Self- Psychology outside the Consulting Room: Teachers as Selfobjects who create a generation committed to ‘Selfobjecting’

Self- Psychology outside the Consulting Room: Teachers as Selfobjects who create a generation committed to ‘Selfobjecting’.

Chaim Aharonson

As early as the beginning of psychoanalysis, Freud noted that it’s application to education was “perhaps the most important activity of psychoanalysis” (1933: 146). In his wake, child psychoanalysts such as Hug-Hellmuth recognized the importance of the relationship between educators and pupils. This direction was developed by Anna Freud who, in her role as a child educator, participated in a study group that examined the way in which analytic understanding could illuminate children’s developmental experiences and nurture their emotional and social abilities both within and without the classroom (Young-Bruehl, 1988). One of the participants in that learning group with whom Anna Freud consulted was Aichhorn, who later became Kohut’s psychoanalyst. Working with juvenile delinquents Aichhorn sought to identify how understanding their experiences, relations with their parents, transferences and countertransferences, and internalization of their new relationship with their teacher could foster their mental health and learning abilities (Aichhorn, 1935).
Schools are frequently regarded and described today as agents of social inclusion designed to reduce gaps. Numerous studies demonstrate, however, that actually, on a unconscious level they function as agents of social exclusion (Haynes, 2005; Munn & Lloyd, 2005; Gough & Eisenschitz, 2006). What helps a pupil feel that school is a place in which they can grow mentally, socially, and culturally? What prevents this from happening and contributes to their exclusion?  And how can Self Psychology contribute to and further our understanding of these issues? I will address these topics in my lecture.
Albert Camus’ special connection with his childhood teacher provides an excellent example for understanding how this teacher as selfobject contributed to his evolvement into a Nobel Prize winner and, perhaps even more significantly, a person committed to others, as his writings and actions demonstrate him to have been. He describes this relationship in his last book, Le premier homme (The First Man), in which he was in the middle of writing when he was killed in a motor accident. Found in his satchel, it was published thirty-four years after his death and depicts his childhood in Algeria (Camus, 1996). Camus’ father was killed in the First World War and his teacher—Louis Germain (called M. Bernard in the autobiography) came to be a type of substitute father for him:
… this man had launched Jacques [Camus] in the world, taking upon himself  the sole responsibility for uprooting him from his home so that he could go on to still greater discoveries … School did not just provide them as an escape from family life. At least in M. Bernard’s class, it fed a hunger in them more basic even to the child than to the man, and that is the hunger for discovery. No doubt they were taught many things in their other classes, but it was somewhat the way geese are stuffed: food was presented to them and they were asked to please swallow it. In M. Germain’s class, they felt for the first time that they existed and that they were the objects of the highest regard: they were judged worthy to discover the world. And even their teacher did not devote himself just to what he was paid to teach them; he simply welcomed them  into his personal life.He lived that life with them, told them about his childhood and the lives of children he had known, shared with them his philosophy but not his opinions, for though he was, for example,’ anti-clerical’ … he never said a word against religion in class, nor against anything that could be the object of a choice or belief. But he would condemn with all the more vigor those evils over which there could be no argument—theft, betrayal, rudeness, vulgarity. But most of all he talked to them about the war that was still fresh in their minds, which he had fought for four years, and about the suffering of the soldiers, their courage and their endurance, and the joy of the armistice. (pp. 159, 144-45)
Camus was only nine when his teacher discerned his talents, taking him and three others under his wing and recommending that they continue with their schooling. Sending them home to get their parents’ consent to take the exams in order to gain a further six years of education, the three others reported that their parents had agreed. Camus, however, was not so fortunate:
