How do I know if I am a good teacher? How would I know? On what standards should I judge myself? Am I good for those students at the top? Do I care enough about those at the bottom? Am I able to close the gap? Can I meet or exceed my targets? What have I done for the silent middle? Am I a good colleague? Am I a good line manager? These existential questions have dogged my thoughts during my teaching career. Throughout my time, I have been lucky enough to receive some excellent feedback along with a healthy dollop of praise during my appraisals. I think I am experienced enough to realise when my teaching is good and reflective enough to realise when it could have been better. Nonetheless, in the dead of night, after a difficult week and at the end of term I am genuinely filled with doubt and anxiety. I hope this does not come across as a personal failing or an issue of low self-esteem because deep down I do know I offer something of value to others. Moreover, this is a professional reflection on how we might think about these issues. It has taken me a long time, but the concept of being good-enough has helped me dampen down some of these demons and find a way through the emotional roller coaster of life as a classroom teacher. This is not a reflection on work-life balance or a gripe about being overworked and having too many demands on my time. I actually enjoy work and others have been more articulate about the work-life discussion. Moreover, this is an exploration of what is left and how it feels when I reflect on my teaching.
The role of the teacher is often defined by powerful unconscious phantasies which are prone to projections and transference. As teachers we are ideally placed to become transfer relationships where past experiences are re-enacted in both the students and ourselves.
The powerful anxieties and projections that surround these relationships creates an environment where teachers are often idealized or denigrated. I wonder whether the idea of good and bad teachers has an existing template informed by our phantasies about good and bad parenting. There is as much debate surrounding what ‘good’ parenting means and I have often felt that the same judgements, language and feelings surround teachers. At any one point, one can be seen as too caring and not setting clear enough boundaries or too strict and not emotionally open. I am really interested in thinking about how Melanie Klein’s concept of splitting and projective identification might be a helpful way of thinking about this professional issue, There does seem a deep desire in educational institutions amongst students, staff and senior leaders to fit teachers into the good / bad dichotomy. The reality is clearly much more difficult as we are all both good and bad. The point is being able to recognise when you are Mr Keating or Ms Trunchball or somewhere in between alongside where the ideas about good or bad have come from, who they belong too and what function they are serving.
This climate of good or bad teachers is further perpetuated by an increasingly persecutory inspection regime which does not allow much space in-between these ideal types and fails to recognise the emotional landscape of learning. A popular theme of educational reportage is the claim claimed that every school has at least one bad teacher. Despite the dubious quantitative evidence to prove this claim, the witch-hunt begins and the narrative of weeding out the deadwood continues. The anxieties of the school are located into one or two colleagues who are perceived to be weak. If only it were that simple. I understand the need for accountability and I am not necessarily defending poor teaching and learning, I am merely suggesting the emotional landscape here is much more difficult. Teaching and learning is an anxiety provoking process and I am interested that at times our anxieties are pushed into some teachers whilst our hopes are carried high on the shoulders of our knights in shinning armour. It is not much fun being at either end of this idealisation or denigration. As a teacher you only ever feel as good as your last lesson, it is somehow difficult to see that our whole is greater than the sum of our parts. Nonetheless, the notion that teachers are either good or bad seems a recurrent motif in educational discourse.
I hope I am able to use this blog to explore some of the anxieties inherent in the role of the teacher and suggest that a more useful approach is to consider whether one is ‘good-enough’ and to resist the dynamic of the idealised parent and or teacher. A good-enough teacher is someone who can make contact with the emotional factors of learning and offer some form of consistency and containment. The key to this debate is to understand the anxieties that surround learning and teaching.
Parents, students and educational organisations themselves often perpetuate this powerful notion of a good teacher. It seems clear that the polarisation of ‘good’ teachers and ‘bad’ teachers does not allow for the reality of a ‘good-enough’ teacher. It is interesting to consider this splitting as a psychological defence against the anxieties inherent in the task of teaching / parenting. Isolated in the classroom it is extremely difficult to know whether you are good-enough which leaves space for your own anxieties and phantasies about the good teacher.
