I realized quickly that telling a story from a different worldview and developmental sphere has its challenges. The more I wrote them more I realized that I wanted to reflexively understand was my own development. How did I get here? I was especially interested in how I shifted over time from rigid dualistic black and white thinking towards the use of more fluid relativistic and contextual frameworks that seemed to be crucial to effective and ethical counseling practice, supervision, and training (ACA, 2014; Blocher, 1983; CACREP, 2009; Stoltenberg, 1981; Ratts & Pedersen, 2014).
It was still unclear to me how I came to be able to situate client struggles in relational, cultural, developmental, and systemic contexts. I was intrigued by the idea of writing an autoethnography to reflexively examine my own development as many of the approaches used in autoethnography seemed largely congruent with the ongoing reflective practices that are also encouraged within the counseling and conceptualization process, ideally leading to increased self awareness and multiple layers of understanding (Billow, 1977; Richardson, 2000; Meekums, 2008). I began my writing process by keeping a research journal and writing freely about my development over time. As I revisited and re-read my research journals I found that my entries centered around 'critical incidents' that occurred in my development across a nine-year period. Notably, each of my ‘critical incidents’ occurred within a relational context with faculty mentors (pseudonyms are utilized) that I considered to have significantly contributed to my development.
Students are Sacred
When I first met Dr. John Inland he intimidated me quite a lot. He was the kind of professor that would walk into a room and all of the students would go silent in anticipation of what he was about to say. His voice would fill the room and captivate the students' attention. They hung on his every word. I put him on a pedestal. I remember thinking I could never be as smart or engaging as he was. But then again I wasn't planning to become a professor then so I wasn't too concerned. Despite his ability to captivate my attention and peak my curiosity I still didn't show up to his class half of the time. John on the other hand was the epitome of investment and passion. 'Student’s are sacred' he would say to me later. He challenged my worldview and perspectives more than any professor had before. When he handed me back my test it was bloody.
He was standing at the front of the room lecturing when two students with bright colored super soakers appeared out of no where and started spraying him with water. He was drenched and he dramatically fell to the floor as a third student read loudly some strange decree. The attackers ran from the classroom and disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. We were all eyewitnesses to the 'crime' but what had we observed? Strikingly different things, it is funny how your mind fills in the details, details that don’t exist. How different people attend to different stimuli, how they perceive and make meaning out of events in different ways, multiple truths can exist simultaneously. Don’t stand near crime scenes he said. People don't pick their contextual life circumstances I thought.
He repeatedly jarred and challenged my worldviews and beliefs in respectful, normalizing, and face saving ways. At that point in time in my development I thought somehow I was insusceptible to relational influence. He taught me about false confessions and radical conversion phenomenon. My seemingly perfect evidence that I was not susceptible to conformity and that I was therefore not capable of apathy or atrocity shattered around me that semester. I realized I was equally susceptible to influence just like everyone else. I was not special or more aware. The things about myself that I had thought were protective were actually contextual factors and social privileges that were external to me. Slavery, genocide, incest, rape murder, war, coercion, torture- they were contextual beasts. I was no better or more moral. I had not worked harder nor had I deserved it more. I was handed the bootstraps and the boots.
He changed the trajectory of my life and career path. I have watched him over the years and he invests in the students who have a lot of potential but aren’t the students that would normally be chosen. He invests in the overlooked impactors, the students that may be easily underestimated, the students that are battling contextual life circumstances, and the students who have overcome adversity. The students that didn’t realize they had anything to offer but with a little outside investment and encouragement could become amazingly impactful.
Context & Culture
If Dr. Dolores Sovchzak had been my supervisor while I was at the V.A. I would have told her that the realities of war were surprising to me. My experiences with my clients were making me question my ability to continue to participate in a culture that could oppress and destroy innocent men, women, and children both abroad and at home. I found my clients were often economically disadvantaged and saw military service as an opportunity to not only serve their country to which they were loyal but also to access education and make a better life for themselves and their families. Instead if they survived the horrors of war their bodies were physically destroyed and their relationships mangled and devastated by PTSD. PTSD that would not allow them to sit in a classroom and benefit from the education that had so bravely fought for. This was all terribly confusing to me at this point in my development because my clients were the oppressed and the oppressors. It was hard for me to make meaning of this.
It was also hard to accept that I would participate in some of the more terrible and gruesome atrocities that my clients described. These were clients that I had formed relationships with, who I cared about, and whom I had empathy for but they were describing murdering children and mutilating bodies. I was traumatized. Traumatized by the idea of what I was capable of if my contextual situation were to be the same as there's were. I didn’t know what to do with that discomfort. She would have helped me to keep looking at that discomfort.
She would have empathized and understood my experiences struggling to understand and gain entry to a new culture, a culture in which my clients saw me as an outsider. She also would have validated my experiences and helped me to examine the ways in which my culture was intersecting with cultural, contextual, and systemic variables of my clients and the very system in which they were receiving care. She would have helped me to explore and understand my reaction to using theoretical approaches that emphasized individual responsibility for change when combat and war was often the root of my clients' problems. She would have helped me to identify effective advocacy strategies to encourage relational and systemic approaches and organizational change. She would have been there with me as I struggled with the ways in which I have been both oppressed and oppressor, the ways in which I have experienced both privilege and oppression. Without her I would have been too afraid to look at these blind spots.
