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Home arrow Sociology arrow Holistic engagement : transformative social work education in the 21st century
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Individual Educator

First and foremost, integrating holistic pedagogies calls on the individual educator to engage in personal inquiry and ongoing research about holistic engagement skills and the pedagogies that can help students come to learn them. This may include becoming more aware of personal internal cues about agreement or resistance to the pedagogical practices, as well as studying the science supporting holistic engagement. As educators ask “What will this require of me?” many may fear taking risks to teach in a way they are not accustomed. Furthermore, acknowledging that these methods invite greater awareness of one's vulnerability as an educator, holistic engagement beckons the educator to develop holistic engagement skills, such as whole self presence and inquiry, as much as the students.

S ome may welcome these shifts toward enhanced connection within the classroom, and some may see this as a problematic blurring of professional boundaries. Perhaps it could be both, but this approach to learning most certainly requires flexible agendas and the explicit valuing of class processes as content for learning about oneself and each other. Furthermore, contemplating this change positions the educator to share responsibility for class experiences and the requisite power shifts that go along with this. Student variation from week to week is likely to shift if students' roles include bringing their whole selves. Indeed, the intensity of class discussions and unspoken dynamics, both welcome and unwelcome, will flow with the emotional waves of the group that are in part a function of the environments that they are studying and working in.

These implications invigorate and reinforce some and frighten others because change in how we teach presents much more threat than change in what we teach. Not every educator is interested in orchestrating psychodrama or yoga poses, nor should they be. Holistic engagement does not require that level of expertise, but it does require intentionally taking risks, large and small, and using whatever happens as part of the learning and inherent to meaning-making. In short, holistic pedagogies more directly fuse social work practice skills with teaching skills, resulting in a shared valuing of process, relationship, and experience. Much like the beginning clinician often spends more time staffing a case with a supervisor than in the session itself, so too does the educator who wants to integrate holistic pedagogies need support and resources.

Recognizing this need for support, we encourage those most skeptical to start slowly—perhaps with a moment of silence during class, a deliberate pause, and see how it feels. Try inviting students to experience a song played in the classroom rather than just thinking about it, or invite them to stop abruptly mid-class to identify a feeling word that describes them at that very moment. The call to action for the individual educator begins with an intention, not a fully holistic curriculum. It can be as simple as inviting all to take a deep breath and notice it.

As educators explore holistic pedagogies that fit them or that they might grow into, we encourage them to seek out a new kind of professional development to reinforce these methods. Finding a community of like-minded or like-intended educators within the field of social work may be possible, and sometimes going beyond social work to other disciplines such as performing arts, integrative medicine, or contemplative studies can offer important resources. I (LP) have been fortunate to find a supportive community through a grassroots group called Capital Region Contemplative Network, which includes interdisciplinary college and university educators from the capital region of New York state who are interested in contemplative and transformative classrooms. This group includes several social work educators, and although I always learn new ideas and skills at our monthly meetings, I find its greatest use for me is that it is a safe place where faculty embrace a culture ofpresence, inquiry, and connection in a higher education setting. In addition, becoming a student of non-Western, globalized healing methods or global social movements can spark creativity. Beyond academia, local practitioners of somatic therapies, martial arts, and the creative arts, as well as Theatre of the Oppressed trainers, can provide other resources for activities and strategies to support experiential work within the classroom, as well as the educator's use of self.

Some may wonder how these methods could be applied to large classes, perhaps those of 50 or 100 students or more. Others may point out that distance and online learning methods now channel much energy and resources across institutions, whereas the proposed holistic engagement model seems to rely on small groups and direct connections (Henderson, 2010). Although we acknowledge that smaller groups (20 or fewer) and face-to-face contact may offer the most diverse options for experiential activities, holistic engagement does not rely on these. Instead, we begin with the premise that how the instructor chooses to engage catalyzes the process, regardless of what comes next. When we as educators embrace the notion that these skills matter, we show up with more of ourselves present and more of ourselves accessible, which inherently changes the connections with students no matter the distance or size of the group. Although smaller groups may support some of the experiential activities more easily, splitting large groups into several smaller groups is possible. Similarly, simple mindfulness activities, such as asking large groups or even distance learners to pause, intentionally, and take three breaths while paying full attention to experiencing, work no matter the setting.

Holistic engagement invites using the challenges of the transition as part of the context for learning. If that distance learner skips the breathing exercise, later in the session we can mention how some students might have found difficulty engaging in the activity because “no one will know.” In so doing, we meet the learner with compassion and recognition that the distance invites disengagement but does not have to stay there. We can go on to invite the learner to examine how the challenges of even taking three breaths when not supported, or accountable and connected to others, can be challenging. When we greet reality with wonder and those in it with compassion and see all of it as education, we are using holistic engagement skills. Indeed, it is our belief that the larger the group, or the more distant or disconnected, the more these types of skills become crucial to forging effective relationship as part of learning. Holistic engagement empowers educators to begin differently, offer themselves and activities to connect, and welcomes all of what comes next as part of the process.

Finally, these implications and calls to action come with the reality that skepticism among peers or students can happen, but that this signifies that people are noticing what you are doing or saying and are interested enough to make comments. One of the virtues of engaging holistically is that the skills can help us even with our skeptics—notice with the whole self, inquire, and invite empathic connection. These skills can make the halls and meeting rooms of our academic institutions into places where we offer each other our compassionate attention as a hallmark of transformative social work practice.

We also recognize that at this time, there are institutions in which this type of student engagement and instructor activity may be rej ected outright or feared or mocked. In contexts in which traditional methods prevail, or rigid definitions of acceptable pedagogy squeeze out most of the experiential, we can look to our profession for tools of strategic advocacy and effective social action, realizing that large-scale change sometimes takes a while. Although holistic engagement may never be the prominent pedagogy of the STEM professions, and it may be difficult even in some of our very own social work programs, we know firsthand how small changes create momentum for a more holistically engaged learning environment. A case example from my (GA) university illustrates this point. After beginning each class I teach with a short 1-minute or less mindfulness activity (often to grimaces or befuddled looks from my students), I learned how these simple activities cultivate students' willingness to take the risks we sometimes fear. A colleague who teaches research told me that one of our students in common, a rather shy African American young man, raised his hand at the beginning of his research midterm. He asked politely if he could lead the group in a brief mindfulness activity because they were all so nervous about the exam and he thought it might help them focus. Stunned, my colleague graciously offered him the room to lead. S everal students subsequently told me similar stories of the use of mindfulness in and out of the classroom, in part entertained and in part proud of themselves. I realized that we may anticipate resistance and we may collide with it at the institutional level at times. Inasmuch as we empower social change through the efforts of one, so, too, we can empower our profession to welcome holistic engagement skills-building through small changes until we can claim larger ones.

 
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