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 an