The next day the three others told Jacques their families had agreed. “How about you?” “I don’t know,” he said, and the thought that he was even poorer than his friends left him sick at heart. The four of them stayed after school. Pierre, Fleury, and Santiago gave their answers. “And you, little one?” “I don’t know.” M. Bernard gazed at him. “All right,” he said to the others. “But you’ll have to work with me afternoons after school. I’ll arrange it, you can go.” When they had left, M. Bernard sat himself in his armchair and drew Jacques close. “Well?” “My grandmother says we’re too poor and that I have to go to work next year.” “And your mother?” “It’s my grandmother who decides.” “I know,” said M. Bernard. He thought a moment, then put his arm around Jacques. “Listen, you can’t blame her. Life is hard for her. The two of them are alone, they’ve brought you up, your brother and you, and made you the good boys you are. So she’s bound to be afraid. You’ll need a little money besides the scholarship, and in any case you won’t bring home any money for six years.” “Can you understand her?” Jacques nodded without looking at his teacher. “Good. But maybe we can explain it to her. Get your satchel, I’m coming with you!” “To our place?” said Jacques. “Yes, it will be a pleasure to see your mother again” … The grandmother came to the door, wiping her hands on her apron; the strings were tied too tightly, making her old woman’s stomach protrude. When she saw the teacher, she made a gesture as if to comb her hair. “Hello  grandmother,’ said M. Bernard, “hard at work as usual? Ah! You’re a worthy woman … I came to have a little talk with you.” He began by asking about her children, then her life on the farm, her husband; he talked about his own children. At that moment Catherine Cormery ( Camus’ mother) came in, panicked, called M. Bernard “Monsieur le Maitre,” went to her room to comb her hair and put on a clean apron and returned to perch on the edge of a chair a little away from the table. “You,” M. Bernard said to Jacques, “go out on the street and wait for me there. “You understand,” he turned to the grandmother, “I want to say good things about him and he may think they’re true” … M. Bernard emerged from the stairs at his back. He scratched Jacques’ head. “Well!” he said. “It’s all settled. Your grandmother’s a good woman. As for your mother … Ah!” he said. “Don’t ever forget her.” “Monsieur,” the grandmother suddenly said. She was coming out of the hall. She was holding her apron in her hand and wiping her eyes. “I forgot … you told me you would give Jacques extra lessons.” “Of course,” said M. Bernard. “And it won’t be any picnic for him, believe me.” “But we won’t be able to pay you.” M. Bernard studied her carefully. He was holding Jacques by his shoulders. “Don’t worry about that,” he said, shaking Jacques. “He’s already paid me.” Then he was gone.
Jacques went on to pass the exams. When the time came to say goodbye to M. Bernard, his teacher said to him: “You don’t need me anymore, you’ll have teachers who know more. But you know where I am, come see me if you need me to help you.” Running to the window to watch him go, he saw him wave “at him one last time … leaving him alone henceforth, and, instead of the joy of success, a child’s immense anguish wrung his heart, as if he knew in advance that this success had just uprooted him from the warm and innocent world of the poor … to be hurled into a strange world, one no longer his, where he could not believe the teachers were more learned than the one whose heart was all-knowing”
Years passed, and Camus lost touch with his beloved teacher. Much later, he reestablished contact with him, going back to visit him every year for the last fifteen years of his life. By the way, M. Bernard was accustomed to punishing his pulpils—Jacques included—by inflicting “solid blows” on their buttocks with a ruler, “the number varying according to the offense and equally divided between the two cheeks.”
Immediately after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, Camus wrote a letter to M. Germain, in November of 1957, in which the grown-up student acknowledged his debt and expressed his appreciation of his teacher’s commitment to him—without which he would never have become the artist and committed man into which he eventually developed:
Dear Monsieur Germain,
I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honor, one I neither sought nor solicited. But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching, and your example, none of all this would have happened. I don’t make too much of this sort of honor. But at least it gives me an opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil.
I embrace you with all my heart.
Albert Camus (p. 319)
Can we, in the current climate, help veteran and novice teachers be this kind of role model—a teacher who knew how to arouse his pupils’ curiosity regarding their inner and outer worlds, that made them privy to his personal life and the suffering endured by soldiers in combat, who helped them not only see the qualities inside them but also to realize them in practice, a teacher who helped Camus marvel at  his  almost-mute mother and understand a harsh grandmother, a teacher who knew how to embrace and comfort a fatherless boy,  and preserves the individual’s right to his own beliefs,  and a teacher who engendered a deep feeling of home and belonging in his students. A teacher, in other words, who served as a selfobject for his pupils so that, when the time came, they could function in the same way for others.
How can we develop this quality in the teacher, for the pupils’ and teachers’ sake alike, so that it does not remain confined to only certain individuals? This is the question that has occupied me over the past years—together with a search for the sort of thinking and experience whereby psychoanalysts can contribute to this challenging and complex process.
