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Posted: Dec 2, 2004 17:23


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By: Lon Woodbury

Many educators insist the teacher is the lesson. These educators claim the foundation of successful education depends on how good a relationship a teacher can develop with his/her students. Without a good student-teacher relationship, they assert that curriculum, lesson plans, physical plant, credentials, or structure accomplish little. The students do not even have to like the teacher; they just have to respect the teacher for caring about the student and accepting only the student’s best efforts.

This makes intuitive sense. When most adults think back to their school experience, the toughest teacher is usually the one they remember positively, the one who challenged them and accepted nothing less than their best efforts. They might complain about how tough that teacher was, but usually there is also a sense of pride about how much they learned, or that they survived an intense challenge. Or, they might appreciate that teacher as being a kind of mentor, making the subject matter so interesting that they made an important career choice based on their experience in that class. In these situations, the specifics of the class might be long forgotten, but the example of the teacher outlasts virtually any lesson or course content. On the other hand, if the adult even remembers those teachers that tried to be their buddy, or entertain them, or let them slide by with an easy “A,” it is often with a sense that they were somehow cheated, or with a vague guilt that they got away with something they shouldn’t have. All these memories are almost exclusively based on the quality of the relationship the teacher was able to establish with his/her students, a memory and influence that will outlast everything else.

We find the same thing when we look at the therapeutic community. There have been many reports of comparative studies trying to determine which therapeutic approach is the most effective. The findings are, for the most part, an overall success dependent more on developing a successful therapist-client relationship than on any particular therapeutic approach. In the studies, all therapeutic approaches were almost equally successful when there was a constructive and positive relationship with the client, and about an equal failure rate when there was not a quality relationship with the client. Of course, in those conditions that require medication as a part of the treatment, more is needed than just a good relationship. That is just common sense.

This does not mean there are not significant differences between the various therapeutic approaches. Which approach to use is very important, but mostly the importance lies in how it matches the training, preferences, and personalities of the staff, and the preferences and needs of the clients. Some therapists are more successful in developing good constructive relationships in some approaches than in others. However, in a therapeutic environment, it may still be broken down to a rewording of the original title of this essay, that is, The Therapist Is The Lesson.

The importance of building relationships is not limited to schools and programs for special needs students. It cuts across virtually all aspects of our society. The parent-child relationship is a very special and very important one. Parents are frequently admonished to be a parent, rather than a pal. There are thousands of books trying to define what is required to be a successful parent. It is perhaps easier to say what a good parent-child relationship is not, than what it is. For example, we have laws on the books against abusive or neglectful parenting, for good reason. On the other extreme, it has been my experience that more damage is done by “enabling” parenting, where there are no boundaries, and parents find it almost impossible to tell their children “no.” (The book “Epidemic” by Robert Shaw emphasizes the problems that come from parents not asserting themselves as parents, reviewed in the November 2004 issue of this newsletter).

In another arena, business leaders are always talking about how important it is for success in business to be able to develop good relationships, and that one of the main reasons for a stalled career is an inability to develop good relationships.

Perhaps one of the best questions for parents looking for an Emotional Growth/Therapeutic School or Program for their child would be to ask how they hire staff. That would give parents an idea of how important it is in their hiring practices to hire people that are able to develop good relationships with children, rather than just look for staff with good credentials and résumés.

A good example, though perhaps a little extreme, was how Rocky Mountain Academy (RMA), a sister school to CEDU in California, hired staff in the 1980s. At that time, the most important thing they looked for in staff was an ability to relate well to children, as well as having a personal philosophy compatible with RMA. Credentials were secondary, though experience was very important, as was the results of a background check. Interviews lasted for three days, so they could see how the applicant related to the students over time, indicating how important that ability was. One technique was to tour the applicant around the school, then perhaps at lunchtime introduce him/her to have lunch with a group of students. Then, the staff would back off and watch. If the students flocked around the person visiting and asked questions, that was a good sign. If the students backed off and the person essentially had lunch alone, that was obviously a bad sign.

The parent looking for residential placement for their child with problems is really looking for someone that can help their child decide to make better decisions. If they could have found that locally, they never would consider residential placement. What their child needs is an adult role model, more likely found in a place that emphasizes hiring staff with the ability to develop good relationships with children. All the rest of it, like facilities, credentials, philosophy and experience, are important only when they enhance the ability of the staff to develop good relationships. It is important for a parent to keep this in perspective and not get confused with the marketing efforts of schools talking about what are basically supportive considerations.

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