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Why I teach with unconditional positive regard
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Pass it on
I'm reading
Why I teach with unconditional positive regard
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Why I teach with unconditional positive regard
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
24 March 2015

Why I teach with unconditional positive regard

Separating what people have done from who they could become.

Written by Benji Gersh

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Image: 3rdparty!/Flickr

Unconditional positive regard (UPR) is the difference between“I love you, but hurry up and do the dishes.” And “I’ll only love you if you do the dishes.”

I was introduced to UPR when I was sitting with a group of the teachers who I studied with. We were all in our first year of teaching and were sitting entranced at a seminar, listening to a very softly spoken but self-assured man describe the way he believed teachers should be interacting with students.

I usually slink out as early as I can in seminars, but something about what he had said resonated so strongly with me that I had to ask for more. I walked up to Brendan Murray—now my Executive Principal at Parkville College and Dumbo Feather profilee—and asked him what the hell he was talking about.

I don’t really remember his response, but I do remember feeling that it didn’t adequately satisfy my curiosity. University had taught me how to try to “manage” student behaviour. Working in a school had taught me a variety of punitive measures to address misbehaviour. Brendan would eventually suggest that I get to know my students and think really highly of them. Teaching became a lot more attractive to me.

Unconditional positive regard is a mindset that is characterised by a feeling of warmth towards a person. It separates what a person has done in the past from the inherent value they possess. This separation allows a safe space for our inevitable failures, and creates part of the conditions for us to change and work towards succeeding.

Teaching students who have been incarcerated for serious crimes has provided me with the opportunity to look inwards and work on my own dispositions. It’s forced me to ask myself some serious questions about who I am and who I would like to be, which has been a source of rich personal growth. Unconditional positive regard is, by its very nature, something that must be cultivated in ourselves.

When I am faced with a student who has done some horrible things to others in their past, I am also faced with options as their teacher. I can decide they are a valuable person deserving of their human right to an education. Or I can focus on their past actions, and treat them as if what I have to offer is conditional upon them always doing the right thing. If I am to believe that the child sitting in front of me in class can ever be an adult contributing meaningfully to society, UPR is the only worthwhile option I have.

When one of my students tells me to “go fuck yourself”, and they frequently do, it is honestly much easier now to ask them if everything is OK rather than feel attacked. It wasn’t once, but now it is. The multiple, compounded traumas that will have been inflicted on them for them to end up in our school make it fairly easy to evoke empathy and to speak calmly and with a lot of regard for their perspective despite the outward show of hostility they are presenting.

What may come as a surprise is that for me, having UPR for a disenfranchised, traumatised kid seems to be fairly easy. Genuinely feeling UPR for my colleagues, family and friends is in fact a much more difficult proposition. Not only are they not society’s castoffs, they are paid/obligated/have chosen to be around me.

Unconditional positive regard is supposed to create the right conditions for someone to be their best self, yet it still astounds me how difficult it is to remain in that kind of mindset when I am out having a drink with mates and someone says something I disagree with. What I have learnt about UPR is that it is a constant effort, and well worth the investment.

Further reading

Benji recommends the following for those wanting to go deeper (though they are, in his words, “fairly esoteric texts”).

Also, the following (downloadable pdfs) are “two pretty great texts about teaching with a trauma-informed approach” but are not specifically about UPR.

Benji Gersh

Benji Gersh is a teacher at Parkville College, a school that provides an education for children and young people who are detained in custody within the state of Victoria, Australia.

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