Never did I, Penelope Asay, ever think I would be faced with the possibility of needing to teach group counseling online. All of the here-and-now data, the presence, the richness of being in an emergent and dynamic process, the spontaneity. Learning in those moments of vitality and awkwardness and human connection. How can anything online come close? And yet, here with the unpredictable pandemic and uncertainty lingering for the fall semester, I have to not only contemplate this possibility (shudder), but also to plan for it.
Below, we offer two perspectives: mine as the newbie, followed by words of wisdom from Chris Chapman, who has planned, pre-pandemic experience teaching group effectively online.
From the novice: Framing the class as similar to and different from in person group class and work
While obvious, naming and returning to the differences of group class online versus in person is key. Much has been written since the start of the pandemic about the different physical and emotional experience of online meeting (or “Zoom fatigue”). At the start of every group course, I always ask about students’ experiences with groups. Now is an opportunity to ask about their experiences with online meetings during the pandemic: What they look forward to, what they dread about this way of interacting, what their experiences have been, ff they have unreliable Internet or feel drained after most online meetings (even the “happy hours”),or worry about missing social cues that they are talking too much or worry about randomly being the spotlight speaker. All of these expectations are in the class with them and you. Name them, be curious about them as the course goes on.
Being more deliberate about activating the here-and-now
There here-and-now is certainly still alive and well, but it is both disembodied and differently embodied. Without the confines of a physical space, we are together but also very much apart. We get glimpses into people’s lives and pets and kitchen counters, but we don’t know if they’re wearing pants, let alone their embodied reactions to what is happening in group or of course, in their home environment. Teaching group online, be intentional about activating the here-and-now by helping students get into their bodies. Practice early on and often stopping or segueing into, “Okay, take a moment to check in with your body. Observe how you are physically in this moment. What might it say about where you are with the class/group right now, and what might it say about where you are in your home environment right now? If classmates could see you, what do you think they might infer? What have you observed about your classmates?” Such check-ins help students learn to tune into their bodily experience and investigate what that might mean for them as individuals, but also start to tune into emergent group phenomena (e.g. “So I guess I wasn’t the only one who felt my stomach tense up there.”)
Being flexible and curious in the here and now
Internet connections will be lost. Children and pets will disrupt. Computer cameras will stop working, or they will “stop working.” We are all adept at handling unexpected moments in group, and we can model curiosity, patience, and good humor for students. We may have less relational data in this format, but we also have different data play with. What do these online moments mean? How might our relational data manifest differently? What might it mean if class needs to remind one member, “You’re on mute!” every single time? There is still so much to attend to. But remember, sometimes a “lost connection” is just a lost connection.
Returning to the framing and translating the online work to in person work
Throughout the course, ask students to reflect on how whatever phenomenon that was just explained or observed would play out similarly or differently in an in-person group. Help students identify what tools or interventions they may need to use and demonstrate these.
A chance for creativity and innovation and inclusion
What ways of teaching group, of leading groups, of thinking about groups can we think about more broadly? Moving forward, think about including an online component of your in-person group class-even one class session held online-and comparing the two experiences. What might this help illuminate about group process and dynamics? We are all much more familiar with online interaction than just a few months ago, so how can we use that familiarity to encourage creative group design and delivery? How might our increased familiarity with online logistics help us reach people with difficulty accessing mental health services?
From the Experienced:
I’ve taught an online group course for master’s-level counselors for the past three years. While the experience can be challenging, I’ve been consistently reassured by how well things come together by the end. There’s always chaos, uncertainty, and confusion (perhaps this could be stated about life in general), but the power of groups is durable despite the hurdles the online format can present to us.
A word about technological literacy
Those who know me well realize that I am not the “meticulous preparation” type. This approach (high on adaptability and flexibility, while perhaps low on other factors) can lend itself well to group. With that being said, teaching a group course online requires real preparation and learning about the programs and technologies you will be using. I’ve wasted hours of class time before fiddling around with a program that doesn’t seem to function as it should. This time is precious and much better spent learning, connecting, and engaging. Part of our work as a group leader and a teacher is to establish safety and structure. Group work is vulnerable and difficult, and all the more so when students lack confidence not only in the technology being used but also in the leader’s ability to utilize it properly. It’s a simple fact that most of us are not experts in tech or in video conferencing, and all the bells and whistles available in the programs we’re using. Putting time into gaining some of this expertise will pay dividends as you work to establish a climate where meaningful engagement can take place.
I have learned this lesson the hard way. I discovered during this process that my university employs several very capable young people who are willing to spend hours helping me through this learning. Engaging these professionals, asking questions, and most of all trying out all of the tools you plan to use before class begins is absolutely a crucial starting point before teaching online. In this case, technological literacy becomes an area of clinical competence.
Trust the power of group
I alluded to this above, but it is important to reiterate: groups can thrive online. They can be every bit as effective as in-person groups. They are different. They come with other inherent pros and cons. But group can be taught and practiced online effectively. It may be tempting to begin an online class with an apology, especially if the class was moved online due to unforeseen circumstances like a global pandemic, but I would recommend you resist the urge. It is my experience that groups happen, sometimes despite ourselves, and that they are powerful, and the wonderful curative factors we observe in our in-person group work and didactic teaching will appear in our online courses as well. With that being said, there are frustrations and difficulties associated with interacting online. We can acknowledge them and process them together without treating the online format as a second-class option.
Be more intentional about engagement
Those of us who have been conducting therapy online over the past few months have likely noticed how easy it is for clients to become distracted during sessions. Tuning in from home on Internet-connected devices provide clients and students with a vast array of potential distractors. In my experience, it’s important to talk about this directly with students and to strategize around it. Acknowledge the challenge and reinforce the commitment to stay present for one another.
Confidentiality is tricky
On a related note, it is more difficult to guarantee the confidentiality of meetings online. Student participation in groups and experiential exercises lead to vulnerable, intensely personal places. Students should be reminded to log in to the class from places that offer the highest degree of privacy possible. As teachers/leaders we also must acknowledge this challenge and discuss it with the class. We can never guarantee full confidentiality, and in the online format, this is even more the case.
We hope these thoughts are helpful as we all navigate the teaching challenges and opportunities that have emerged in 2020.