Over the years, people from the field of education—philosophers of education, teacher trainers, and psychologists—have sought to understand what is lacking in the heart of school teaching and why it largely fails both pupils and teachers. Like many others, Prof. Tadmor—the head of a think tank called “The spirit of man in education” and former principal of a prestigious high school in Haifa—is worried by the fact that teaching is uninspired and focused on gaining passive knowledge without having any experience of meaning or significance. In an article entitled “Sustainability, spirituality, and essentiality in education” (2012), he writes: “The heart of education is an intellectual, mental, spiritual, and, in a certain sense, religious experience that should lead to the raising of  fundamental questions by the pupil. Through the dialogue with the teacher’s guidance, the pupil’s awareness is heightened, his identity shaped, his worldview molded, he acquires values and crystallizes his life plan … This educational view adopts existential ideas … the individual shapes his own life. He is perceived as a subject engaged in continual self-formation who seeks autonomy, significance, and self-realization, meaning the realization of his humanity, his spirit, and of his qualities. This is true of both pupil and teacher.” ( Tadmor , 2012).
Most of us can identify with the valued goals Tadmor describes—which are largely commensurate with the values that lie at the basis of analytic work. Not only do the values he promotes correspond to those we hold dear, but he also speaks of an understanding and hope that this will—or can—happen in the context of dialogue and the pupil-teacher relationship. He—and other educators—observe that, finding themselves under enormous pressures, cannot immerse themselves deeply in education. They feel alienated from their pupils’ world and are accustomed to manipulating them. Tadmor points to the need for the development of a school culture that will serve as the ground upon which the student’s personality, consciousness, spirit, and values can grow. He fervently calls for a concentrated effort to strengthen the teacher’s personality so that teachers can more consistently explore their own authenticity,  aspire to worthy ideals, and help their pupils in their own personal search. According to Tadmor, the key to achieving these goals lies with the teacher who constantly examines himself, who recognizes the “perpetual, labile consolidation of his own life and his insights into his role, mission, task, identity, and existence as a teacher” (Tadmor
The question of the essence of education brings with it a fierce controversy over the nature of “essence” itself. In a critical paper addressing the essence of education, Harpaz (2012) wonders whether it must consist of a single goal and image or whether it should embrace an infinite variety of goals. He notes that there is a danger that the “ideal” high-school graduate is an adult construction designed to produce clones of themselves. It must be remembered that school education is engineered by adults who impose it on children—and thus contains an intrinsically violent element. Educational research can deal with this issue only partially, because the scientific theories of empirical discourse maintain education in its current state, pushing educational philosophy and its subversive questions to the side. As he notes, it is only from within education’s subjective, narrative, and ethical dimension that a second order change can occur.
Thinkers such as Fenstermacher and Soltis (1986) and Egan (1986) adduce three meta-educational goals—tools, values, and self-realization. In the first, the aim of education is to equip students with the tools that will help them integrate into society and survive the war of existence. In the second, its aim is to mold the nature of the students in line with the values espoused by the favored culture. In the third, the aim is to enable every student to realize himself.
How can teachers help their pupils develop these goals in such a way as to allow them to choose to do so for themselves? How can they help them become men and women with values without impinging on their self-fulfillment? These are serious issues, with philosophical, pedagogic, scholarly, and psychological ramifications.
Those of us influenced by psychoanalytic approaches—especially Self Psychology—ask how teachers can become selfobjects for their students. In the following examples, I will share my experiences—some are mine alone and some involve my colleague, Dr. Noah Weitson—a dear and modest man with extensive knowledge as an educational and clinical psychologist working with teacher groups.  The central aim of our projects is to promote a dialogue between teachers and pupils and to encourage and enhance  the teacher as a selfobject for the pupils. From time to time, I shall elucidate the principles we were attempting to apply and the insights we gained during the interactions.
We met for a series of meetings with teachers in elementary and middle schools from the Jewish and Arab sectors, working with training teachers and young teachers who had just embarked on their career paths. We sought to be attentive to the teachers’ experiences in their complex encounter with their students, encouraging them to bring dialogues they had had with them—whether short exchanges linked to discipline issues or longer ones, such as getting to know them more deeply. We also encouraged them to meet with the pupils. It was important for us to examine how each interaction with a student included additional latent and deeper meanings that not originally apparent to them.