She helped me to brave. She helped me to not back down. She would give me direct and honest feedback. She recognized what I did well and she helped me to examine my areas where I could grow. She always acknowledged the elephant in the room creating the safety and boundaries that made the space for the trust and vulnerability. She acknowledged and owned her power. She believed in me and recognized my good intentions. People do the very best they can given their life circumstances she would say. I am grateful to her for helping me to look at the parts of my culture and myself that I wished I could stay blind too.
The Front Burner
As our meeting got closer I was feeling more anxious and less sure about the lectures and activities I had so carefully planned. I wanted to bring a different energy and creativity to it, to try and really connect with the students in a meaningful way. I wanted to use photo elicitation, to bring in mirror neurons and body language, to emphasize contextual variables and cultural salience, to incorporate concrete personal narratives, and a role-play activity where I played the client. Maybe it would have been a safer bet to stick with a more traditional lecture and activity. Twenty minutes before the meeting I realized I didn't actually have any idea what I was doing. I was terrified I was going to fall flat on my face and everyone was going to realize that I was actually no good at any of this.
Despite my fears I decided that I trusted Dr. Fallon Fang enough to take the risk to show her my more creative supervision and teaching strategies and ask for her feedback. I had asked my students to trust me enough to show me their more vulnerable parts and to take risks in supervision and I wanted to practice what I preached. During the meeting she communicated that she trusted me and that she would be there to help facilitate the activities. She made me feel supported and less anxious. The other thing that I remember was her constructing a shared expectation we keep the class on the front burner. She expected us to show up and bring energy, dedication, and intentionality to the time we had together. This allows you to really build a relationship with the students quickly and give them the individual attention, validation, and constructive feedback they are craving. I would feel so completely drained and exhausted after those supervision weekends. I couldn’t form coherent sentences. But those weekends were by far the best experience I had ever had with any of my students. They were worth all the tired afterward.
The first Friday night we met for class I think I barely spoke. Dr. Fallon was so charismatic and it seemed so easy for her to connect with the students. It isn't like that for me. I would describe myself as slow to warm. She introduced me in a way that communicated that she valued and trusted us me even though I wasn't very experienced.
We were a team. She established structure, clarified expectations, and engaged us in setting intentions. She encouraged the students to keep the practicum class on the front burner. Prompting them to think about and to engage with the material between meeting times and throughout the week. She kept me engaged in a similar way between class meetings. Staying after class to checking in, providing me with supportive and challenging feedback, encouraging me to actively think about and process my supervisory development. She was warm and validating, kind and supportive. She communicated investment. She modeled the way at every step. She was gentle and yet also direct and concrete in the way she delivered the more challenging feedback. Students were able to clarify feedback without her becoming defensive. She didn't run away from it. She chose transparency.
Fearless Fire Walking
The students lovingly referred to her practicum that summer as 'therapeutic boot camp'. She somehow had a gift for making the ordinary magical and ritualized. My hands still shook a little that first day of class but Dr. Eliana Leaton had us show our dance moves and act silly, she was authentic and genuine and I found my anxiety mostly dissipated around her. It was getting easier to engage and feel confident in my teaching and supervision now. She sold the students a shared dream and a sacred purpose alluring them with the possibility of what the experience had to offer. She recruited and converted them. She made it a sacred fire-walking sort of experience. She was physiologically and emotionally in sync with those students. She was a master at reframing and modeling aloud how she was thinking through contextual situations from various angles how she reflected from each perspective. How she reflected upon her own biases and limitations and worked to remain non-judgmental by recognizing context. How she considered new information allowing it to alter her path.
She helped them to articulate their fuzzy maps and conceptual templates and she co-constructed the route with the students as she gently steered by reframing the information, making the connections and patterns more explicit and concrete. She was fluid and dynamic in her approach. We changed what we taught about based on the student's developmental needs and the client's contextual situations. We taught them together bouncing off of one another and then the students taught each other and us. We were all active participants in the conversation. The students brought in their own expertise with their lived experiences and tacit knowledge. They all had something to offer and felt validated.
The students were fearless with her and they could walk on fire. She used metaphors and symbols. She was transforming the abstract and complex into concrete and tangible. She modeled the way and showed them each step walking them through the more challenging ethical dilemmas they faced with their clients. Exposing them to the reporting process and emphasizing the importance of supervision and consultation, of intentionality, ongoing reflection and self-care. She stayed with their emotions and she was the epitome of immediacy. She leaned into the discomfort. She made it safe to be vulnerable and to sit in the ambiguity.
She supported me in my development and validated in me in my creativity and experiential supervisory approaches. She helped me to transparently reflect on my strengths and my limitations as a supervisor and gave me the permission and space to be imperfect. She gave me every bit of what she gave her students. She told me, "The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say, 'The [students] are now working as if I did not exist"' (Maria Montessori).