About 5 years ago, I had the opportunity to have dinner with John McGee, who developed the concept of Gentle Teaching. It was a memorable night as he talked about his experience around the world working with adults and children who had been culturally marginalized. He told me of an experience working in an inpatient mental health hospital where he and other doctors (he was a psychologist) were “rounding” about patients and it dawned on him that none of the doctors had actually met any of the patients. They were making critical decisions about people they hadn’t yet met based on a medical chart. He then noticed that, when the doctors finally did meet the patients, it was an extremely distant interaction filled with clinical questions. Through this experience, he began to rethink the way he interacted with his patients and more importantly how the patients with whom he interacted were experiencing their lives. He noticed that people who are marginalized by their culture have significantly fewer interactions and experiences that make them feel safe and loved by their community.
Gentle Teaching teaches that we can make others feel safe and loved by the subtle ways we interact with them. Gentle Teaching is not a technique of care, or something that replaces good care, but rather involves how we interact with people while providing care. It is about recognizing the ways we can communicate with our presence and actions, that someone is safe and that they are loved while receiving the highest levels of care. One of the most powerful things John McGee said to me was that, many times, he found that people who interact with individuals with disabilities often unknowingly make someone feel unsafe or unloved because they are busy with other tasks. They are kind and compassionate people who have no idea that very subtle things done consistently over time can make someone feel unsafe. I usually articulate this to incoming staff during their orientation by using the example of moving wheelchairs. I ask them to imagine being in a wheelchair and having limited body movement and limited ability to communicate verbally. Then imagine someone comes up behind you and moves your wheelchair when you are not expecting it, maybe even as you have just dozed off. It’s a startling experience, but in an isolated incident you get over it pretty quickly. But if that becomes a frequent experience over time, you would soon begin to feel less and less safe, never knowing when your chair might start moving or where you are going. You begin to never quite feel like you can rest in your chair.
Gentle Teaching is one of our guiding principles, our 4 Pillars, here at St. Joseph Home. I am always amazed when I watch our staff interact with our residents because so many of our staff do such an amazing job at making residents feel safe and loved. Gentle Teaching is practiced throughout St. Joseph Home. It’s seen when, rather than merely moving a wheelchair without notice, staff will gently place their hand on a resident’s shoulder and softly tell them, “hey, I’m about to take you back to your bedroom.” It’s seen when a nurse takes the extra time to talk a resident through a treatment so that they understand what is happening to them. These are small but powerful gestures that tell someone, you are safe and you are loved. This is Gentle Teaching and I look forward to growing as a community in how we practice this great way of interacting with each other.
By: Dan Connors, SJH President and CEO