Some of the teachers were apprehensive about meeting with the pupils, fearing that the discipline would be endangered and that they would lose authority and control. Some teachers were worried that they had no skills to conduct a dialogue with their pupils, being called upon to enter a world of relationships and intimacy without having the ability to do this. They understood that to enter into a dialogue, a relationship, meant that they would have to change. In writing about the first analytic session,  Ogden (1989) remarks that the therapist’s deepest anxiety is not that the patient will leave but that he will in fact stay. Our teachers similarly feared to engage in any intimacy or meet the various conscious and unconscious parts of the pupil. Meeting the ‘other’ and themselves in a new depth was an intimidating experience for them.  So we had to relate to their need to defend themselves.  The continuous meeting between people who are meaningful to one another—therapist-patient, teacher-pupil—always oscillates between opportunities for growth and transformation and difficulty and pain.
We deliberated with the workshop participants whether a new kind of meeting  between teacher and pupil was in fact possible, since we all bring to relationships  internalizations, attitudes, and worldviews. In the workshop, we not only thought about this in the context of the teacher-pupil relationship, but also how these things played out between us, the group leaders and the teachers in the workshop. We also pointed to the fact that a new meeting was actually possible: we could  suspend sides within us, open ourselves up to something foreign and different than us, and learn to empathize and conduct a deep dialogue with the other, both outside and inside ourselves.
It was important for us to deal with the teachers’ experiences with their pupils—to locate the areas of friction where it is difficult to be empathetic and identify the teachers’ ability to understand deeply or unrecognized skills or knowledge. In order to help the teachers become the selfobject for their pupils, it is not enough to speak about ideals. You must enter into their simple, daily experiences—which include frustration and struggle.
We asked the teachers to bring examples. As an instance of a simple interaction— one that may easily get lost in the day to day pressures and stress that a teacher faces—we may imagine a case in which a student in  math class suddenly blurts out: “Oof, I don’t feel like doing math now.” In such a situation, the teacher can ask him “What doesn’t he feel like doing this?,” he can completely ignore his outburst and tell him to get on with the exercise, or he can tell him: “Well, sometimes I don’t feel like doing math either, but right now you have to do the exercise.”
If we focus on the student’s statement, we may perhaps think it is insignificant or not deserving attention. We could ask  What doesn’t he like?- The class?- The encounter with the teacher,-or with other students? Is it a way of expressing some sort of difficulty and if so, what? What does he feel like doing? Is he missing something else by being in the lesson? Does this happen to him in other contexts? When? With whom? Does it matter to me at all that he feels this way? Do I want to tell him something about that? Is there a place in the learning relationship for such feelings? Will the learning be affected if I engage him in a conversation about what he said? Do I even have the tools to talk about it?
Numerous considerations exist here with regard to the teacher’s role in a such a situation in relation to his professional beliefs—his hesitations in regard to the relevance of the comment to the learning process, the importance he attaches to the child’s feelings, his familiarity with the student’s response, his self-confidence. The most significant question, however, is the teacher’s willingness to engage with the student in order to try and understand him. There is never a situation where the teacher has no influence. There is no situation we can call neutral.
The fate of just such a moment rests first and foremost, of course, on the emotions aroused in the teacher. If we assume that he is hurt by the remark, he will feel frustrated and disappointed because he’s taken time to prepare the lesson, the student is important to him, and he has invested effort in equipping him with tools and skills. Unwittingly and unconsciously, he may begin to feel unmotivated, find his enthusiasm ebbing, begin ignoring the student, and become critical of him. Such responses can occur outside the teacher’s conscious awareness and represent his unconscious attempt to cope with the pain, frustration, and disappointment he feels towards the pupil.
If the teacher wants to resolve the situation and find out precisely what the student meant— even if only later when he is alone with him—something new and unexpected can occur.  As we know from our clinical work, such behaviours and statements are only the tip of a much larger iceberg.
