In a rare moment of peace and quiet, at the brink of a New Year, I am taking time to reflect on what I care about, from the perspective of my role as a sex and relationship therapy educator.
What comes to mind right away are the guiding principles of our teaching institution, which are inclusivity, relational warmth and uncompromising quality. I really do care about those three carefully expressed principles. They capture my lifelong personal and professional values and are not only a source of pleasure and pride but, also, sadly at times, of confusion and challenge.
Inclusivity is a high, idealistic principle and one that I am devoted to. But, unfortunately, it is one that is incredibly hard to achieve. For reasons I fail to comprehend, people can be extremely negatively activated by other people’s identities, be that their race, religion, culture, sex, gender, relationship preferences or any other of the myriad ways that people experience and understand themselves. I find it very hard to grasp why people are so offended by another person’s sense of themselves, to the point of wanting to challenge their right to their identity or to do them harm. This year a male colleague was punched in the face by a stranger for wearing nail varnish. I’ve had difficult conversations with a queer family member who is infuriated at the gender boundaries around clothes but afraid to fully express themselves sartorially for fear of being attacked. There have been heated discussions in therapy spaces about the veracity of non-binary gender identities, whether or not structural racism is still a thing and the dominance of ‘identity culture’. Inclusion for me has always been about developing an empathic understanding of people different to me. My understanding of being a therapist is on the exact same basis – developing an empathic understanding of another.
Relational warmth is central to therapeutic work, embedded in the Rogerian core condition of empathy, and for me, also applies to teaching sex and relationship therapy and studying it.
We have organised our society around so many categories that the all-encompassing ‘humankind’ category has been lost. I revert to the words of my friend and colleague Kirstie McEwan, whose email footer reads ‘be who you are not what others want you to be’. I’d adapt that a little to say, ‘let people be who they are and not what you want them to be or believe they should be’. That is the essence of being a therapist, the Rogerian core condition of unconditional positive regard, and it’s a standard I hold myself and my students to.
Relational warmth is central to therapeutic work, embedded in the Rogerian core condition of empathy, and for me, also applies to teaching sex and relationship therapy and studying it. I bring the same relational warmth to my teaching work as I do to my client work and I don’t intend to ever change that. Relational warmth at CICS is usually very well received and we get genuine pleasure in the process of students becoming colleagues and colleagues becoming friends. On the shadow side, as in client work, warmth as a teacher can be experienced transferentially and accepted or rejected as part of a projection (good/bad mother, teacher, rescuer, persecutor). It’s part of the job to hold the same kinds of projections from students as we get from clients, whilst working hard to see the individuality of each student and the complex reasons for their behaviours. I have to say that this is something I wasn’t fully prepared for when I started teaching but it is an obvious aspect of the role and one I will continue to try to find balance with.
Uncompromising quality as a standard predominantly serves us well at CICS. It has driven our move to blended learning, the development of pretty damn good e-learning platform, (if we say so ourselves!), contemporary materials and inclusive course access via the hybrid model. I am very proud of all of these achievements but I can’t say they’ve been easy. The move to hybrid, where students can access the courses online and in person, caused major stress in the summer for a technologically challenged person like myself, but we managed to pull it off and our students appreciate the flexibility it offers them.
The shadow side to uncompromising quality is who judges the standard? Like good parenting, good quality teaching can be taken for granted. If good quality is all you know how do you know it’s good? And what if it isn’t actually good? The intention to hold uncompromising quality standards is important but it cannot be internally assessed. You can’t mark your own homework in this job! We open ourselves to external scrutiny to check whether we are genuinely meeting high quality standards and our students tend not to be shy to tell us what they think!
Having reviewed the principles I care about, I feel I can renew my commitment to them. I will continue to pay the price of my principles and work to find ways to better hold their shadow side. That’s as good a New Year’s resolution as any I’d say.