Beginnings and endings

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Beginnings and endings punctuate life in a school, not only the big beginnings and endings in September and June; they also remain a focus of each term, topic and assessment. I have always felt a mixture of both excitement and terror at all of these junctions.

We must be mindful of the powerful emotional baggage that surrounds beginnings and endings. A teacher must be able to recognise these powerful dynamics within themselves and the students. These periods of transition are often a site of significant pain and anxiety as well as an important feature of emotional growth.

New relationships may evoke earlier ones; the unconscious mind holds onto such bodily and emotional states. The feelings of being pushed out at birth and the terror of infantile helplessness are vividly remembered as the infant moves from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the warmth and containment of the womb to a cold, uncaring outside.

The ‘new’ person can become part of a range of phantasies where they are invested with good and bad qualities. In particular, the teacher-student relationship may reawaken infantile feelings of dependency and helplessness. I am acutely aware of the huge expectations the students have of my courses and me. Sixth Form is invested with the promise of a second chance, there is a tacit understanding that the slate is wiped clean; a fresh start. However, this ‘fresh start’ approach comes often accompanies unrealistic ambitions. I am not an enemy of aspiration, it is an essential part of what we do. Moreover, I am wondering whether there is an idealisation of what Sixth Form might be like and how it will automatically transform students into perfect A-level students who are fully formed independent learners. We know this does not happen overnight and that this process may well be long and difficult involving great resilience from all involved.

Furthermore, any beginning involves the loss of an old relationship, an ending. New relationships may also become entangled with a loss and mourning for a previous relationship. Would they be as good as last year’s group? Would I be as helpful as their previous teachers? Are we your best students ever? Will you remember us? Will they remember me?

With this in mind, I wondered whether it was ever possible to have a fresh start or whether the echoes of previous relationships may interfere with new ones. I reflected that my difficulties with beginnings might be a powerful communication about the complex emotional agenda that accompanies all beginnings.

“For if we are too frightened to allow ourselves to be open enough to have an emotional experience of newness we also shut ourselves off from the perception of something different, from discovering something new, producing anything fresh. If, however, we do not thus rigidify our thinking and affects, we pay the price of the agony of helplessness, confusion, dread of the unknown – of being in a state of beginning once more” (Salzberger-Wittenberg,1999, p.9).

We must also be mindful of the anxieties that accompany endings. The ability to bear loss will depend on ones previous experiences of separation. Separation involves feelings of loss, frustration, anger and anxiety. The loss may evoke earlier feelings of helplessness, chaos and panic, which exist in the mother-infant relationship. The mother’s ability to wean the baby gently, bear some of these unbearable feelings will provide a sense of containment and an internal capacity to contain these fears. It seems clear that the good-enough teacher must be able to offer a sense of containment during vulnerable periods.

The unconscious mind may hold onto a range of phantasies surrounding the separation. They may hold persecutory thoughts, such as the teacher does not like me and cannot wait to get rid of me, or the phantasy may involve the denigration of the old relationship and idealisation of a new one. There may be feelings of rivalry and envy about the new group (baby). Ex-students will consistently enquire what my new group is like and whether they are as good as they were? Likewise, I always ask whether they are getting enough support from their new institution. Clearly, there are painful emotions surrounding endings and they are evidence of the powerful relationship a teacher can have with the students. However, it may also be a time to test what has been learnt. A good ending seems a pre-requisite for the emotional health of students and staff alike. A good-enough teacher should help the students prepare emotionally for the end. As a teacher I always wonder what lasting impact I may have had on the students. Whether I have been able to offer something of value? Have I helped them to develop their capacities to cope with the world or are they still too dependent to manage on their own.

Salzberger-Wittenberg, I. (1999) The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching. London: Karnac.

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