GT The professional concept of love – now and in the future

In an attempt to reach the core of Gentle Teaching, it is essential to look at the most significant value of the philosophy – love. Here, we have a word with Trine Schierff[1] about how the professional concept of love should be understood – and where the philosophy is headed in the future.

By Majbritt Sørensen, cand.mag. in English and Comparative Literature

Love – a multidimensional concept

With love being the most significant value of Gentle Teaching, it can also be described as a professional concept of love, which can sound like an anachronism. But it makes sense when you look at the concept of love as a condition for wanted behaviour versus unwanted behaviour which can mean aggressiveness towards yourself or others. Love should not be defined a feeling, but as an attitude and a perception. In other words, you need to distinguish between personal/professional love, and what we can only call private love. Love should be seen as an activity – the activity of giving. In this light, love does no longer seem as a significant contrast to professionalism.

It is based on the observation that man is dependent on being and developing himself in community with others. Focus is moved from the individualizing, and towards the community as crucial to the inner development of the individual. In this way, an opportunity is given for one to reflect in meeting with the other as long as the meeting is entered on shared conditions. A meeting with the resident requires that you try to see the world as the resident does, that you imitate the resident’s movements/sounds, and that you are able to empathize and accept the resident on his or her terms. We must go on an adventure with the resident in his or her own world instead of pressuring the resident into our world, which can be an overwhelming universe for a resident who e.g. does not master the verbal language or “fit” into our conception of normalcy, which can seem restrictive. Through this, a new understanding or experience can also be given which they can replace their painful relations with; but this requires a focus on the resident’s anxiety as well as your own in the meeting with the resident’s pain. In other words, the educator must be able to accommodate, or create space for, to accept the resident’s pain, as well as replace this with a new and positive experience. The mirroring effect can also be seen in Aristotle’s’ definition of friendship: “one soul in two bodies”, where the educator is invited to empathize, understand and show an acceptance of the resident’s world and needs – whether or not these are consistent with one’s own experience of the world.

A misconception of Gentle Teaching can be that the residents are always allowed to do what they want without any limitations – that is not the case, but we do need to listen to what it is they need. “Gentle Teaching is closely connected to knowledge, in order for me to exercise it in practice. You can never know enough, and the most important thing is to listen, that we take it for face value what the resident is expressing.” Trine Schierff says, and stresses the fact that we need to be susceptible to their signals and expressions; that way we can meet them where they are as well as create space for their self-determination and participation. “It is implicit in Gentle Teaching, and it is a great value that needs to be prioritized. We need to listen. We need to support them on the level where they themselves can take part.” Before, residents were often described as being difficult, and thus they needed to be adapted, but Gentle Teaching stresses that the residents have difficulties and need to be supported. “The resident should be treated as a person with difficulties/challenges, he/she is not her/his handicap! “You are allowed to be the person you are.” In that way, Gentle Teaching is resource-oriented rather than problem-oriented.” Trine Schierff explains.

When opposites meet

At first glance, Gentle Teaching can seem like a philosophy where opposites meet – both practically and theoretically – when speaking about professional love and setting up boundaries in a requirements free environment. However, Trine Schierff does not think that this is so polarised: “To me, Gentle Teaching is not a contradictory field. It is not a question of Gentle Teaching always being practiced in a requirements free environment – on the contrary, it is a question of us making demands that meet the needs of what the resident is able to honour – and not in terms of our norms.” However, room should also be made for requirements free environments – it is important to have sanctuaries where you do not make demands; a sanctuary that allows the resident to be peaceful. You need to remember that their lives often contain a lot of ”turmoil” that they have not chosen themselves e.g. to live with several people who can also take up a lot of room. But it is a balancing act as the resident should not always let himself or herself pacify in the requirements free environment – here, we need to make ourselves interesting, and gently guide/push the resident to activities that are relevant to his or her development.