In order for the teacher to engage in a dialogue in such a context and  be attuned to the pupil’s needs, he must strive to have a broad view of the pupil: he must be able to see him as having good intentions (even if they are indiscernible at first glance) and multi-faceted rather than one-dimensional and stereotypical in nature, with parts that are in conflict with one another (for example, the desire to invest and succeed vs. the desire to give up), and be able to perceive him as suffering from deficiencies and difficulties (for example, learning gaps or bad experiences with previous teachers). He must be able to be the selfobject in the variety of functions and aspects that this role entails.
Here is an example brought by one of the teachers:
A day after the workshop meeting in which we dealt with the getting-to-know session, I met with a student called Ron, a seventh grader who is in one of my science groups. I chose Ron because I’m curious about his complexity and perhaps because of his oddness. In outward appearance, he is large and well-built. Study-wise, he’s a mediocre student, somewhat unorganized, with sloppy and unclear handwriting. He does the minimum necessary. In the first lessons, he didn’t do the homework, but after he was punished with detention in school he began doing it. He doesn’t participate in class and generally makes cynical remarks that represent his disinterest and discontent. At the same time, when he answers questions, whether orally or in writing, he gives answers that indicate understanding and a quick and sharp grasp. He generally has a high-tech ipod and other gadgets in his bag and these are the only things that can get him going. When I told the students about the personal meetings I was going to have with them, he made it clear that he thought they were unnecessary. When I told him that he would be the first I would meet with on a one-to-one basis, he expressed his displeasure but complied. The first question I asked him was how he was feeling. He said he felt ok. I then asked him why he resented the meetings and he told me he didn’t want to have to stay another hour, primarily because it was worthless. I asked him if he knew what we were going to talk about and if he thought there was something we could get out of the time. He asked me if I was an army commander. I told him no, of course not. He replied that I was acting as though I’d been an army commander for a long time. I asked him how I created that impression and he said it was because I gave punishments to the students who didn’t do their homework and didn’t let them off. I told him that many teachers, including my supervisor, who was the grade coordinator and preached punishments of this type, practice this form of punishment—to which he replied that I was the only one. Despite being surprised, I immediately asked him whether he would have done his homework if I’d not acted in this way and he said no! So I told him about how the seatbelt law had developed—the State initially relying on citizens to belt up out of awareness of the importance of using them but eventually being forced to import fines in order to deter those who refused—and he listened attentively. We concluded that frequently people only do things when sanctions are applied, even when they’re for their own good. As the meeting drew to a close, I asked him if he had suffered during it and he said no. I asked him if it had been interesting and he said yes. I asked whether he wanted to meet again and he said yes. I asked whether there are things he thinks important that we could talk about and he said yes. His cynicism had dissipated. I told him that I’d be happy to meet with him again, that I find him a very interesting person and that that was the reason I’d chosen to meet with him first. He seemed quite happy with that.
After the teacher relayed her dialogue with the pupil, the group set about trying to understand it in depth as though it were clinical material a psychologist would bring for a consultation with his supervisor or colleagues. Although it was relatively short, it related to serious issues—the student’s doubts regarding the possibility of a real communication with the teacher, discipline and its boundaries, the student’s oppositional and provocative authenticity, the possibility of finding the end of a thread leading to his inner world, moments of empathy, and moments of missed opportunities.
Condensed within the dialogue were essential questions relating to the teacher’s attempt to offer a process of growth to the two partners, both of whom found themselves in a cauldron of demands and obligations. Both had to travel a distance in order to free themselves from mutual stereotypes in order for the conversation to have any chance. The student had to overcome his attitude towards the teacher as merely a representative of authority and disciplinary demands and the split ideas of his internal parent and own self. The teacher had to overcome her tendency to see the student as solely rebellious and destructive. At this juncture, the two parties are faced with two extreme options—falling back onto doubt and stereotypes in despair or giving birth to something new.
When the teacher invited Ron to the meeting, a crisis point arose because Ron’s oppositional authenticity immediately reared its head. His rhetorical question regarding the teacher’s military services may not have been meant to elicit actual information but to embarrass her and highlight the fact that nothing could be expected from the dialogue. What point was there in a dialogue in the framework of a hierarchic system in which the partners only have limited choice and influence?