Both parents and teachers are persecuted by the impossibly high ideals that surround the concept of a good parent. In an educational climate, which has become obsessed with escalator targets it is hard not to feel slightly persecuted by an agenda that expects a statistical year-on-year improvement. In my own classroom, the expectations placed on teachers and tutors are extremely high. With no extra resources or time, we are expected to deliver on many inherently contradictory agendas including; widening participation, inclusion vs academic excellence, gifted and talented vs growth mindset, independent learning vs visible learning. I often feel extremely split between improving the academic performance of my department and my pastoral responsibilities. The expectation is that an ‘ideal’ teacher would be able to manage both the curriculum and the emotional development of young people. I often wonder whether we have set ourselves a possible task? For some, the pastoral support and experience of emotional containment will build up their self-confidence, resilience and empower them to access the curriculum, but for others the academic demands of content, assessment and exams will be over-powered by their own emotional and psychic needs.
One of the infantile phantasies that surrounds the role of parent and teacher can be evidenced in the projection of omnipotence. The impossible or unrealistic demands put on the teaching profession stem from the phantasy that teachers and parents are all powerful.
“the ideal of the perfect teacher who can meet the differing needs of a whole class may be one such defensive fantasy, produced simultaneously by the teacher, to persecute themselves for failing to meet the ideal, and by the culture which denies the reality of teaching” (Shaw, 1995, p.65).
Isca Salzberg-Wittenberg (1999) suggests that we must look critically at the aspirations and fears with which teachers approach their jobs and the nature of the teacher / student relationships. Teachers must have the space and tolerance to consider the transference between teacher and student. We need to examine our own behaviour, particularly when we feel anxious, overburdened or unduly virtuous. An awareness of the impact of our own infantile wishes and attitudes might help us understand the powerful unconscious drives in our relationships and strife to minimise their effects and find a more adult satisfaction in the work.
A more useful approach is to consider whether one can be good-enough and to resist the dynamic of the ideal teacher. D.W. Winnicott suggests that a good-enough parent is one who provides opportunity for steady growth and development, one who is able to help an infant move from dependence to independence.
“A good-enough mother and good-enough parents and a good-enough home do in fact give most babies and small children the experience of not having ever been significantly let down. In this way, average children have the chance to build up a capacity to believe in themselves and the world – they build a structure on the accumulation of introjected reliability” (Winnicott, 1967, p.193).
“What is needed and absolutely needed by the infant is not some kind of perfection of mothering but a good enough adaptation, that which is part of a living partnership” (Winnicott, 1989, p.44).
It seems clear that there might be some similarities in the capacities needed by Winnicott’s good-enough mother and the notion of a good-enough teacher. A good-enough teacher will be someone who can make contact with the emotional factors of learning and offer some form of consistency and containment. A good-enough teacher will be able to sensitively adapt to the changing needs of the students without being too diverted by their own psychic agenda. However, this journey will be a fraught one where the frustrations of learning from experience must be borne.
In this model, the students will be able to hold onto some of the teacher’s capacities as they develop their own ways of coping with failure by understanding and tolerating frustration.
“The task of the teacher may be thought of as resembling the parental function: that is, to act as a temporary container for the excessive anxiety of his students at points of stress. It will mean he will experience in himself some of the mental pain connected with learning, and yet set an example of maintaining curiosity in the face of chaos, love of truth in the face of terror of the unknown, and hope in the face of despair” (Salzberger-Wittenberg, 1999, p.60).
Am I good-enough? Using Winnicott’s approach and the concepts of containment and emotional insight, I hope that I might be but the journey is far from complete. However, the notion of good-enough has helped me cope with the emotional roller coaster that is teaching. By putting some of my demons to bed, I have been able to create more emotional space for reflecting on the real task and challenges of working with young people.
Salzberger-Wittenberg, I. (1999) The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching. London: Karnac.
Shaw, J (1995) Education, Gender and Anxiety. London: Taylor and Francis
Winnicott, D.W. (1967) The concept of clinical regression compared with that of defence organisation in Winnicott, C, Shepherd, R. Davis, M (ed) (1989) Psycho-analytic Explorations. London: Karnac.
Winnicott, D. W. (1959) Melanie Klein: On Her Concept of Envy in Winnicott, C, Shepherd, R. Davis, M (ed) (1989) Psycho-analytic Explorations. London: Karnac.