Psyche in the Classroom: Teachers and Therapists

When I first began studying depth psychology, I couldn’t stop thinking about my years of experience teaching math to high school students. It seemed to me then that there were overlaps between the methods and end goals of both teachers and therapists, and that teachers in particular could take a page or two out of the therapists’ playbook.

On a personal level, there would be some value in teachers coming to understand their own hangups and complexes that they might otherwise impose on their students without knowing. As adult role models and mentors, they could learn to listen to students in a very specific way, recognizing student behaviors as indicative of a deeper layer of meaning. On a pedagogical level, teachers could use insight into therapist methods to create classrooms that were authentic and alive with learning.

Obviously the differences between teachers and therapists are important. A teacher’s primary focus is the development of a student’s intellect, while a therapist’s is facilitating psychological wholeness and emotional healing for their patient.

A teacher is concerned mainly with logos, a therapist with psyche. This latter term, psyche, meant “soul” for the ancient Greeks — so psyche-care is really soul-care, though modern practitioners might resist the designation.

Keeping with the Greeks, a teacher in the Western tradition follows the model set by  Socrates, the proto-teacher committed to not-knowing and questioning uncritically-held beliefs. It involves logic and argument, and is primarily about making intellectual sense.

But we also have to notice there is some overlap between the two roles: both teachers and therapists have “helper” responsibilities to their charges. Both are given some kind of power to exercise in their charges’ best interest. Both have undergone the process that they themselves now mediate: a teacher was once a student, and a therapist should have been in therapy at some point. Further, I think that the success of a teacher or a therapist is in part determined by their closeness to the experience they now mediate — the closer a teacher is to the learning process, and the closer the therapist is to their own therapeutic process, the better they will navigate their beneficiaries’ experience.

Further, both teachers and therapists are fundamentally committed to truth. The oath loyalty we hope all teachers might take would be this: I vow to explore and skillfully communicate the truth as I understand it. This work has the end goal of training free and competent citizens, who will not be so easily swayed by falsehoods and unfounded promises (the present national political scene notwithstanding).

For therapists, particularly those trained in depth psychology, the healing power of therapy is “to address the truth of a life,” which will allow a patient or client to ultimately be free within their circumstances1. That could be a painful emotional process — just as students will endure a painful process of not-knowing and struggling their way out of it — but there is value to the struggle so that a person might live in the light of truth.

These are general dynamics. What about the difference in goals? Is there a more subtle overlap between these two ends?

I remember one of my mentors in grad school warned us to not be armchair psychologists. I suppose there was a danger to explain away or pathologize a student’s behavior, and we were more responsible for holding them accountable and helping them improve themselves. Our role, in his mind, was not to look at our students from a psychological perspective, nor to make idle speculations as to why they are acting like they did.

On the face of it, this position is pretty airtight: we shouldn’t do what we’re not trained to do. Teachers are not therapists, and shouldn’t try to do what therapists do. Different mode, different context, different relationship.

However, this prohibition calls for some unpacking. If we hope to address the intellectual and developmental needs of our students, we know for a fact that we’re going to run into aspects of a student’s development, family, personality, identity, and social context that are influencing that process. Once we realize that learning is not purely intellectual, the tools and theoretical underpinning of psychology become useful, because many of these non-intellectual aspects can be understood through the lens of the unconscious.

How does the unconscious influence learning? What value does considering it have for teachers?

  1. Atwood, G. The Abyss of Madness. Routledge: New York (2012). p.117

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