The teacher dealt with the feelings of the lack of expectations from the dialogue and her doubts that she had none of the tools with which to conduct it. Her first attempt to represent punishment as a necessary evil was rebuffed by the students, who returned it to the personal level—as though saying to her: “I won’t let you evade things in this way, because you can  adopt another method.” The teacher also refused to give up, however, offering another motive for the need for punishment and its borders—true care for the safety of others, the difficulty of getting people to cooperate, and the necessity of taking threatening steps and even punishment. The teacher and pupil thus discussed profound topics that are also linked to the very possibility of conducting a dialogue.
When we analyzed the material with the teachers, it was important for us to come to the discussion with an attitude of humility, appreciating how complicated her job is and the mental effort demanded in order to avoid feelings of frustration, hurt, or even embarrassment or shame. It was also important for us to acknowledge the impressive mental movement the teacher made in the face of her feelings and the potential to which this movement gave birth.
By virtue of the teachers’ own success, we could draw their attention to their capacity for self-denial, inclusion, and transformativity, as well as the students’ capacity for change. It was important for us to learn from the teachers the abilities hidden within them—to understand, respond, and create—an ability/capacity whose existence they themselves sometimes doubt (Moses-Horoshavsky, 2003). Possibly, had we not been there to point it out to them, no one else would have shown them what exists inside them and what it can produce.
The most complicated mental movement the role of teacher demands is balancing the numerous pressures—including those from the pupil—and containing them and responding empathetically. It is a complicated movement because teachers feel as though they are the pupils’ “punching bag”—and are indeed under tremendous pressure in the face of many pupils with different needs.
One of the advantages of group work with teachers lies in the mutual fertility it affords. Teachers who know a pupil we have discussed could point to other qualities in their meeting with him and thus demonstrate the contextuality of the experiences. They could draw attention to the fact that by his very interpretation of the pupil, the teacher not only reflects him but also creates him. The way in which the teacher understands the pupil has a profound influence on how he understands himself and the extent to which he can change.
As the meetings progressed, a certain softening occurred in the teachers’ hearts, their anxiety subsided. Teachers dared to speak more not only about the pupils’ difficulties in regulating themselves but also about their own self-regulating problems. They spoke about their need for empathy and their need for appreciation from colleagues and principals. As the dialogue between the teachers and the pupils deepened, all of them felt a growing sense of belonging. The pupils saw in their teachers a place where they could share their emotional, academic and social deliberations and difficulties. Some of the pupils began to show signs of social involvement with their fellow pupils where they would work towards the benefit of the greater pupil population. And the teachers felt a deep sense of satisfaction from these changes in their pupils as these changes signified for the teachers a reconnection to their own ideals and purpose for entering into the educational profession from the start.
    The teacher-pupils’ meetings constituted an opportunity not only for the growth of the two partners but as potentially trauma-inducing. Let me share with you a poem we brought to one of the meetings with the teachers, written by the well-known Israeli poet Agi Mishol. Through the poem, we sought to bring to the discussion the states in which a teacher can unwittingly hurt a student. Entitled “Geese,” the poem addresses the poet’s experiences with her maths teacher:
My math teacher Epstein
Liked to call me to the blackboard.
He said that a head like mine was only good for hats
And that a bird with brains like mine
Would fly backwards.
He sent me to tend the geese.

Now, at a distance of years from his sentence,
When I sit under the palm trees with my three beautiful geese,
I think that that math teacher of mine was farsighted.
He was right,
Because nothing makes me happier
Than to watch them now, following breadcrumbs,
Joyful tails wagging,
Or freezing for a moment under drops of water
When I spray them with a hose,
Holding their heads erect, bodies stretched back
As if remembering far away lakes.
Since then, my math teacher has died,
Together with the math problems I could never solve.
I like hats
And always at evening,
When the birds return to the tree,
I look for the one flying backwards.
Teachers identified with Mishol’s humiliation and the pain carried with her all those years. Some of them were also impressed by her ability to heal the insult and find a way to become creative in her life. They responded very critically to the teacher’s behaviour, denouncing his actions. Beyond this, however, we sought to examine how the teacher himself needed our help, for such an Epstein lives—at least potentially—in each of us.
