Psychotherapy & classroom teaching

The boisterous  world of the classroom seemed so different from the quiet and contemplative therapy space. But I soon noticed [some similarities].

During the 1990s I trained and worked as a psychotherapist. 
When I returned to teaching in 1999, a few colleagues suggested that my psychotherapist background would be useful now that I was back in the classroom. I was initially sceptical. The boisterous  world of the classroom seemed so different from the quiet and contemplative therapy space.

But I soon noticed that psychotherapy was influencing my teaching in three main ways.

Projections and transferences

As therapists, we learned quickly, both in our readings and in our practice, about the ways the client-therapist relationship could get caught up in strong emotional undercurrents. I began to see the same undercurrents manifesting in the classroom. Of particular relevance to teaching was Winnicott's idea of the 'transitional object', and the way a young child with a toy (like some adolescents with their teacher) will attempt to destroy the object in order to test its reliability. If the toy (teacher) survives, he/she becomes a useable and respected object. Incidents in my own earlier teaching life suddenly made more sense, and now that I was back in the classroom, the insight made it easier for me to weather the storm of what were, in the surface of it, senseless attacks and resistances.

 Donald Winnicott  Image from

Donald Winnicott  Image from


The unconscious

The Dream and the Underworld is the title of a book by James Hillman, and comes from the idea that our dreams and intuitions are emanations from a purposive unconscious struggling for recognition and influencing our behaviours.

One day while still a psychotherapist,  a young client who was struggling at school told me a story which began as follows:

There was once a prince who knew he was a prince, but he did not know why he was in his own dungeon ... He noticed a window that he'd never seen before. He could hear noises, a band playing, everybody dancing, and he thought how nice it would be [to escape his dungeon].

Jung, Campbell and Hillman (amongst others) helped me to see the unconscious yearning in the story and many like it. 

I came away from my psychotherapy work with a better understanding of what is going on in an English classroom when students are invited both to tell their stories.

I meant that I was less likely to respond to a student's story with a comment about the spelling.

 James Hillman   Source Guardian newspaper

James Hillman   Source Guardian newspaper


A therapist is taught to listen. Returning to teaching, I listened better. Shy and tentative thoughts are encouraged in such an atmosphere. More comes to the surface.  Students themselves learn to listen and are better able to dwell 'in uncertainties, mysteries [and] doubts,' (Keats). The classroom becomes livelier, more engaged and more naturally curious. There's more learning.