through our program lack sufficient academic aptitude to do the work I require.

On the other hand, I make it abundantly clear that I am a guardian of quality regarding students’ clinical competence and ethical alignment. I strongly believe that counseling and clinical programs do the helping professions and the public a disservice by graduating students who are psychologically unfit, behave unethically, or lack adequate clinical skills. I chair a standing departmental subcommittee on Screening and Evaluation to overhaul and strengthen procedures that identify, offer remediation to, and screen out any such students from our Department’s four counseling specialization programs.

Distinctive Educational Practices

As noted above, experiential learning promotes growth in use-of-self and in developing clinical proficiency far more effectively than does the exclusive use of didactic verbal-conceptual methods. I employ a number of experiential exercises which I have either created or adapted from other sources. I also believe that students get considerable value from preparing, delivering, and critiquing one another’s peer learning experiences and have included student class presentations in the design of content/theory courses. Despite their clinical inexperience, I have students practice occasionally the peer-supervisory role in skills-training courses, both to heighten involvement with their classmates’ presentations and to stretch them to prepare for the consultant/expert role.

One important (and unusual) element in my preparation for teaching is my deliberate cultivation of an “under-prepared” mindset. This means leaving sufficient openness of class structure to taking direction from both my observation of the class climate and from my own spontaneous impulses. The result is that I am more alert, “on the edge,” and receptive to the position of “not knowing.” From experience I have learned to resist the impulse to “play it safe” by relying on a thoroughly preplanned class. Naturally, I have some structure, handouts, and ideas of how this particular class articulates with the overall course and program, but I am not committed to a closed, controlled presentation. In an important way, this stance is similar to conducting therapy, which is largely an improvisational art. Further, it models the role of ‘committed enquirer’ for my students.

My Approach to Clinical Supervision

The way many clinical programs socialize therapists in their training results in a professional stance that shapes and limits what the therapist presents, whether the limitation is in self-disclosure, emotional range and intensity, or status (power) position. An emphasis on diagnosing psychopathology encourages a tendency to view difference as wrongness, regardless of whether the viewer perceives the source of such difference in an appropriate context (e.g., cultural differences). An overemphasis on mastering theoretical knowledge and technique sets up the trainee to assume an “expert” stance which both increases social distance between therapist and client and subtly discourages the use of spontaneity and imagination by either one. Assumption of the professional role all too often focuses attention away from the trainee’s own unique personal abilities and encourages the creation and maintenance of a facade (the professional mask), further hampering the fully effective use of self. Lastly, much conventional training embodies a positive value placed on the attainment of skills as rapidly and painlessly as possible; the result, rather than the process of becoming, counts.

By contrast, I hold that therapists take a more effective healing stance when they put aside their tendency to objectify their clients in terms of abstract hypothesizing and diagnostic descriptions. Student therapists, understandably, are prone to use their newfound knowledge to support their fledgling professional image. Often, trainees and beginning therapists cling to an over-distanced stance in order to keep from feeling overwhelmed and to conceal their nervousness at their felt incompetence.

Flexibility is a virtue in MFT; an effective therapist is one who can switch stances easily in order to maximize clinical effectiveness. In my own use-of-self way of training therapists, I put considerable emphasis on the assumption of risk (which is mainly, though not exclusively, a willingness to experience emotional discomfort) as a necessary component of psychological growth. In the same way that good psychotherapy stretches clients, good supervision in training empowers therapists to experience risks personally, which leads to their empowering clients to take risks. While therapists need not experience precisely what they are asking a client to undergo, if they have not had some personal experience of risk-taking, their attempts to induce change by encouraging client risk-taking will lack authenticity and effectiveness.

It is not my intention to treat every limitation that surfaces in a student as an obstacle to be surmounted; as with therapy itself, I support people to work only on those changes they themselves elect. It is very important, both for ethical and practical reasons, to keep in mind that supervision is not therapy; while I may encourage supervisees to seek therapy to deal with personal issues that surface in the course of our work together, I am careful to draw the boundary between supervision and therapy clearly and openly in situations where confusion or blurring might arise. It should also be added that the isomorphism of empowering risk-taking extends to the teacher’s/supervisor’s effectiveness as well. In other words, I strive to practice risk-taking myself (being willing to fail in front of supervisees and being honest in self disclosure).

In order to develop the supervisee’s use-of-self, I strive to create a safe and supportive training context within which trainees can risk making mistakes. It would not be ethical to encourage risk-taking and experimentation that results in mistakes with actual clinical cases; hence the need for role-play and enactments that permit the experience. Along with other simulations, RfG techniques are ideally suited for this task. When mistakes and failures are thus allowed in the learning context, trainees and clients learn to forgive themselves, empowering themselves to take more chances and broaden their repertoires. We are all taught to fear, hide, and avoid mistakes. Yet, viewed differently, mistakes are inevitable in the sincere attempt to learn and improve.

Contributions of RfG TO MFT Training

RfG enactments are useful in clinical supervision and training because they create highly impactful learning experiences that anchor imagery kinesthetically, by doing rather than talking-about. Since coming to CCSU I have adapted or devised a number of RfG exercises to be used in supervision to accelerate students’ thinking and intervening systemically in the following ways:

  1. experiencing firsthand the social construction of “character” and “reality”
  2. acquiring narrative skills which prepare them to formulate systemic hypotheses
  3. experiencing the “pull” of the family system
  4. learning the importance of changing context
  5. sharpening their observational skills, particularly regarding nonverbal cues
  6. trusting imagination, taking risks, and allowing spontaneity in sessions
  7. comparing assessment data derived from verbal responses with data from enacted performances
  8. discovering the power of the therapist-as-listener to validate /invalidate client narratives
  9. trying out feared or forbidden responses as a way of helping the student detoxify those limiting, painful, or taboo reactions that arise in all therapists.

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