There are many reasons why GirlStrength and WomenStrength have developed and use an immersion-style training for our volunteer instructors. Immersion training is one of the best practices for teaching topics related to violence and personal safety. It was implemented by the founders of WomenStrength in the 1980s, and over the years it has changed to meet the changing needs of the community.
Pedagogical rationale behind immersion training:
1. A volunteer’s commitment to the training signifies a commitment to the program they will be teaching. The training sets up expectations for new instructors to teach classes (one class per week for nine weeks for BoyStrength and GirlStrength; three classes per month for a total of eight months for WomenStrength instructors).
2. Some of our instructors are survivors of gendered violence, and others are not. For those who are not, the immersion training provides a deeper level of understanding of what a survivor experiences, and how perpetrators of intimate partner violence or sexual assault operate. It certainly is not comparable to a survivor’s experience, but immersion training allows candidates to understand, on a personal and intellectual level, the impact of violence and oppression on survivors and how perpetrators/abusers commit acts of violence. Instructors come out of the training with a deeper understanding of the trauma caused by gendered violence. Candidates who may not have experienced or know anything about child abuse, domestic or intimate partner violence, sexual assault, or sexual exploitation, are equipped with knowledge and empathy for survivors.
3. Immersion training allows each person to be on the same page and to go step-by-step through an intensive learning process. We understand that learning about gendered violence and abuse can cause vicarious trauma from listening to stories, being exposed to statistics, and learning intricate details about violence, which is why we emphasize self-care from day one of the training.
4. As the immersion training is intensive, candidates are carefully selected and screened to be sure they are not only sensitive and caring, but also emotionally ready to handle information that can be emotionally triggering.
5. Immersion training cannot be strictly academic and theoretical. It must provide candidates with a near-total understanding of a survivor’s struggle, and the violation that he or she has experienced. Immersion training allows a candidate to understand topics such as sexual assault from the context of gender equity and privilege in our culture, and to understanding that gendered violence is about power and control, while also understanding the long-term trauma inflicted on survivors before, during and after an assault. Seemingly random classes over a long period of time would not have the same impact. We believe it would water down the experiential and emotional learning and provide gaps in the training for the individual and group as a whole.
6. Immersion training creates group bonding, allowing instructors to build relationships which are very important for team teaching. Trust is built within a relatively short time. All new candidates share an intimate and intense experience, supporting each other in each person’s emotional journey. New instructors who complete the training feel like more than colleagues; they are supportive friends who have successfully completed a deep and meaningful experience together in a relatively short period of time.
7. Immersion training creates a start-over time for all candidates. The training has a beginning and an end, and instructors come out with both knowledge and skills to teach. It is also the best use of our resources and time. If a candidate is not ready or drops out, we know quickly that they were not committed or ready to be an instructor.
8. Candidates may feel exhausted at times, but also empowered and elated once they have completed the training. More than that, they share this experience, this journey.
9. Immersion training provides multiple exposures to learning and information that builds upon itself over the six-week period. Students are exposed to topics from a variety of viewpoints. Topics are reviewed at the beginning and end of each session, prior to moving onto the next session. The topics in training are scaffolded and information is designed to build upon itself. For example, understanding the dynamics of unhealthy relationships is crucial to understanding the dynamics of commercial sexual exploitation, which comes out of understanding the intersectionality of oppression and equity.
10. At the end of the knowledge-based and theoretical aspect of immersion training is the practical application and skill-building process. Students teach the curriculum under the guidance and supervision of experienced lead instructors. This too creates a bond between the new and experienced instructors, who understand from the inside out what the new instructor is experiencing, and the journey the new instructor has embarked upon.