After some reflection, Trine Schierff thinks of a possible contradictory field in Gentle Teaching, but something which is definitely effective in working with the discipline: “The contradictory field in Gentle Teaching can lie in the work with ourselves. The insecurity which is within us. When we ask ourselves the question if this is really Gentle Teaching that I am working with now?” According to Trine, this doubt is the educator’s faithful companion, but it is a great quality to have: “It creates reflection. As long as you learn from it, bring it forth and discuss it with co-workers, and make yourself vulnerable by airing your doubts. The process of development in Gentle Teaching benefits from this self-reflection.” It is essential to reflect on our own abilities, but also reflect on what the pedagogical perspective of our actions is.

In Gentle Teaching, there is a focus on creating room in the relation between the resident and educator, but a misinterpretation could be that the relation in question is free of boundaries. “It is always important for us people to set up boundaries in the relation to other people. It is vital to set up boundaries for ourselves; well, it is even irresponsible to not do it. In that case, we don’t help the residents; they would become boundless individuals who wouldn’t know what they can/should and what they can’t/shouldn’t. That is not at all what Gentle Teaching stands for as they would learn nothing that way.” Trine Schierff explains. The developmental age of the residents limits their understanding of our signals, thus we can quickly give them the understanding that “you are what you do”. On a cognitive level, they cannot distinguish between themselves and their action when it comes to our reaction to it. “It is important to set up boundaries for yourself in the relation which can then guide the other. It holds a rejection to say “You must not spit on me!”, a rejection that people have a hard time enduring. It is better to express your own boundaries: “I want to be with you, but I don’t want you to spit.”

The Gentle Teaching of the future is created in the interaction between need and knowledge

”Interaction can per definition never be fixed.” - Per Lorentzen

The interaction and relation between resident and educator is a dynamic process, and it is also the primary focus in Gentle Teaching, which gives rise to the big question: what is going to happen with the philosophy in the future? Which development will it undergo? Through working with Gentle Teaching, there is no doubt that a new understanding of the perspective will be born: “Gentle Teaching will change in the future, because we will get more professional knowledge. The fundamentals of the philosophy itself will probably not change, but the way we exercise it will change, when the professional knowledge is implemented in our practice. More methods will also be added in our application of Gentle Teaching. It is constantly in motion with new employees coming around with experiences, insight and knowledge.”

The philosophy Gentle Teaching has been triggered by a societal need for a development in the contact with people who have difficulties, after which it is created on the basis of professional knowledge. In line with the changes that occur in the society e.g. due to the economic crisis, new legislations on the field, along with a greater knowledge about specific handicaps and people suffering from arrested development in general, decisions are made in the organization that affect the process of development that the work with the residents and ourselves is constantly undergoing. In line with the societal needs changing, our knowledge will follow suit and develop in the relevant direction. This development will also influence Gentle Teaching, and the practice of this, which there is also room for according to Trine Schierff: “When you work with people, you are never finished. Every day is a new day. Every day requires that you meet the resident where they are on that exact day.” The job also changes continuously as the new generation of residents offers a new set of tasks – compared to the older generation who often experienced a feeling of being hidden away and left behind, the new generation are more often seen with an established, and fundamental, feeling of being loved and wanted by their parents. A lovely development which only means that Gentle Teaching should be worked with under new sets of conditions, which can require new knowledge: “We need to keep on excelling ourselves; and then get that knowledge implemented in the accomplishment of Gentle Teaching.”

The future is likely to hold a feeling of being more at home in the philosophy as the road to acceptance has been long and at times trying: “You can get a bit impatient when working on getting Gentle Teaching spread throughout the organization,” Trine Schierff says. “But it is a matter of cultural change which needs to take place in a big organization before it really gets founded in the environment. It requires that you work with yourself all the time, and there are a number of processes. It takes time, and the employees have been asked to change their attitudes many times during their professional careers; this gives way to a natural scepticism. That is also why it is important that we keep focused, keep it vibrant and keep the debate alive.” This eternal process of knowledge and self-reflection should not only include doubt, our good companion, but also praise. Purely psychologically, we are pushed to do more of the “good” when we are told that we are doing a great job. Gentle Teaching creates a space where there is made room for recognition, new knowledge, self-reflection and being exactly the person you are.

”Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” - Mother Theresa

[1] Trine Schierff is the vice-principal at the village of Sølund, where Gentle Teaching creates the basis of the facility’s values. She is also responsible for the daily management of, and teaches at the courses and thematic days on Gentle Teaching.