Simple psychology that really help teachers…

Albert Adler said all teachers should have an understanding of psychology.

Albert Adler said all teachers should have an understanding of psychology.

Feelings and Relationships.  Both words are key to our human experience and key words when discussing not only how pupils, of any age, learn but how teachers, no matter what their experience, really negotiate the turbulent waters of the profession.

According to psychoanalytic thinking, feelings come from a time before words and relationships, at any time in our lives, are greatly influenced by those we had with our primary care givers.

In straight forward terms, psychoanalytic thinking positions the teacher as the ‘care giver in the mind’ of the pupils, the unconscious “replacement parent”.

On it’s most fundamental level and despite the sometimes Labyrinthine demands on our thinking, the message of psychodynamics is that at the heart of all of our human endeavors, no matter what they are there is the search for “love and understanding”.

Any teacher, in any state school, certainly in the UK, will recognise the familiar emotions that are often charging around a classroom. Read the following case studies from my own teaching practice and the interpretation that follow. 

1. K  – “But I wasn’t talking to you was I?”

K entered the classroom. She is a Ghanayan girl, 15. She made no apology for her lateness.  She didn’t look at me when she came in but went straight to her seat.  She did not greet any of the other members of the class nor was she greeted. She looked pale and tired. She went to her seat, pulled out her chair and sat down.  “What are we doing today?” she said.  She threw the question into the air vaguely in my direction.  I felt angry.  I said “Poetry”.  She dropped her head and gritted her teeth as though this was the last straw for her.  I said, “What’s the matter K? Don’t you like poetry?” She muttered something under her breath and five or six girls around her laughed.  I said “What did you say?”  My tone was even but challenging. She looked directly at me and said “Was I talking to you?” The rest of the class fell silent. I said, “K. You have come to my lesson late.  You have not apologized or given me any explanation.  You haven’t got your book out. You don’t have your pen out. Your bag is still on the desk and now, instead of moving on with the difficult thing we have to do, I’m involved in a one to one conversation with you. Can’t you see that that’s not an acceptable way to behave?” She said “But I wasn’t talking to you though was I?” She was looking straight at me. I said, “I really find the way you’re behaving right now disrespectful”.  She said “Whatever. Just put your fucking shit poem down there”. She nodded her head towards her desk, turned her head away and kissed her teeth. I was angry. I said “Do I ever speak to you like that, K?” She said, “Whatever. I don’t care”. I said “You might not care but do I ever speak to you like that? Yes or no?” She started to say something else, I cut her off “Do I ever speak you in the way you have spoken to me. Yes or no?” She started to say something again, not answering the question as I wanted it answered.  I repeated “Yes or no?” She said “Fuck you”.  I said “I would like you to leave the classroom, K.” She muttered something, stood up, knocking over her chair and left the room.

2.  RW – “It’s not my fault”

RW, also a girl in y 10, has been in three schools in four years.  RW never has her book, rarely has a pen, and is rarely in school uniform.  On one occasion I tried to give her an exercise book in order to encourage her to take her school work more seriously(she had lost the first one and was constantly working on paper which she left behind at the end of lessons).  She acted as though I was trying to undermine her.  She tries to draw other members of the class into the conflict but, for the most part, other pupils do not get drawn in.  When she fails to disrupt, RW puts her head on the desk and goes to sleep. If this behaviour is challenged she usually works it that she gets thrown out.  She is always on the attack. She bullies weaker members of the class, one Asian girl particularly.  She has a maniacal bullying laugh.  One of her key phrases is “It’s not my fault”. 

3. Disapporoving looks of “M”

M is a girl in my form who always looks like she is very disapproving of you.  She enters a room without looking at the teacher.  If she does she gives every teacher a ‘dirty look’.  She is not particularly disruptive in class but if she is challenged she says very little, just shakes her head and looks to her peers to reinforce her view that she was doing very little that was wrong.  Teachers who teach M say that it is this that makes them angry. 

4. Abdicating year 9

I teach a year 9 class once a week.  They have a main teacher who teaches them the same subject, a woman, younger than me by about 20 years.  They have 3 lessons with her and just 1 with me.  I have consistently had behaviour problems in that class.  Previously I have set very easy tasks for classes like this and not monitored their progress.  I have tried to ‘get in’ with the dominant members of the class and laughed off any indiscipline or poor behaviour.  In other words I have, to some extend, abdicated responsibility in such circumstances and merely tried to survive the hour. 

Do any of those sound familiar?

The point of this page is to introduce some of the essential ideas of psychodynamics and how it came into being. From there, perhaps you will be able to apply some of the theories to scenarios of your own.  Despite our innate desire or quick fixes, the journey I propose here will take some time.  It is a different way of thinking.  Having said that, it could be argued that it actually is aligned entirely to THE WAY WE THINK NATURALLY.

The Theoretical Basis

Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein called a baby’s innate instinct to find out about the world, ‘the epistemophilic instinct’.  This idea is made clearer by Biddy Youell: “In early life”, she said, “this [instinct] is focused on the mother and what is going on inside her. This is then broadened to other family members and the nature of the relationships between these people and the mother.  This initial interest in close family members gradually is turned towards the wider world and is the basis for the desire to learn”.  (Biddy Youell. The Learning Relationship).

