assessing the situation and our role

Here we explore the first element of our model of the working process – making an assessment of what may be going on and our role.

contents: · what is going on? · thinking about role · playing a part · on being educators · conclusion · further reading and references

Our model of the working process has five elements:

Assess the situation and our role

Engage in conversation

Question and foster understanding.

Discern what makes for flourishing and commit to change.

Develop a response - plan and make change.

Here we focus on the first element or process – that of making an assessment of what might be going on – and our role.

What is going on?

Only by the slow and tactful method of inserting yourself unassumingly into the life of the club, not by talking to your club members, but by hanging about and learning from their conversation and occasionally, very occasionally, giving it that twist which leads it to your goal, is it possible to open up a new avenue of thought to them… You must soak yourself in the local atmosphere; you must know the current rates of pay, and slang, and you must be prepared to appreciate standards which are not your own while preserving your own integrity. (Brew 1943: 16)

Informal educators generally work by becoming part of everyday life of a locality or setting. Much of the time is spent looking on – trying to work out what is happening in different situations  - and listening. As Josephine Macalister Brew astutely observed, informal educators have to take care not to be too visible, not to become the constant centre of attention in a setting. Rather we have to be our own person: being around, helping to create a convivial environment, and joining in conversations when we are needed. In many respects we have to work on the periphery. We work with groups rather than being the person that people refer to; and when working with an individual we operate so that their questions and issues become the focus.

Being around in the setting is not a recipe for inaction. The aim is to be seen, and to see, and to make contact with those we are, or hope to be, working with. It provides the possibility of undertaking work as it arises. People can approach us, we can approach them. This area can require great tact and a sophisticated appreciation of social situations. It entails us thinking on our feet and responding to situations as they unfold. For example, we might need to make sense of why a group may be acting in this way or that; or to look out for individuals who may be acting differently. Situations or interactions that are ‘unusual’ are often a spur to reflection and action. They present us with questions and we look for possible answers. Thus, a youth worker who sees a normally sociable young woman sitting on her own may well keep an eye on the situation, and approach her if she stays on her own.

Looking and listening can only take us so far, however. We might form some tentative opinions about the situation – but these then need testing out. It may well be that we do not have the opportunity to do this – the group moves off, someone talks to the individual that we want to approach. It may also be that it is not appropriate to intervene – that asking questions about some behaviour or statement might be counterproductive. However, there will many times when we can talk. Again, we may not ask the direct question ‘Is there something wrong?’ Instead we may ‘test the water’ by talking to them about something else. For many people, we may judge that the direct approach is best. In this way we begin to make an assessment of a situation. We develop some ideas about what might be going on, and its relative importance and difficulty for the people involved.

At the same time, looking to the other participants in the situation we also need to bear in mind why we are there, how we might be seen, and what the appropriate way for us to act may be. In other words, we need to look to questions of role.

Thinking about role

He knows I am a youth worker now, not a social worker. What he would probably would say, what some of the young people would say, 'Oh you can talk to X and she can help you sort out your problems...' The other part is the label attached to me: 'If you want to go away X will take you away on trips'. (Youth worker interviewed in Smith 1994: 67)

It is said that when people occupy a social position such as ‘teacher’ or ‘educator’, the way they act is influenced mainly by what is expected of the position, rather than by their own characteristics. The bundle of expectations and attributes linked to a social position can be seen as a role. To play a role, thus, requires us to:

Act: we cannot be in a role just by thinking about it.

Conform in some significant respects to other people's expectations.  As educators we have to behave in a manner that is familiar or makes sense to others. They need to recognize, for example, that we are concerned with fostering learning.

Possess the sorts of qualities that allow us to do the tasks involved.

Be reasonably consistent with respect to expectations and the qualities we exhibit. If our behaviour isn’t reasonably consistent, then other people may have some difficulty naming or labelling what we are doing and who we are.

Roles are made or constructed by people with respect to particular types of situations. In the classroom, for example, teachers work or struggle to establish themselves in the role of teacher. They also struggle to get people to take on the role of student, learner, or class member. A lot of what happens in classrooms (and all educational situations) concerns this.  People are busy constructing images of how they expect others to act in particular situations/positions (role-taking); evolving notions of how they themselves expect to act in a given position (role-making), and also imaginatively viewing themselves as they like to think of themselves being and acting in a given position (role-identity) (Plummer 1975: 18). Professional informal educators often face particular problems in this respect. They are not able to draw upon a strong public understanding of their work. People are less sure about what behaviour to expect. However, they also have to work within very different and often fluid settings. (Smith 1994:67). Their job titles will often to refer to something quite different: e.g. hostel worker, project worker, youth worker, community worker, and group worker. ‘Education’ is frequently absent from their titles – although there may well be some expectation that they will attend to people’s learning. However, this needs to be placed alongside the other expectations arising from their role e.g. organizing hostel life in the case of the first. As a result informal educators have to pay a lot of attention to the way that people see them, and to establishing themselves as educators.

