A reflective space?

We have finally reached study leave. I should breathe a sigh of relief but I cannot get that knot out of my shoulders, clear the fog from my brain or feel useful at all.  It is partly fatigue but I am also filled with all the usual end of year anxieties that occupy my mind at this point.  Have I taught them enough? Do they have the skills to respond to the trickier questions?  Have I given them the motivation to study alone?  Have I interpreted the specification correctly?  As I enter my 16th year of teaching, these anxieties have not faded at all and continue to fill my thoughts.

I have been offering one-to-one revision sessions to students all week. I spent some time with a particularly anxious student this morning, “it is just not sticking … I am going to fail … I cannot remember anything.’  Upon entering the room, the student looks crestfallen, eye contact is difficult and she slumps into the chair.  She curls into a ball on the chair.  She looks much younger than her 17 years and her body language is keen to take up as little space as possible.  She launches into how helpful I am compared to how unhelpful other subjects are.  I know this is probably not true and lots of revision and support is happening throughout the school but there is also part of me that feels awkward about the idealization and slightly used by this monologue.  So far, nothing unusual here.

The student catastrophises, I re-frame their thinking, normalise their behaviour and after some joint essay planning and past paper work the student leaves feeling a bit better about their forthcoming exam.  This student is a frequent flyer and this is a cycle, which we have been going through for a while.  We book in another appointment to catch up in a few days time. I am sure this is happening up and down the country and reading it back, it feels like a fairly normal teacher-student interaction. However, I was struck by how dreadful I felt during the session and afterwards. All of a sudden, I felt I did not know any of the answers, which the relevant writers were or what was the best way to approach a question? I struggled through the session, trying to get the student to lead the content. I felt like the course that I knew so well had been deleted from my mind. I went back to my office and I felt deflated, wretched and useless. Aterwards, the dull admin tasks I have assigned myself at this dog-end of the term feel overwhelming and undoable. In this moment I feel completely stuck, unable to think or speak.  Making sense of the emotional experience of learning and teaching requires space to think and discuss the impact of these emotions.  A teacher must attempt to reflect on the transference and counter-transference, to compare the feelings roused in them with the quality of the student interaction and to check that they have understood the communication.

“In a reflective, containing space, discussion aims to understand the feelings raised in the therapist or professional worker through the impact of contact with adolescence. A process of differentiation – which emotion is coming from whom, or where? – takes place alongside an acknowledgement of the multiple or plural layers of meaning, involving simultaneously the adolescent and the organisation in its context” (Briggs, 2002, p. 96)

The role of the teacher is often defined by powerful infantile phantasies.  As teachers we occupy an emotional space left by parents, which makes our role prone to projection and transference.  The muddling and muddied roles of parent and teacher give rise to anxiety and confusion.  As teachers, we are ideally placed to become transfer relationships where past experiences are re-enacted.  Teachers are often idealised or denigrated.  The task of the teacher is to understand and help process some of these unconscious forces.  Observing oneself in one’s work setting in relation to the other students and staff requires a certain set of skills.  The task of observing oneself as an active participant is a complex one. We observe visually using our eyes but also internally, making a note of evoked feeling states. Communication in the classroom takes diverse forms and it is important that we are receptive to the conscious and unconscious means of communicating.

The psychoanalytic concepts of transference and counter counter-transference include the experience of the observer and their feeling states as well as the behaviour being observed as important material for study.  Transference and counter-transference are important methods of communication and are our main methods of enquiry.  Transference, which was once thought of as a hindrance to the therapeutic task, is now seen as a major tool.  Transference is the projection of infantile feeling states related to an external object.  Teachers are ideally placed to become transfer relationships where the past is experienced and re-enacted in current relationships.  Counter-transference is the subjective response of the transferred object. In other words, the teacher’s evoked feeling states which must be separated from their own personal unconscious responses.  A teacher who is aware of these processes can potentially establish healthier and more creative relationships, which can promote development and learning. An understanding of unconscious forces, projection, transference and counter-transference is an invaluable tool for those involved in education.

A good-enough teacher will be mindful of the conscious and unconscious components of learning and teaching as well as connecting emotions and behaviours to earlier experiences and states of mind.  A good-enough teacher is someone who can make contact with the emotional factors of learning and offer some form of consistency and containment.  On reflection, there was a complex set of emotions brought into my office this morning, of which only some were directly related to the task of revision.  It seems clear that I am the recipient of some powerful projections that need careful processing and containment. The ultimate test of learning is whether the anxious student can hold on to any of this experience and develop some internal mechanisms and resilience to cope in the future? I think she will.

Briggs, S. (2002) Working with Adolescents: A Contemporary Psychodynamic Approach. London: Palgrave.

Coren, A. (1997) A Psychodynamic Approach to Education. London: Sheldon Press

Miller, L (2000) The relevance of observation skills to the work discussion seminar Infant Observation Vol 4, No. 3 p.55 – 72.