The professional, personal, and private self of the social pedagogue
Building trusting and authentic relationships with the people we support is very important in social pedagogy. Through relationships we can show individuals that we care, role model how they can have positive relationships with others, but also learn a lot about who they are. Without relationships we wouldn’t be able to really know a person, find out what they are thinking about and how they see the world. And without that we would not be able to help them, to support their development. After all, every person is unique, and we can only appreciate their uniqueness if we know them well, if we look for their hidden talents and find out what brings them joy or causes them sorrow. For people themselves, these relationships are also very important, and they want to know who we are as a person, not just what we do as a professional.
This can often cause challenges for professionals about what it means to be professional and to what extent we are able to be personal. Social pedagogues would argue that we can’t be professional without being personal, so we have to be both. What we must avoid is not the personal but the private self. Especially in Denmark this distinction is referred to as the 3 Ps: the professional, the personal and the private self of the social pedagogue.
The professional self is fundamental, because it ensures that the relationship with another person is both professional and personal. It helps us explain and understand a person’s behaviour, for example to know that a foster child might refuse to go to school, not because he can’t be bothered but because he has had traumatic experiences in education before. So the professional self draws on our knowledge of the law, of relevant policies, and of research, practice evidence and theory connected to our practice field. The professional self makes the relationship with the other person purposeful, because as professionals we will have particular aims for the person, for example for an older woman to be able to look after herself well and feel a sense of meaningful belonging in her community. In this sense, the professional self frames the relationship and ensures that we never lose sight of those aims, that everything we do is informed by a clear purpose.
The personal self is about how we engage with the person in a way that feels authentic. By sharing who we are as a person, we can develop a better, more genuine relationship with the other person. When we’re comfortable with being ourselves and showing our personality – including our flaws – we encourage the people we support to be who they are and not to feel inferior to us. Using our personal self in a social pedagogical way requires a lot of professional reflections (which is where the professional self comes in): we have to know what we aim to achieve through the relationship, how the relationship may help the person, why this requires us to be authentic and how we can ensure that this is beneficial to the individual. For example, if a person has just been bereaved, we might choose to talk about someone we have lost who was dear to us, how we have felt and how we have coped with the loss. This might help the person feel understood, recognise that they are not the only one who have been in such a situation and are feeling devastated, and it might provide a chance to talk about how we can support them through this difficult period, how they might want to commemorate their loved one, and so on. But this requires tactfulness and that we’ve processed our own experiences, so that we can keep the focus on supporting the other person.
The private self sets the personal boundaries of what we do not want to (or feel unable to) share with a child and should therefore not be brought into the relationship. The conscious private self draws the line between what is personal and what is private, and where we are aware that our own needs take priority. It is important to be authentic in what we share about ourselves and to share some of our own experiences that have shaped who we are, but these must be processed experiences and our intention must be underpinned by what’s in the other person’s interest and what we think the benefit to them will be. The private self has a sub-conscious aspect too, where our own needs and feelings can suddenly appear and take priority, causing us to react without thinking rather than respond thoughtfully. Reflection on our own experiences in practice helps us to recognise when our reactions to a person may have something to do with what is part of our private self. We need to be open to discuss this in professional supervision, so that we can gain a deeper understanding of our private, personal and professional self and improve our practice.
The 3 Ps are all constantly in play during practice, meaning that we need to frequently reflect on how our work impacts on our professional, personal and private self. Especially in situations where we show our vulnerabilities – or expect our colleagues to be more authentic and vulnerable – we must consider how it might affect our private self, so that we respond in a professional and personal manner. But the 3 Ps is not just a useful model in challenging practice situations but can be applied more broadly, as this example from a German youth worker shows:
‘One of the boys in the youth group was always acting out and drew everybody’s attention to him through his behaviour. I decided to give him attention for positive behaviour instead and we ended up playing table tennis. I am pretty good at table tennis and he showed a keen interest and was eager to beat me. Using the 3 Ps I reflected that professionally I wanted us to get along well, to have a better relationship, to have an opportunity to find out more about him by just talking. I also wanted him to get better at table tennis. The personal self was about using the opportunity to talk a little about myself, my family and find out more about him and his family. I also wanted him to feel liked for who he is. I also reflected on how I could best work with his sense of competitiveness – he was desperate to beat me and enjoyed getting close to it in a couple of sets. The private self in me would normally have responded with being very competitive myself, so I had to keep that in check, because my professional aim would have been undermined. I wanted him to have a success experience but one that he’d worked hard for and could feel a sense of accomplishment about. In the end we played for about two hours before he beat me. We bonded really well and he was very proud of himself. Also his behaviour significantly improved and he engaged far more than he had previously.’
Reflecting on the 3Ps
In the table below Erik Jappe (2010) examines the basis or premise underpinning practice, which areas the practitioner’s knowledge is drawn from, what influences practitioner’s action, how the practitioner co-operates and collaborates with others, and whose needs are uppermost in the practitioner’s approach.
|Purpose-related Impartiality Objectivity
|Theory Law Policy
|Processed experience Self-awareness
|Own experiences (more or less processed)
|Influences on action
|Analysis Methods Evaluation
|Empathy Immediate understanding of the situation
|Approach to collaboration
|Multi-disciplinary Participation rights
|Willingness and eagerness to co-operate
|Pursuing one’s own agenda
|Others / own
This is a useful reflection tool for individual, paired and group reflections, and can be used to aid purposeful planning. Together with Lowis Charfe, we have since also extended this table to encompass power and politics as critical aspects:
|Formal authority Critical self-reflection and awareness of power dynamics and structures Empowerment, co-production and advocacy as professional methods
|Informal authority and self-awareness / role modelling Ability to connect equally as human-to-human Humility, owning human flaws
|Unconscious and uncritical use of power and privilege Trapped in drama triangle Incongruence
|Professional values and codes of ethics Critical awareness of political ideology and paradigms Educational action is political action Political representation of minority views Addressing structural inequalities
|Personal values and commitment to social justice and human rights Taking a stance – social work is more than just a job The personal is political
|Own values which clash with social work values Party-political propaganda Conspiracy theories and holding views that violate human rights