28 Aug It’s not you, it’s me: transference and countertransference in language teaching
Article originally published in the IH Journal, issue no. 46. Author: Alastair Grant.
How many times have you sensed there was something of a therapy session in your teaching? How many times have you had to deal with difficult students using tools or an approach rather characteristic of a psychologist? And how do you feel about being regarded as a parent-like authority figure by your students? This article explores some of these issues to give you an insight into how you should manage the psychological dynamics of your teaching.
“education cannot take place without transference” (Penley, 1986 in Baumlin & Weaver, 2000)
First off, I’m not a psychologist (as evidenced by the amount of attempts it just took me to write that word without typos), I’m an English teacher. So the following is in no way a treatise on human nature, etc. But, like anyone with any teaching experience, I’ve had my fair share of moments where I felt like a psychologist. The following is, therefore, a look at how two fundamental, and sometimes unnerving, “love/hate” facets of psychoanalysis play an everyday part in the classroom of an ELT teacher – and some ideas on how to handle them.
Sounds like a great read, right? But do bear with me, for I’m certain that you’ll very shortly recognise the phenomena I’m describing here.
Have you ever had that feeling in class, specifically a previously engaged and cohesive class, when things just go a bit “weird” or the atmosphere got a bit frosty? Or one of those days when an otherwise “model” student starts being either unresponsive or even slightly obstructive?
Ok, fine, I’ll go first. Back in 2011 at IH San Isidro, I had a wonderful class of Lower Intermediate adults. From a student to a judge, I had the lot. And then, about three months in, we had a class on the Past Perfect. They just, and in my opinion, obstinately, wouldn’t get it. I mean, I knew they understood but they seemingly refused to admit it (this was especially weird as it’s almost exactly the same in Spanish). “No, Alastair, I don’t understand. Again.” Said the judge, to the sounds of snickers from classmates. How I prickled with hurt pride and irritation at this apparent rudeness. After all I’d done for them in the last three months! What was going on? This was nothing short of mutiny!
My case may seem a crass example, but if you have ever experienced anything even vaguely similar, this is where I’m coming from. So let’s, as far as we can, briefly define these two said facets of psychoanalysis: transference and countertransference.
Transference is the situation common to all psychoanalytic relationships, where the patient unconsciously “transfers” onto the therapist their feelings about a person/people in their past or present. The therapist “becomes” those other people. Taking it to the classroom level, a class of new students invariably bring with them all their emotional “baggage” related to previous language learning experiences, as well as baggage related to previous or current authority figures in their life. You, by the way, would now be the new one. You suddenly become a gestalt entity of all your new students’ previous pedagogical/authority figure experiences, and all actions you perform are (or are not…) in line with those expectations.
Ok, Alastair but we are teachers, not psychologists, so why would this happen? Well, as Baumlin & Weaver note in their article, Teaching, Classroom Authority and the Psychology of Transference, it happens because students, “project internalized images of authority… students will look to the teacher as a parent… someone who ‘knows’ the truth and ‘knows’ what is in the student’s best interest.” This possibly equally explains any kind of idolisation of any authority figure (or “knower”), anyone from a rock star to an Instagram influencer.
You might be thinking “hey, a bit of idolisation sounds pretty cool to me”, but the flip-side of this is that we are also subject to the negative feelings from our students too. As kids, we rebelled against our parents in whatever form that took, and the same can be true of students. There may be frequent challenges to our authority, either explicit (student: “why are we looking at the Past Perfect again?”) or implicit (colleague: “so your students from last year were telling me that you [insert pedagogical crime here].” It happens.
Right. Wait a minute. Are we saying that our students all see us as parents? No, don’t panic. We are saying that the attachment feelings to the authority figure are as powerful, though. We are expected to deliver. We “know”, and the student “doesn’t know”. Despite the fact (hopefully) that we’ve come a long way since the chalk and talk era that Freire raged against, the pedagogical paradigm always repeats itself. Why? Because the teacher represents that “other place”, or in Vygotskyan terms, Zone of Proximal Development, that a student may only get to with the teacher’s help. After all, that’s why the teacher’s there, right? Even the word “pedagogue” suggests this: paid ‘boy’ + agōgos ‘guide’.
What, therefore, is countertransference and how does this relate to teaching? Well, reader, that’s the $64,000 question. Because countertransference in psychoanalysis relates to how the therapist deals with the transference (those “love-hate” (Loewald, 1986) feelings coming from the patient). Or for our purposes, how the teacher deals with the weight of expectations from the students.
If transference is “an important, even necessary facilitator of learning” (Baumlin & Weaver, 2000), it is effective only if we, as teachers, can monitor our countertransference, i.e. being positively or negatively predisposed towards a student/class because of the “love-hate” (Ibid.) feelings they exhibit for us.
Back to you, then. Have you ever felt, as I said at the start of this piece, as though students have gone from “loving” to “hating” you? You may even have just felt irritated by a student. That’d be the countertransference.
So that’s all very interesting, Alastair, but where does it get us? Well, teachers can hopefully “’pass a test’ of trustworthiness when our [students] defy us to stick with them, and we persevere” (Reidbord, 2010), to make sure we don’t get that persistent “weird” feeling in class from our students. Here’s a three-step suggestion for dealing with this. I have adapted it for our classroom needs from various sources (Baumlin & Weaver, 2000; Trumm, 2014; Muskin & Epstein, 2009).
- Notice that it’s happening. Being self-aware is key. Acknowledge the transference and that, necessarily, countertransference will happen too. The feelings can be positive or negative, but they will happen.
- Empathise. Put yourself in the student’s shoes. Realise that your positive/negative feelings are only happening because the student is transferring and you are countertransferring. In other words, it’s nothing personal.
- Start a “loop of awareness”. Give attention back and forth between what the student is saying/behaving and how you respond to that. This gets you into “problem solving” mode, rather than simply reacting.
The next stage is for our students to be “weaned off” from that attachment. In Baumlin & Weaver’s words, “the student’s development requires that the teacher break the transference” (2000). Rather than being the “knower” who will solve the student’s language learning issues, the teacher must become the facilitator, helping the student to work things out for themselves, going from “this is what you need to do”, to “what do you think you need to do?”
So by responding appropriately to the transference-countertransference dynamic in our classrooms, our students can “become increasingly more conscious of and responsible for… [their] learning” (Baumlin & Weaver, 2000).
Think about my journeyman’s psychological ramblings next time things get a wee bit frosty in class. It should help to warm things up a bit.
James S. Baumlin and Margaret E. Weaver (2000). Teaching, Classroom Authority, and The Psychology of Transference. The Journal of General Education. Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 75-87
Loewald, H.W. (1986). Transference-Countertransference. The Journal of American Psychoanalytic Association. 34: 275-287
Muskin, P.R. & Epstein, L.A. (2009). Clinical guide to countertransference. Help medical colleagues deal with “difficult” patients, Current Psychiatry, 8(4)25-32
Reibord, Steven, M.D. (2010). Countertransference, an overview. Retrieved 10 April 2019 from: http://blog.stevenreidbordmd.com/?p=269
Trumm, Stephanie (2014). Avoiding Countertransference and Codependency When Working with other Healthcare Professionals. Retrieved 10 April 2019 from: http://bit.ly/30RoDnn
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Alastair Grant is an English Teacher, Teacher Trainer and ELT materials writer. He is a teacher trainer for IH Montevideo and Academic Director at a secondary school in Buenos Aires. He is a lecturer at the Universidad Tecnológica Nacional in Buenos Aires. He still can’t decide which wine he prefers in Argentina and thus rejects none of them.