Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work, Tee Tyler, Ph.D., LCSW, has developed a teaching approach, called the Interpersonal Classroom Model (ICM), designed to help students talk across lines of difference in the classroom, such as race, religion and gender identity. Students who attended his group practice experienced a life-changing effect as they developed interpersonal dialogue skills.
“Group work, to me, is, I believe, just the answer to so many different challenges we face in society,” explained Tyler. “Because, really, group work is people coming together to have open conversations in the same room.”
Tyler’s primary research area is focused on parent-LGBTQ child relationships with an emphasis on communication. While pursuing his undergraduate degree in psychology, he realized a lot of his interest was related to mental health, leading him to continue his education focused on social work. He now focuses much of his research efforts on group practice education.
While he is not the first person to implement group work in his teaching, one thing that makes his group class unique is its open forum. Tyler sits in a circle with his students, describes the skills they will be working on then lets the students jump into a discussion. In these discussion forums, students share their moods and one goal they have for the day. About 48 hours after the forum, the students complete a short survey and write a reflection about their experience. Reflections remain confidential and Tyler shares average week-to-week survey scores with all students at the end of the semester.
“I really, really like that style because he taught us in a way where we were really having a legitimate experience,” said Jennifer Emerich, former student and course model participant. “We were experiencing the things that we were being taught in real-time.”
In one of the activities, each student is tasked with thinking of two times they’ve experienced marginalization and two other times they’ve experienced privilege. They discuss these experiences together as a group, leading to more meaningful conversations. “You realize, in the end, that you’re all much more like each other than you thought,” said Emerich.
Dr. Tyler recalled a student telling him they thought they were a good communicator but came to find out that they were not. This experience helped them develop those interpersonal skills. Specifically, students began to have meaningful conversations on the topic of diversity. This trusting and safe environment led students to ask questions about race and other identities in our society and voice their interest in becoming involved in advocacy.
“Over the semester, I became more confident,” said Emerich. “I have a lot of nervousness when it comes to speaking with professors because my past experiences with teachers were not that great. I have more confidence now.”
Tyler recently published a study comparing undergraduate students who completed a group practice course with the interpersonal classroom model and without. He found that students who completed a course with the interpersonal classroom model had more confidence to lead group meetings with clients and to collaborate on interprofessional teams, an essential aspect of education at Harris College. Dr. Tyler has the ambition to create a new group in the style of an open forum that will include both faculty and students where they get to hear each other’s perspectives.
“I don’t believe that the challenge we face in society is that we’re that different. I just think we don’t have as many open forums for people to really develop trust,” Dr. Tyler said. “I have found that it doesn’t really matter what political affiliation you have, what your religion is, or any perceived difference that you have. If you give people enough time to talk, it creates an open space to develop trust.”