One of the dangers of working with very needy students is the danger of them projecting their feelings about important relationships on to the teacher. This projection of a ‘quality’ on to another is a crude definition of ‘transference’. The student projects their existing, or desired beliefs and feelings relative to a previous relationship on to the teacher.
Some students who have generally been starved of the healthy, supportive childhood will see the teacher as a support and an object of attraction. This substitution can be a positive thing in the short term. It allows a relationship to develop. However, if the teacher ‘reminds’ the child of an abusive past they will project this negativity on to the teacher and the teacher is seen as ‘the enemy’ and an object of rejection.
We all know how important relationships are and the phenomena of transference makes clear how the quality of that relationship impacts on the children.
Another danger is that some teachers project their own, unresolved issues on to the students. A teacher who suffered neglect in their own childhood is vulnerable to look at a similar student through their own emotional attitudes. This is known as counter transference.
Transference is a difficult issue for teachers. For the struggling child the fact that they project such qualities on a functional adult may well support that child at the beginning of their recovery. However, the teacher must be really awake to the dangers of blurring the boundaries with these children. They must maintain a professional ‘distance’ from the child.
The following outlines the way counter transference can arise:
- Either consciously or unconsciously the teacher will be affected if the student projects attraction or rejection on to the teacher. It will cloud their judgment.
- The teacher’s personal history will blur their understanding of the student’s behaviour. The student may represent an unresolved issue such as an inability to deal with aggression and the emotional memory of their personal hurt will affect their reasoning.
- They will have a predisposition towards a range of students based on whether they are attracted to them or repelled by their presence. This will result in an inability to maintain a sense of objectivity both positively or negatively. Furthermore, they will be deterred from engaging with those students whose traits expose their own histories.
The following situations are a strong signal that the teacher is transferring their own unresolved issues onto their students. These indicators are:
- Having a need for the student to be dependent on them, they fulfill the teacher’s needs.
- They need to be liked by the students. This threatens their ability to deliver inappropriate consequences for misbehavior.
- Wanting to feel like the expert in front of the students. They can devalue their colleagues and the students.
- They need to exert inappropriate control over the student. This will hamper the student’s independence development.
- Show too much interest in the student’s personal life. This is crossing professional boundaries.
- Being aggressive and confrontational with students or reacting negatively to students who are assertive or aggressive.
- Being uncomfortable with certain types of emotions such as anger or tenderness. They suppress these if students display them.
- Over-identifying with students who have problems that reflect their own. They ‘know how they feel’ and become too close.
- Support some student’s defiance against authority. This is particularly a problem for younger teachers.
- Idealizing students and investing their own perhaps unfulfilled goals in the student.
Patterns to Watch Out For
- Dreading or eagerly anticipating a certain class
- Favoring one class over the other, better preparation, quicker marking of papers, etc.
- Thinking excessively about students outside work hours. These can involve sexual attraction.
- Not being consistent dealing with students in behaviour management.
- Being too bored to put in an effort in teaching a student or class or being angry for no specific reason.
- Overly impressed with students or classes. This may reflect unfulfilled ambitions. Things like a frustrated musician being unduly impressed by a student with musical talent.
- Being hurt by student’s criticism. This brings up past issues of being subjected to anger.
- Rescuing students by doing their work for them or ignoring their lack of compliance in assessment tasks.
Healthy teachers understand their own flaws and adjust their understanding about the management of situations they face. Their actions/reactions are appropriate to the immediate problem they face and not just a product of the history of their internalized world.
The key to dealing with the potential of transference affecting your work is to have very clear professional boundaries and clarify these boundaries with the students.