How Do We Teach Now?

Our students have changed. Have we?
By Suzanne A. Whitehead

young people marching in demonstration with American flags and signs

It was February 1, 2017; the new administration had been in office for twelve days. My field-experience semi­nar—a culminating course for counseling students from three tracks (clinical mental-health counseling, school counseling, and college/community counseling)—met for the first time. The students shuffled into class with a distinct malaise uncharacteristic of this lively group. I began to go over the syllabus, the requirements for the semester, and the endless stream of logs and paperwork required for their internships. Something had changed.

A new reality exists for professors, and no university guidelines exist to help us navigate it. My entire professional life has been built upon the premise of helping those in need; I treat everyone with the dignity they deserve and never haphazardly impose my beliefs on another, especially from my position of rela­tive power as a professor. How would I address the new political reality in the classroom?

Discovering the Issues

The tension still hung in the air in the second week of the semester. About ten minutes into my seminar that week, I stopped, took a deep breath, and said, “Talk to me. What is happening?” One by one, my students told me stories about the deportation fears of undocu­mented immigrants: students were afraid for their families, friends, neighbors, and fellow students; for the families they counseled; and, in some cases, for them­selves. More than 220 of the students at our campus are covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary protected status for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. Many of these “dreamers” worry that if this program ends, their hopes of obtain­ing an advanced degree will die, too.

Some of my graduate students discussed their dread of coming forward and identifying themselves, wondering if the disclosure of their status would be used against them. They spoke of how difficult it was to try to be professional, authentic, and objective with their clients when their own hearts were breaking. We talked for more than an hour after class ended; I used all my counseling skills to show empathy, concern, and support without “taking sides.” Inside, my heart was breaking, too.

As part of my many duties, I go to my students’ counseling sites for observation and meet with my students’ supervisors. Recently, during these visits, I have encountered many children and adults who, no matter where they came from, were desperately fear­ful about possible deportation and the implications of the Trump administration’s travel ban. Children cried, sharing stories of friends who had already been deported. Many expressed concerns about what could happen to them and asked whether their parents or loved ones would be taken away while they were at school. There had been a large drop in school atten­dance; teachers and administrators surmised that parents were simply too afraid to send their children to school.

Hearing Student Concerns

To better understand how my students were han­dling their own emotions and fears in the new politi­cal climate, I conducted a qualitative research study in late spring 2017. The questions revolved around their experiences working with DACA recipients and refugees.

In response to a question about personal and professional interactions with undocumented immi­grants and refugees, my students demonstrated an ability to put their most critical counseling skills into practice in a variety of contexts. “I’ve had students come to my office to voice concerns regarding their undocumented parents being deported, and students being absent from class instruction due to parents’ fear of their children being targeted for deportation,” reported one student working in counseling at a junior high school. “Students and families I come in contact with are scared and hesitant to provide any personal information,” said another. One student, reflecting on the perceived threat of deportation, commented, “It is heartbreaking to see young chil­dren worrying about themselves, their families, or even their friends.”

My students’ deep empathy for their clients was apparent in their responses to a question about how their personal feelings had affected their counseling. “The undocumented immigrants come to this country for the American dream,” wrote one student. “They come from places with NO OPPORTUNITY, so coming to the United States allows them the chance to work and support their family. . . . They are willing to work in hard labor jobs for little money.” Another said, “It is heartbreaking to know that many people’s . . . lives can be drastically affected negatively by a simple change in the legislature. I have family and friends who came to this country in hopes of finding a better life. They are good people, who have never been involved in the criminal justice system, pay their taxes, and are great role models to others. However, just because they were not born here and have not been legalized, their entire future is at stake.” As one person noted, “Many of the [undocumented] students I have assisted have been our top students!”

My graduate students preferred to see the positive qualities in their clients. They put their multicultural counseling skills into practice, seeking to understand their clients’ pain and hardships while offering them hope. As one student observed in response to a question about strategies for coping with the chal­lenges of counseling undocumented immigrants and refugees, “thinking therapeutically, and not moralis­tically,” is critical. The students emphasized kindness and understanding in their responses as well as the practical value of “doing . . . research and keeping up with the new laws,” “consulting with others,” and attending “trainings to gather information and resources.” Despite often feeling afraid themselves, they worked to provide the most accurate informa­tion possible to help their clients. Being a counselor means having a fervent belief in the rights, free­doms, and equality of all human beings and being an advocate for all—especially for those who cannot advocate for themselves.

Finding Solutions, Sharing Hope

This brings me full circle: how do professors re­spectfully conduct difficult conversations with their students when there are no guidelines for doing so? In a meeting with the dean and all of the faculty in the School of Education at the beginning of the fall 2017 semester, the discussion immediately turned to the fate of DACA, undocumented immigrants, and refugees. Many faculty members spoke about the angst within their classes, the unrest on our campus, and the heightened anxieties at a time when those who want to promote hate speech and white supremacy are emboldened. They expressed frustration at how inef­fectual they felt in dealing with these new realities in their classrooms, and many asked for guidance.

Two of my colleagues and I heard their pleas, and we devised a study to examine the ways that under­graduates, graduate students, and faculty members approach these difficult issues in our classrooms. Our goal was to complete our focus-group meetings with these three groups and then conduct university-wide workshops for the different groups in fall 2018. We hoped to develop guidelines to facilitate difficult con­versations and help students find common ground.

My colleagues and I met with the faculty focus group, learning of their many concerns and fears, as well as their accomplishments and hopes for more productive, engaging discourse in their classrooms. They collectively admitted that there are still hurdles to overcome, but the dialogue, they said, the very fact of having the dialogue, meant that progress was already being made. It was as though a great weight was slowly beginning to lift away.

Following the completion of focus groups with graduate and undergraduate students in the School of Education, we will share the results of our study with the faculty and present workshops to the entire campus community during the fall semester.

Our efforts to find better, healthier ways to com­municate with our colleagues and students will be ongoing. There is no single solution to the dilemma we now face as teachers, no right or wrong answers. There are, however, moments of clarity that spring forth from research such as ours. As with most human endeavors, when we seek greater understanding, we find that what we have in common is greater than what separates us.

So, how do we teach now? My initial response is this: with more compassion; with greater awareness; with increased courage to tackle the difficult topics; with great empathy and understanding for those who hold an opposing view; with genuine positive regard for all; by “leading with soul,” as Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal call it; and with the knowledge that we must persevere. As one of my survey respondents so aptly put it, “Be open, stay current on the laws, stay empathic, and remember: we were all immigrants once.”

For all who are also struggling in this new reality in which we have found ourselves, take heart. With great challenges come newfound resolve, strength of conviction, and much solace. We persevere for the sake of our students, our communities, and all those we serve.

Suzanne A. Whitehead is assistant professor and program coordinator of counselor educa­tion at California State University, Stanislaus. A licensed counselor, she has more than forty-four years of experience in the hu­man services professions. Her email address is [email protected].