Is that pupil really thinking what you think he's thinking?

25th May 2007 at 01:00
The principles of psychoanalysis can help you relate better to your classes. Adi Bloom reports

Few teachers spend training sessions lying on a couch. The average in-service day does not involve much talking about your mother. And most teacher training courses do not include a module on penis envy. But Peter Taubman, of Brooklyn College in New York, believes that teaching should draw on the principles of psychoanalysis.

He insists that it provides useful tools for reflecting on teaching practice and classroom stress. "Who we are, what we desire, the meanings we assign to reality are largely shaped by unconscious forces, ancient personal histories and old familial dramas," he says.

He would like to see teachers examining how these unconscious forces affect their interactions with pupils and the curriculum. This is not as simple as concluding that you hate teaching geography because your father forced you to go hillwalking every summer.

Instead, teachers should consider how they are influenced by common psychological processes that affect all relationships. These include transference: the unconscious repetition of patterns of relating to other people. Such patterns are usually forged in infancy.

Transference can affect how teachers respond to pupils. Some may inspire particularly positive feelings, while others generate a level of antipathy disproportionate to their behaviour. Teachers should ask themselves whether their way of relating to these pupils is in fact a re-enactment of early family relationships.

Staff should also be aware of projection: the unconscious placing on to others of one's own attributes. For example, a teacher may feel the need to save a particular child. The teacher should question whether this desire comes from anything that the child has actually said. Or is the teacher imagining how he would feel in the pupil's situation and projecting those emotions on to the pupil? Equally, teachers might seek to redress past wrongs, by rescuing an underachieving child. Or they might read unintended slights into a pupil's comments, because they tap into personal sensitivities.

Other teachers become reliant on pupils' perceptions in order to construct a professional identity. They may want to be seen as understanding, efficient or disciplinarian. Not being seen as such can undermine their sense of self. In fact, they should be questioning why this identity is so important to them in the first place.

Professor Taubman believes that teachers should regularly question their interpretation of everyday classroom events. They should assume that there is no objective reality, and take responsibility for their own version.

"Psychoanalytic understanding asks us to take responsibility for the meaning that arises from our own, unique experiences," he says.

"The person with whom we fall in love, the profession to which we are drawn, the responses we have towards our students, the styles we bring to our teaching - all these are influenced by unconscious forces."



Psychoanalysis means analysis of the mind. It was pioneered by Sigmund Freud at the end of the 19th century. The theory suggests that personality is informed by nurture as well as nature: your upbringing is as important as your genetic inheritance.

The main influences on individuals are their relationships with parents, early sexual feelings and early feelings of loss and hate. Such experiences, played out in the family, provide unconscious templates for future relationships, and can be at the root of any future problems.

Psychological defence mechanisms, established as a defence against threats in infancy, can also remain throughout adulthood.

In traditional psychoanalysis, patients will see an analyst for 50 minutes every day, over years or even decades. Psychoanalysts help patients to examine and explore their unconscious conflicts. The patient's relationship with the analyst is used to highlight deeply ingrained models of relating.

So unconscious patterns are made conscious, with a view to changing or modifying them. l

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