The need for learning is created by the gap between mother and infant; by their separation, by birth. It is this ‘absence’, initially of the mother from the infant that is the basis for learning.  It is through being able to imagine a mother that isn’t present, that thinking begins.  The templates of future relationships are formed at this early age, a time when the differentiation between the physical world and the emotional world are indistinct. Melanie Klein:

“…the young infant, without being able to grasp it intellectually, feels unconsciously every discomfort as though it were inflicted on him by hostile forces…If comfort is given, particularly warmth…[being] held and the gratification of being fed – this gives rise to happier emotions.  Such comfort is felt to come from good forces and…makes possible the infants first loving relation to a person…”

Melanie Klein argues in her “object relations theory” that these unconscious processes deriving from infancy are a driving force in behaviour and learning.

As children develop they need to hold on to the idea that there are good and bad emotions and experiences that can coexist in oneself or others.  This derives from good and bad feeding experiences at the breast.  The infants sense of identity is inseparable from the mothers and it sees the breast as being good at times and bad at other times.  Good when they demand it and are fed and bad when it is not there for them.

The ‘bad’ feelings that accompany the lack of breast cannot be tolerated by the infant and are projected onto the mother.  The mother becomes ‘bad’.  The infant’s bad feelings become the mothers fault.  However, when the baby is fed, the mother or the breast can be seen as good again.  The ability to tolerate these good and bad feelings without being overwhelmed, particularly by the negative feelings, is the basis of successful psychological development.

It is important to remember that the anxiety felt by the infant in early development is tantamount to feelings of life and death.  Although there may be a lessening of the severity of these life threatening anxieties as the infant develops, there will always be a residue of that intensity of anxiety if the infant, or later the adult, encounters too many overwhelming negative influences or, in other words, life or a given situation becomes too stressful or anxiety inducing!

Interpreting The Case Studies

There is a link here in relation to children’s behaviour at school.  RW’s constant refrain when challenged about any of her poor behaviour is “It’s not my fault”.  This is often followed by a long, detailed and abusive diatribe about the faults of a teacher who imposed sanctions on her for her behaviour.  Pupils like her, and like K, often have very negative relationships with particular teachers.  Despite long hours of intervention and negotiation between them and the member of staff, it is often impossible for them to see that teacher as anything but negative.  We might surmise that these pupils have had some developmental difficulty in being able to tolerate the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feelings about a parental figure, possibly deriving from infant experiences.

So, in normal development Klein believed a child is able to reconcile conflicting feelings. She termed this the “depressive position”.  The infant is able to accept both positive and negative attributes in people.  This means that people can be loved in spite of their faults and that the world can been seen as not so black and white.  For K and for RW, perhaps the product of split families or absent parents, who themselves have been used as objects of disapproval by the adults around them, have perhaps defended themselves from difficult feelings by giving the ‘bad object’ all of their negative feelings.  For them the world is still polarised, still either good or bad and the ability to tolerate the ambivalent feelings associated with more complex relationships, is something they are struggling with on a very fundamental and unconscious level.

Zooming in – looking for the ‘right answer’

These negative infant experiences could be seen to affect pupils in the classroom looking for the “right” answer.  With pupils where negative feelings were dominant in infancy (Klein refers to this as the “paranoid schizoid position”) they find it difficult to commit to answer any questions which opens them up to criticism, which might be seen as wrong and so give them that ‘life and death’ bad feeling.  These pupils want to know what the answer is before they give the answer.  Often there is no right or wrong, the question requires a certain amount of opinion and interpretation and the vagueness of these elements can make some pupils too anxious to speak.  Whereas, the child who has ‘an integrated self’, may begin to see knowledge as neither black or white , correct nor incorrect but having gray areas that can be interesting and challenging to reconcile.

In other words, if the pupil has been successful at reconciling contrary positions in infancy and so experienced the love and understanding that evoked, the time tolerating “not knowing” would be rewarded. There would be no doubt that even if the answer (the good breast) took time to arrive, it would arrive eventually and be “satisfying” enough to fill the emptiness ‘not knowing’ engendered.

Who of us has not witnessed the pupil who will not answer questions or volunteer information, begin to blame the teacher and accuse him of being “boring” or, as way of defending themselves, they may try and distract the teacher by initiating a different encounter with another pupil.  This is often manic and can distract the class, possibly because some members of the class can unconsciously feel the fear that the pupil on the spot is projecting onto them in order to stop feeling the anxiety of not knowing, or perhaps just feeling empty and even hopeless that any answer(good breast) will ever arrive.

These feelings can be amplified if the pupil unconsciously sees the teacher as a threatening figure, perhaps a figure from their past, who they associate with these anxious feelings. This process of transferring feelings from an old relationship onto one in the present is called transference.

Transference is Freud’s big idea and the basis of psychoanalysis. Transference is the idea that we don’t enter into new relationships with a blank mind but that we bring feelings of past relationships into a present relationship.  If that relationship is positive then the transference will be positive.  Certain people might unconsciously remind us of positive figures from our past and other negative.   A positive transference for a pupil might be that grown ups are there to help, that they know things, and that they can help. Or it can be negative; grown ups don’t know what’s going on, grown ups are out of control, grown ups will let me down.

