Should We Give Advice to Our Pupils?

Summary of a Discussion in the Teacher-Pupil Initiative

December 1, 2010

In our phone meeting for the Teacher-Pupil Initiative on December 1, 2010, Janet brought up an important topic: Should we give advice to our pupils?

This sparked a lively discussion and sharing that lasted nearly the whole hour. The points that were brought out were important enough that I wanted to get them down on paper so we have a record of them for the future.

The discussion roamed back and forth along the line stretching between two poles. One pole was that we shouldn’t give advice. Several spoke up for this, saying that it’s the pupil’s life and the choice should therefore be hers, and that deep inside she already knows the answer. Gerry emphasized that giving advice can come back to bite you (“You told me to do this and it didn’t work out!”). Our job, therefore, should be to help the pupil explore options and their various strengths and weaknesses, and to lead her to her own answers through skillful questioning.

The other pole was that there are times when someone just needs advice, when he is simply too out of touch with whatever he knows deep-down to reasonably be able to access it. Julie shared about the frustration years ago of going to various counselors who just fed back what she had said. She finally looked for a counselor who would give her the advice she needed. She found such a counselor and in hindsight felt that was the relationship she needed. She later said that the flat refusal to give advice struck her as cold. Ben shared that in one of his teacher-pupil relationships he is giving advice in an area of his expertise to a pupil who actively wants it.

There was actually a great deal of agreement about both poles. For example, we all seemed to agree about the importance of respecting the pupil’s power of choice and wading in with our influence only very cautiously and respectfully. I shared about a situation where I had been asked for advice about what to do about a marriage, yet when we both prayed for guidance, my guidance was clear that the decision and knowing was firmly in the other person’s hands. Afterwards, I was very glad I stuck with that guidance.

On the other hand, many of us also agreed that there are times when giving advice may be exactly what’s needed. I told a story in which someone came to me asking me to help her resolve a relationship issue she had been stuck in for years. After a couple of years of my guidance saying essentially “she needs to come to her own answer,” new guidance came and firmly backed an option which hadn’t even been on the table. This led initially to her more or less severing communication. However, eventually she felt forced by her life into following the guidance and ended up thanking me as it resulted in her getting out of literally years of limbo and into a new life.

So I ended up speaking up for the flexibility to go wherever a particular situation really needed me to go, while keeping my eyes firmly on both of those poles mentioned above, and also while actively seeking guidance on how I could be most helpful. Mary Anne felt that this seeking of guidance was a key safeguard, that giving advice (or declining to) from the Holy Spirit was quite different from simply passing on your own possibly ego-based opinions.

I also pointed out that while “advice” usually refers to advising someone on what course of behavioral action to take, we could in a particular situation stop short of giving that yet still advise the pupil on how to pursue her own answers or find her inner healing about that situation. So we talked in the end about two levels of advice: advice on what to do, and advice on finding the inner clarity and unity that would become the underpinning for what to do. Ben captured this second kind of advice with the words, “I can’t advise you on what to do, but I can help you find your own answers.”

I don’t think we all ended up in the same place. After all, I said, we are all going through our own lengthy process of deciding how to handle this issue, and it’s not possible for all of those individual processes to jump their tracks and instantly land on the same spot. However, there was a strong collective agreement that the discussion had been extremely useful. The call ended with everyone heartily affirming this.