As Mishol herself wrote years later:
I was very scared of him. For his part, he took special pleasure from ‘standing me at the blackboard’ as they called the daily practice that started with opening the diary and continued with a slow, quiet perusal of the list of students until the name of the victim echoed in the classroom … As customary in Europe, a thing we found very funny, he addressed us by surname only. We all became Mr. or Miss. “Fried to the blackboard”—that’s what they called me then—were very frightening words which, when I heard then, pulled me to the blackboard in order to perform my solo in front of the whole class. In my pathetic efforts to develop some formula, he would look at me obliquely from his chair in the corner of the classroom and shoot sentences of the type found in “Geese.”’ (Mishol, 2012)
At the beginning of the 1960s, Mishol continues, a new wave of immigrants arrived from Romania, including academics who, for lack of choice and because no other employment was available, were sent to be high-school science teachers. “Epstein was one of the prominent figures of this group. They said he was a professor … He was a large man, a chain smoker who used to put his cigarettes out on a wart of the palm of his hand and throw the butt out of the window. His abilities and dress both demonstrated him to be a frustrated individualist who had fallen into a line of work that didn’t suit his talents” (Mishol,
The teacher who hands out insult has suffered from them himself. Perhaps this was the insult of an academic who was not given due recognition or a person to whom an injustice had been done in an earlier period of his life, or teacher whose students had disappointed by failing to use the knowledge he had imparted to them. In order for the teacher to be the subjectother for the student, they must have had someone who acted in that capacity for themselves—to have had someone who helped them feel that school was their home.
Analytic approaches—and Self Psychology in particular—can form this bridge between the daily act of teaching and the spiritual-educational act of cultivating growth in the pupil and teacher alike—a bridge that creates a sense of belonging in them both.
1)The approaches developed a deep knowledge of the mutual healthy and pathological influence—conscious and unconscious—between the teacher and pupil. An understanding of the existence of nuances in the dialogue, of the existence of attuned and non-attuned states, of empathic failures, of the disruption-restoration process (Wolf, 1988), of the possibilities that surrender generates (Gehnt, 1990), and the dangers that submission brings.
2)The approaches enriched the understanding of the difficulty of engaging in a deep communication, the fears that dialogue induces as well as the huge potential it carries. When the dialogue succeeds, the partners connect with ‘the creative principle’ within themselves (Symington, 2012).
3)In order for the teacher to be an empathic selfobject in the pupil’s world, it is not sufficient to deal with intentions and ideals but demands that the teacher’s experiences be encountered in their full force. Without a deep empathic connection with the teacher’s world, he cannot be helped to be optimally responsive to the student (Bacal, 1998).
4)The theoretical position of Self Psychology in relation to the issue of defense and resistance is of great significance for working with pupils. Self Psychology is based on a holistic view of the mind/person and always expresses itself as an authentic appearance of growth, even if it is a defensive mechanism that guards the self against exposure to traumatization (Kulka, 2005).
5)The teacher who makes him available as a selfobject in the student’s world offers him a presence of the preemptorial-echo type of which Kulka speaks (2004)—i.e., a presence that is not a knowing understanding of the pupil’s world but a presence that seeks to draw out the potential qualities hidden within him.
6)The leaving of the therapy room for life in general and school in particular demands that we make concessions. In most cases, the relationship between the teacher and pupil will be partial in comparison with therapy. Although the contact with the pupil’s conscious and fantasy worlds and his past is limited, and despite the fact that the selfobject transferences will be partial, they remain significant and central. Concession and partiality are not too great a price to pay for an opportunity that allows both sides to grow.
In Kohut’s conversations with Strozier (Kohut, 1985), the former noted his hierarchic structure of values: to support human psychological life in its fullest form. He wonders whether such support is the giving of hope—an act of optimism—and answers: the giving of hope to others is like the function of oxygen in the atmosphere of a living organism—it is an absolute imperative for psychological existence.
Here, two great thinkers meet—Kohut and Camus. Although they grew up in different places—Europe and Algeria—both their fathers fought in the same war. When they grew up and formed their characters with the aid of a selfobject, they became in a sense, collaborating partners—each according to his own thought—in the vision that human beings should take responsibility for one another, whether parents for their children, teachers for their pupils, or simply one person for another. When the teacher becomes a selfobject for the pupil, he engenders a feeling of belonging, first to the teacher, then to other pupils and school, and broadens this feeling of belonging to his neighborhood, the culture and values of his society and beyond.


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Chaim Aharonson is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst and his main focus is on pupil – teacher relationships.