 Psychoanalyst Robert Gosling said that  transference happens in 3 ways:

  • The way we perceive the new person
  • The way we interpret the situation in terms of the past
  • The way we behave in terms of these expectations

Those who have a negative relationship with a parental figure will project that onto any other parental figure they meet, maybe any authority figure.  Teachers are prime targets for transference and it is important to realise as a teacher what pupils may be projecting onto you from their previous relationships, particularly if pupils over or under react to situations which might otherwise evoke a more ‘reasoned’ response.  As an older male in a girls school, I encounter pupils who have a negative relationship with their father or girls whose father is absent and who either idealise him or despise him or both.  I have a pupil A.  I have met her mother and father several times.  When I met them, the father was very quiet, he stood half a pace behind A’s mother.  He never entered into any discussions concerning A’s education or behaviour, which was proving difficult.  I am A’s tutor and have had a very difficult relationship with her.  She is very dismissive of any comments I make concerning her behaviour and challenges every statement that is made to her or about her.  Her tone is very confrontational and it can feel like she is bullying me.  Having met her father I surmise that she is transferring her feelings about him onto me. My solution with A has been to remain as consistent as possible and to keep reinforcing my viewpoint despite the bullying feelings I encounter.  My relationship with her is improving I believe because she is having to renegotiate her feelings and change her ideas about me, separating me from her father and maybe unconsciously recognising herself as being separate from her mother.

The bullying feelings I encounter with A could be recognised as counter transference.  I, as the teacher was made to feel the feelings the pupils cannot tolerate.  The teacher can become a puppet on a string, drawn into behaving the way the children want.  This, of course, may not be what the children need. By realising that feelings are coming from a previous experience, in my case A’s relationship to her parents, I was able to tolerate certain behaviours, behaviours which may not have been acceptable in the previous relationship.  This does not mean setting no boundaries.  Being tolerant does not exclude being firm about expectations.  This has informed my practise with the year 9 group and all subsequent groups where the group challenge my authority.  It has also helped me realise that they are not attacking me personally but projecting unwanted anxieties onto me.  This has helped me become more of an appropriate authority figure and helped me to be less influenced by their behaviour.   It has also made me braver to intervene in fights and other conflicts as I now believe that what pupils want is to feel that they are being held or contained by an adult who can be relied upon.

To return to the beginning, the interaction teachers have with M, of disliking her for the way she looks at them could be interpreted as M presenting herself as a person that should not be liked.  This could be seen as a defence against the anxiety M feels about being liked, about getting a positive reaction from grown ups, from parental figures.  To counter M’s face, I change my face to greet her as though I am always pleased to see her.  Concerning the year 9 class, they might see me as the absent or ineffective father.  They may see my time with them as meaningless and empty.  They don’t know what to do with those feelings so they disrupt, maybe punish me for making them feel empty.   Rather than abdicate my responsibility in that class, I endeavour to contain their feelings by being directive and not allowing their anxiety to take control of me.  I plan things that are ‘fun’ but maintain clear boundaries about behaviour.

Finally, the interaction with K evidenced at the beginning of this essay could be interpreted in a few ways. She had obviously come from an unsuccessful meeting with another grown up which had not satisfied her. When she found that we were studying poetry she may have felt some of the life and death anxieties of not being able to feed successfully.  She had an idealised relationship with her father, I subsequently found out, and we had had a rosy beginning to our relationship, she was possibly transferring those feelings onto me.  As the two of us argued in the classroom, the rest of the class could have seen us as parental figures and would have been feeling the anxiety of children seeing parents argue. The feeling of not being ‘held’ in that relationship would have led to them wanting me, the adult to ‘win’ the argument because it is obvious, even to children that they cannot bring up each other. What I was able to do through observing that relationship psychoanalytically, was to separate myself and my feelings from K and not take the insults personally.  I was later able to reassure K that her learning was important to me and that I wanted her to learn and get what she deserved from school. I believe in many of K’s dealings with adults, her quick temper and bad language make adults leave her alone.  This may alleviate K’s anxieties for a while but it is not what K really wants.  K, like all infants was born with ‘the epistemophilic instinct’ and what she really wants is what Klein called “love and understanding”.


Youell B (2006) The Learning Relationship London Karnack

Saltzerberger-Wittenberg. I. 2009 lecture to D1 course. Tavistock Centre. London

Work Discussion presentation 19.11.09 Tavistock Centre. London

Klein M Envy and Gratitude 1946-1963 London The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho Analysis

Winnicott D W  Playing and Reality 1971 Tavistock Publications Ltd.

Freud S The dynamics of transference, in J Strachey (Ed) (1953-56). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud vols 1-24, London, Hogarth Press and the institute of Psychoanalysis.

Bowlby John A Secure Base Clinical applications of attachment theory (2005) Routledge Ltd.

“How Are the Children?” Report on Early Childhood Development and Learning – September 1999,

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