Los Angeles graduate student wants to get teachers into therapy

Public school administrators and policymakers say that teacher effectiveness is key to boosting students’ academic performance. A Southland graduate student offers one suggestion to improve teaching: direct teachers into therapy.

An 11-story glass and steel structure on the west side of the 405 Freeway in Culver City looks like just another modern corporate office building, not an incubator for social entrepreneurs.

"Right now we are in the administrative area of the psychology program," says psychology graduate student Megan Marcus. "In this building is housed the graduate school of education and psychology for Pepperdine University."

Marcus wants to prevent teachers from burning out – and help them better connect with their students by exposing them to the benefits of talk therapy.

"Therapy and processing your own emotional issues from the past is so important in having healthy relationships and a healthy work life as well. And for teachers especially, I think a lot of their burnout is due to the emotional exhaustion from not having the skills and tools to deal with the social and emotional challenges of the classroom."

She’s devised The Teacher Refresh Project, a 16-week professional development course for teachers that includes lectures about psychology, neuroscience and education. It also incorporates group therapy sessions. For now it’s an idea looking for money.

A few months ago, Marcus competed for a $50,000 Pepsi Refresh grant to launch the project as a pilot program. "I printed business cards that had the text number, tried to get them handed out at 'Waiting for Superman' movie showings. I drove around with a sign on my car that said, 'Text this number if you want to make a change in education.' Oh, I tried to contact some celebrities to tweet about me."

Applicants flooded Pepsi’s grant contest. Megan Marcus didn’t make the cut.

She says her idea won’t die on the vine. After graduation she plans to start an education-focused company and carry out her plan.

Marcus came up with The Teacher Refresh Project last year in Pepperdine psychology professor Joan Rosenberg’s Interpersonal Skills and Group Therapy course.

On this day a dozen graduate students wait for that group therapy class to begin. Rosenberg says this approach to therapy can offer participants support, hope and, eventually, personal growth.

"Group therapy is an opportunity for a number of different people to come together and to address, depending on how the group is structured, to address their individual concerns and their goals for growth," says Rosenberg, "but in this case in a group context where they can get feedback from not only the facilitator of the group but feedback from the other group members, which is often very powerful in helping people change."

The graduate students arrange their chairs in a half-circle to engage in a mock group therapy session. These simulations help them apply what they’ve learned in class. Instructor Rosenberg tells them they’re teachers in group therapy.

The students, starting with this man, take turns venting their imagined job frustrations. "I feel like, personally, if I exhibit frustration that’s visible that the students see, that in a way they’ll either jump on it, or on the other side, if it’s a different kind of class, they’ll either become afraid of it themselves. If I’m feeling frustration, they might start to feel it in their own way." Rosenberg responded, "So, what’s one thing that you do to kind of, as you say, take a step back?"

Megan Marcus grew up hearing about therapy from her mother, a psychotherapist. She’s been in personal therapy herself.

The group therapy sessions in Rosenberg’s class, with their no-holds-barred atmosphere, convinced her that therapists and teachers can use it to become better at their work.

Marcus’s academic advisor, Pepperdine University psychology professor Louis Cozolino, says her observations are helping him explore how effective teachers, like tribal elders, are able to turn facts into wisdom.

"So there are things that turn us on to learning and things that turn us off to learning," says Cozolino. "And one of the things that turns us on to learning is when people we care about are inspired and enthusiastic about something. But they also have to care about us."

Lisa Loop, co-director of teacher education at Claremont Graduate University, likes the proposal. She says that teacher training at her institution incorporates therapy-like elements.

"We try to help our students understand that they need to understand who they are to be a good teacher," says Loop, "they need to continually reflect on what’s going on in the classroom and with their students so they can learn and grow."

UCLA education researcher John Rogers says graduate student Marcus has identified a real problem: burnout-driven teacher attrition. But, he adds, her approach misses the mark.

"She’s really trying to create ways that teachers will feel better about a problematic situation," says Rogers. "Rather than having teachers adapt to what’s troubling I think it’s more important to try to change the conditions themselves."

In other words, he says, no amount of group therapy can make budget-driven teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and unpaid furlough days go away.

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