Centre for Legal Education

In the third of a series of posts on the challenges of designing vocational skills training during a pandemic, Helen Taylor (Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Law School) discusses the skill of staying positive in challenging situations:

In the Christmas break, I caught up with a film I had not seen in a long time…Point Break. Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah (cool name!) an FBI agent working undercover in a surfers’ group discovering his own values are challenged. Ben Sharp (played by John C.McGinley) is Johnny’s boss. In the scene where Sharp and Utah meet on Utah’s first day in the job, Sharp explains with alacrity how Utah (fresh out of Quantico) knows nothing and has no field experience. Of course, if you have watched the film, Utah gets a lot of field (and beach!) experience.

And it is with that idea of a “strong personality” in the workplace, that led me to reflect on how we have tried to equip our students with the skill to deal with such personalities.

The final year skills module is designed to help students transition from study to a graduate position. Part of the design uses reflection on functional skills obtained to evaluate the merit of study in order to progress to further study or employment.

Using a skills audit we ask our students to rate a number of skills. Included within this is a skill entitled “Articulating professional identity”. This is described in part as “Staying positive in challenging situations “.

Staying positive in challenging situations in the light of the global pandemic is not something I had planned on teaching but the strategy for dealing with challenges certainly fits within that framework and gave me the chance to discuss with students how a person’s values came into play during this time.

There were numerous examples to discuss with students (not based on Johnny Utah!)– from critical workers not having enough PPE to the A level students challenging their grades. There were also my own experiences of dealing with panic buyers, friends pressuring me to meet up and the fear of challenging groups who did not appear to be complying with social distancing rules.

Linked to the concept of professional identity, ethics and personal values, a scenario explaining a challenging situation was created. As part of the exploration of the scenario many students realised as a more junior employee in an organisation, their ability to speak out in accordance with their values may be difficult. The staying positive part came from the discussion of the Giving Voice To Values methodology.1 I was lucky (and extremely grateful) to have had the input of my colleagues (Professor Jane Jarman and Visiting Professor Liz Curran) when devising the materials used.

The Giving Voice to Values methodology is a positive step in that it is a technique that can be used by students when facing workplace challenges. Devised by Mary Gentile, the approach enables students to assess a situation and practice a narrative for dealing with the issues. Mary Gentile’s research shows that this type of practice creates a “muscle memory” when dealing with other difficult situations in the future.

And whilst the students might not become FBI agents like Johnny Utah, I hope they can deal with the challenges employment can throw at them.

1 Gentile, M., Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right, Yale University Press