Playing a part

The writer who raised the study of such interactions to almost an art form is Erving Goffman.  He linked the idea of role into a dramatic perspective so that his idea of what people do in social situations is perform. We can start by turning to Shakespeare’s famous passage in As You Like It:

All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.

Here we have the idea that living consists of taking a part.  Linked to it is the idea of following a script and fitting in with other actors who are part of the same play.  What happens is that individuals attempt to manage the impressions others have of them. 

When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be. (Goffman 1959: 28)

They put on a performance much like an actor would.  They try to influence how others define the situation.  The person labeled as the teacher in a classroom therefore puts on a performance as a teacher and attempts to influence the way the audience (the students) define the situation.  In other words they attempt to encourage them to become, for example, learners.

The members of the class also perform and to manage the impressions that others (the other class members, the teacher) have of them.  They also try to project definitions of the situation upon their classmates and the teacher.  A classic example here is the attempt to get the teacher off the subject.  What often happens is an accommodation between the various parties.  There is a sense that in most social encounters the actors have an interest in maintaining the performance, to establish a working consensus.  For example, some of the most embarrassing moments in social interactions are when people do not follow this sort of script.  For example, the moment when a lecturer forgets what s/he has to say. The blank look, the silence, people are willing the person to speak.  More silence.  A member of the audience tries a helpful suggestion. More silence. The lecturer owns up to having just taken some medication.  A sigh of relief, there is a reason for this strange behaviour.  It is this type of situation, where things do not quite go quite as they should, that fascinates Goffman.

In projecting impressions individuals take into account their knowledge of others. As the interaction proceeds, and their presentations become more tuned to the situation, so they become more committed to them. Reading Goffman it is easy to form the impression that taking a role is a pretence, behind which a real person hides. I think this is misleading. For me a role is not something like a coat to be put on and off; it is a particular way of engaging with other people. For informal educators there is a major risk here. If we are seen as 'playing a part' we may be experienced as inauthentic - as going through the motions and not connecting with others in a properly human way (Carl Rogers makes realness one of his core conditions).

One additional element with regard to role that is of fundamental significance for educators is the extent to which the behaviour that is directed to us derives from the role we occupy rather than us as people. As informal educators in a project, we may get shouted at or abused. This may be because we have had to ask a difficult question with regard to someone's behaviour or experience. The names we get called can be quite hurtful - at least until we remember that asking the question arises out of the role we have to play. We can at least reassure ourselves with the thought that the remark is essentially directed at us in role, rather the sort of person we are. (Although it is worth checking out whether our response or actions were appropriate to the situation). 

Goffman also introduces one further element - the team. Performances often depend on other, like, actors.  In a project we can find various teams - the staff (you other workers) and those associated with different groups e.g. the youth group team, the pensioner’s club team and so on.

Within the walls of a social establishment we find a team of performers who co-operate to present to an audience a given definition of the situation.  This will include the conception of own team and of audience and assumptions concerning the ethos that is to be maintained by rules of politeness and decorum.  (Goffman 1959: 231)

With these teams there are places where they prepare performances and places where they perform. 

What this adds up to is that not only do we have to put ourselves in a role – we also have to be accepted by others in that role. We cannot work with people unless they accept us as a worker.

On being educators

One of the major reference points when thinking about role is our appreciation of ourselves as educators. We need to consider the sorts of values that we should be appealing to e.g. respect for persons, the promotion of well-being, a commitment to the search for truth, the fostering of democracy, and embracing fairness and equality. It also entails thinking about intention – the fostering of learning – and the sort of environment that needs to be cultivated for people to develop and flourish. The latter involves us in staying in touch with our capacities as educators – what we are able to do - and the processes that this implies. In other words, we need to think about the community of practice of which we are a part.

Perhaps the most significant areas of slippage is where educators move into behaviours and approaches normally associated with other forms of intervention e.g. such as counselling, case management and guidance. This is not to say that educators cannot draw insights from, say, psychodynamic approaches. Nor is it to argue that people should not work in these ways. Rather it is to bear to mind our identity and orientation, and what is involved when we move from one frame of reference to another. Many jobs involve us working in situations where we are called to be educators and, for example, guidance workers. We may well work in quite contrasting ways within these different frames of reference. As educators we may seek to draw out understanding, as guidance workers our focus might well be to provide information and to recommend particular ways forward. The key thing here is to be aware of the shift of gear, and to ensure that the two orientations do not conflict.  


Making an initial assessment of the situation and considering what is going on with regard to our role may only take a couple of seconds before we engage in conversation. However, the process of assessment and consideration of our role is something that needs to running in parallel with the other elements of the process. 

Further reading and references

Brew, J. M. (1943) In the Service of Youth, London: Faber and Faber.

Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, London: Penguin.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1999) Informal Education: conversation, democracy and learning, Ticknall: Education Now.

Plummer, K. (1975) Sexual Stigma, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Smith, M. K. (1994) Local Education. Community, conversation, praxis, Buckingham: Open University Press.

© Mark K. Smith
First published November 1999. Last update: July 08, 2014