Training and Teaching the Mental Health Professional: An In-Depth Approach (Book Review)

Title: Training and Teaching the Mental Health Professional: An In-Depth Approach
Author:  Yalof, Jed A.
Publisher:  Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1996
Reviewed By:  Dennis Debiak, Fall 2002, pp. 41-42

Lessons From Psychoanalysis: The Complexity Of Teaching Graduate Students In The Mental Health Professions

Many of us who teach graduate students in clinical psychology, social work, psychiatry, creative arts therapies, pastoral counseling and other mental health professions do not receive formal training in the educative process. It is often assumed that, if we have mastered a particular subject area, we can teach effectively in that area. However, greater insight into the educative process, especially the process of helping students develop clinical skills, can enhance this process for both educators and students.

Jed Yalof helps us develop this insight and distinguishes himself as a master educator as well as a master psychoanalytic clinician in this thorough and keenly insightful volume. He utilizes central concepts from drive theory, ego psychology, object relations theory and self psychology to describe the nuances of student-teacher relationships, classroom dynamics, and the dynamics of teaching tasks.

I became aware of this book soon after I began my first academic appointment in a PsyD program several years ago. While it was a timely and relevant book for me, I soon became overwhelmed with preparing for my courses and dealing with my own sense of being an imposter in academia. After all, I was trained as a clinician. The students would probably see that I was “green.”

Mastering course content so that I might anticipate any question a student could ask helped me manage my anxiety, but did not prepare me for the feelings evoked in me by all aspects of my job. When I prepared for class, I was often preoccupied with the imagined reactions of that one student in each course who surely thought I was a total. Giving less than stellar grades to students whom I liked (and who I wanted to like me) was fraught with anxiety. While some class sessions went well, others left me feeling hopeless and demoralized.

How I wish I had “done my homework” and read this book in those early days of my academic career. It would have enabled me to more fully apply my clinical training to all aspects of my professorial responsibilities. For instance, Dr. Yalof’s chapter on course preparation in a part of the book entitled, “The Psychodynamics of Teaching Tasks,” includes a discussion of how students, or at least the teacher’s fantasies about them, serve as an “inner voice” that influences all aspects of the teacher’s preparatory activities. In addition, he describes how administrators also function as an inner voice and how the teacher’s identification with teaching role models also affects course preparation. Greater awareness of these of conflicting inner voices and identifications might enable any teacher to be more thoughtful and less reactive in carrying out these and other teaching tasks.

In another chapter in this section of the book, Dr. Yalof describes the intricacies of the evaluative component of the educational process. He discusses the intrapsychic and interpersonal issues that influence test construction, test taking, and the grading of papers and exams. Earlier in the book, he also discusses how the teacher’s character trends influence these evaluative processes and all other teaching tasks. So, while an anxiety-ridden grading dilemma may reflect a teacher’s character trends, it might be evocative of the teacher’s history of being graded. He writes: “Most telling in the grading process is the teacher’s own conscious and unconscious identifications with the meaning of grades. Grading students brings the teacher in contact with his or her own history as a student. The grading process leads the teacher to reflect upon what it means to be graded, to receive grades, and to share grades with classmates. The teacher may recall feeling elated when achieving and depressed when grades did not meet self or other expectations” (p. 273-274).

In a fascinating discussion of student-teacher dynamics, Yalof describes how the concept of projective identification might be utilized to understand the often powerful feelings evoked in classroom interactions. In teaching vignettes, he illustrates how the teacher’s history, the student’s history, course content and the classroom format can interact in such a way that intolerable affects can be transmitted from student to teacher and vice-versa. In describing how these experiences might be understood as projective identifications, Yalof draws on the various understandings the concept of projective identification associated with different schools of psychoanalytic thinking. He does this throughout the volume. For example, he uses Langs’ concept of the psychoanalytic frame and Winnicott’s notion of the holding environment to describe the classroom and the teacher’s responsibilities therein.

Dr. Yalof’s facility with a variety of psychoanalytic languages will appeal to teacher/clinicians of different psychoanalytic persuasions. This is only one way in which he demonstrates sensitivity to differences. As mentioned previously, he talks about how the teacher’s particular personality style shapes his or her approach to a variety of teaching tasks. He also describes how the developmental level of students should determine how a teacher approaches teaching tasks as well as how a teacher understands students’ behavior. Moreover, he describes the challenges that many teachers face when teaching a class that is diverse in terms of the developmental level and the extent of previous work experience of the students.

While Dr. Yalof implies throughout the book that teachers must be aware of individual differences among students, a more specific discussion of diversity issues in teaching mental health professionals would have been an enhancement to the book. Educators of graduate students in the mental health professions are challenged more and more everyday to promote human diversity competence in curricula, in admissions, and in faculty and student retention efforts. Diversity issues require us to question what we accept as truth and complicate the process of making inferences in clinical and classroom situations. In this regard, the work of Hays (2001) might serve as a helpful adjunct to this book. Hays describes a method of addressing cultural complexity in clinical practice that takes into account the various dimensions of people’s lives. These dimensions include age and generational influences, developmental and acquired disabilities, religion and spiritual orientation, ethnicity and race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, indigenous heritage, national origin, and gender.

Nevertheless, Dr. Yalof’s empathy for student and teacher alike is evident throughout this book. Without using explicitly relational language, he describes how classroom phenomena and student-teacher interactions are co-created. The subjectivity of both the teacher and the student(s) in an educational encounter combine with situational factors (e.g., course content, the particular university setting) to create a unique experience, the vicissitudes of which Dr. Yalof illustrates with the appealing clinical/educational vignettes that appear throughout the book.

In addition to empathy for the experience of students, Dr. Yalof’s sense of responsibility to students is clear. Through his discussion of the psychoanalytic frame of the classroom, his discussion of teaching tasks, and the clinical vignettes that illumine his description of intrapsychic and interpersonal processes that affect educational encounters, he demonstrates respect for students. While acknowledging the uneven power relationships between teacher and students in graduate training, he suggests that the clinician/educator essentially has a fiduciary relationship to his or her students that requires caution and introspection.

Training and Teaching the Mental Health Professional: An In-Depth Approach is a fascinating application of psychoanalytic thinking to the educational process that distinguishes Dr. Yalof as a consummate “local clinical scientist” (Stricker & Trierweiler, 1995).

References

Hays, P.A. (2001). Addressing cultural complexities in practice: A framework for clinicians and
counselors. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Stricker, G., & Trierweiler, S.J. (1995). The local clinical scientist: A bridge between science and practice. American Psychologist, 50, 995-1002.

Reviewer Note

Dennis Debiak is in private practice in Swarthmore and Philadelphia, PA. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Widener University’s Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology in Chester, PA, where he directs a concentration in psychoanalysis.

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