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The emotional life of the classroom

and the 'good enough' teacher.

Insights from psychoanalysis.

Dr Dimitra Kotouza
Lecturer in Sociology
University of Middlesex

PG Cert in Higher Education Conference 2018

Context: Difficulties in the
classroom process
• Half classroom disrupting other half

• Noise and disorder

• Lack of focus on tasks

• Student direct defiance or passive resistance to process

• 3-hour late-evening class of 50 students did not help!!!

• ‘Firmness’ did not have enough of an effect and I did not want
an all-out conflict

• Began to feel personally attacked

…Until I ‘discovered’ emotions
• After a couple of mini emotional breakdowns…

• I began to notice positive effect on student collaboration of:

• My positive emotional state and conscious effort to make students feel
safe, accepted and liked
• Acknowledging student complaints
• Being ‘saintly’ or unperturbed by student challenges
• Trying to mitigate competitive and envious feelings among students by
spreading praise more widely

• Paradoxically, paying more attention to my emotions made me less,

not more, emotionally exhausted by teaching.

• Didn’t work consistently (of course)

Why a psychoanalytic approach
to education
• Higher Education teaching involves an enormous degree of
emotional labour, rarely recognised

• Different from ‘emotional intelligence’—not a way to manage

emotions but a reflective exploration of self as teacher and others
as learners in unique series of encounters

• Accepting of our contradictory feelings and imperfections

• Learning as an inherently emotional process, not just cognitive—

also rarely recognised

• Not proposing to become the psychoanalysts of our students, but

simply to reflect on our relationships with them in the here and now
Some psychoanalytic concepts
relevant to education

• The painful process of learning and the desire not to know

(Melanie Klein / Wilfred Bion)

• Containment (Melanie Klein / Wilfred Bion)

• The ‘good enough’ parent, transferred to teachers (Donald

The frustration in learning &
the desire not to know
• The unknown is a space of anxiety and frustration

• For learning to occur, and curiosity to be generated, its lack

ought to be recognised—frustration, sense of failure, envy

• For Bion, a ‘thought’ is ‘the mating of a preconception with a

frustration’ (1967: 111). Frustration, if tolerated, provides the
motivation and enables thinking, and eventually knowledge.

• Defensive stances: omnipotent or despairing

• Dependent groups, pairing groups, fight/flight groups—it can

often be easy for the teacher to collude in avoidance of learning.
• Projective identification (Melanie Klein): Students’ feelings ‘put into’
us, potentially overwhelming. Requires attention to our own emotions

• Containment: the capacity to tolerate and sort out the nature of the
experience, to digest it mentally and give it meaning, to be a thinker
for the overwhelmed other.

• Teacher may experience mental pain but can ‘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’ to ‘foster in
the student an ability to tolerate the uncertainties connected with
learning.’ (Salzberger-Wittenberg et al., 1983: 62)

• Teacher comes to learn from the process as well!

The ‘good enough’ teacher
• Are we to become saintly, eternally patient figures? An impossible task.

• I feel persecuted by policy and pedagogic discourses of ‘excellence’

• Winnicott: the ‘good enough’ mother. Suggests acceptance of ambivalence

and recognition that the good and bad are not separable.

• Bibby (2011): against idealisation of perfect loving teacher. Need to

recognise our ’dark side’ to avoid being motivated by hate and fear.

• Teacher’s ‘failures’ as part of the learning process. Without failure, loss,

frustration, we have no motivation to develop or learn.

• By admitting our imperfections, we (a) open up to the process of our own

learning and (b) give students a living example of someone who tolerates
failure and is not destroyed by it, but learns from it.
• Attention to our own emotions provides insights as to students’
feelings and anxieties

• We can help students open up to new ideas by containing their

anxieties, frustrations and destructive impulses, helping them
tolerate uncertainty and maintain hope in the face of failure

• Accepting our own weaknesses and abandoning fantasies of

omnipotence and selfless love is an important part of the
learning relationship

• Higher Education teachers need more support and recognition

for our emotional labour
• Ball, S. J. (2003) ‘The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity’, Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), pp. 215–228.

• Bibby, T. (2011) Education - an ‘impossible profession’?: psychoanalytic explorations of learning and classrooms.
London; New York: Routledge.

• Bion, W. R. (1961) Experiences in groups and other papers. 2004 ed. Hove, East Sussex: Brunner-Routledge.

• Britzman, D. P. (2003) After-education: Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, and psychoanalytic histories of learning. Albany,
NY: State University of New York Press.

• Klein, M. (1930) ‘The importance of symbol formation in the development of the ego’, in Mitchell, J. (ed.) The
selected Melanie Klein. 1991 ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp. 95–111.

• Mayes, C. (2009) ‘The psychoanalytic view of teaching and learning, 1922–2002’, Journal of Curriculum Studies,
41(4), pp. 539–567.

• Mortiboys, A. (2009) Teaching with emotional intelligence: a step by step guide for higher and further education
professionals. London: Routledge.

• Salzberger-Wittenberg, I., Henry, I. and Osborne, E. L. (1983) The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching.
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

• Winnicott, D. W. (1971) Playing and reality. 2008, Routledge Classics ed. London: Tavistock Publications.

• Youell, B. (2006) The learning relationship: psychoanalytic thinking in education. London: Karnac.