By: Chris Ouellette
NEALS VP, Director of Academic Skills Center Miss Hall's
When I was growing up, I knew that my family was special. It wasn’t that we were perfect, far from it actually. My mother and I would fight incessantly, usually over the same thing, and it wore down our more sensible parts. No matter the fight, no matter how much we were hurting, there was always love. Nothing could make you forget it, nothing that happened ever moved that dial even slightly. This is the typical memory sparked when I share with my colleagues about unconditional positive regard, and it always leads to strong discussions.
I really enjoy discussions looking at unconditional love, best for family, versus unconditional positive regard, best for human interaction in general. Occasionally I have a counselor friend talk about unconditional positive regard in psychology, put forth by Carl Rogers within his client-centered therapy model. That model, found under the larger umbrella of humanistic psychology, has driven my educational work for years. It makes total sense to me, you put the whole person first instead of focusing solely on the dysfunction. Using the psychology lens, the therapist would accept and support their client regardless of the client’s actions. Using the teaching lens, the teacher would accept and support their student regardless of the student’s actions.
Over the last 20 years of my career in education, I have regularly had colleagues come up to me and ask me how I do it. Sometimes this is after seeing me working through a really difficult time with a student, and other times it is when they are having a challenging time with a student who I happen to work well with. After we talk about the situation, I usually ask how they are feeling about the student’s actions. When frustration or disappointment is expressed, my next question is almost always “did you show that to your student?”. If the answer is yes, my next follow-up question is “Why?”.
It isn’t that I don’t believe that a student needs to know when they have made a less-than-stellar choice, they absolutely need to hear that feedback to grow from their mistakes. To me it is about setting the tone of the student-to-teacher relationship. If I show frustration or disappointment to a student because of their actions, I am signaling to that student that they need to meet certain parameters to continue the benefits of our relationship. Even if I know a student is lying directly to me, I choose not to call the student out at that moment. Instead, my choice is to wonder why the student felt the need to lie, and then to approach it later when the student may be less wound up. Oftentimes that student is lying to you because of a stressor, so choosing to call out the lie in the moment will almost certainly trigger the fight or flight response. Waiting even a day allows for the student to be more open to learning from the mistake.
While unconditional positive regard truly enhances my relationships with students, it can have unintended consequences with colleagues. With me, unconditional positive regard has led to a “this too shall pass” mantra. That mantra can make it seem like you are not taking a colleague’s concern seriously enough, because you are too “chill”. It is important to mitigate that potential challenge so that you are supporting your colleagues as well as the students.
Having this conversation earlier in the year with another teacher, my colleague referred to me as a “gelatinous love machine, always chill and things will be ok”. I laughed at first, but definitely reflected on the comment for a couple of days. In the end, while I don’t believe I will adopt the moniker of “GLM”, I do know that I will continue signaling to the students that I regard them unconditionally.
I will leave you today with the wise words of the group Common Market, "Cause to me, "MC" means mentor the child"