Susannah Temple uses concepts from transactional analysis to highlight an important psychological issue for teachers in developing their own identity as effective practitioners

If teachers are to build warm and empowering relationships with their students, they need a high degree of maturity to help them:

  • show compassion and understanding
  • carry authority so that everyone benefits
  • demonstrate assertive friendliness
  • use their own ingenuity and creativity.

This is important because teachers are not only in charge of their students’ classroom experience, they are also models for students who are learning all the time through experience and example.

Student teachers’ own classroom history

Since most people have school experiences as children, student teachers will be drawing on their experience of being a child in school (child ego state), and of what their teachers modelled as parent-type figures (parent ego state). For some people, both of these types of experience will have been mainly positive and are therefore easy to integrate into their professional self (adult ego state). Where the experiences were more negative and traumatic, they are likely to continue exerting an influence in the present until they have been recognised, worked through and learned from. People who enter teacher training, particularly when they are in their late teens, will probably be doing so with many of these parent and child ego states as yet unintegrated, and therefore likely to be activated in moments of stress. Until they achieve the necessary adult integration, they will be liable in the professional situation to be triggered out of adult into replaying material from parent or child.


Mrs X, a secondary maths teacher, was constantly disorganised and ineffective in her classroom. In a transactional analysis discussion group, she slowly realised that she largely replayed an ineffectual teacher from her school days. It seemed to her somehow ‘disloyal’ to act powerfully and assertively in the classroom. As she made the connections, she was motivated to set expectations and limits for her pupils and to become increasingly ‘functionally fluent’, by using more structuring and accounting behaviours. By contrast, Mr Y had a punitive attitude towards children who made mistakes. He used ridicule and sarcasm as tools for correction. Even his colleagues cringed at his interventions. It was clear that he was re-enacting the trauma of his childhood as a perpetrator. Mr Y resisted the encouragement to adopt new ways. After some time he took an early retirement on grounds of ill health.

Increasing awareness

Ideally the ongoing process of increasing awareness should take place in a supportive, collaborative training group, using experiential exercises and time for reflection and discussion. The educators involved in this process need to track the development of their own beliefs about education and their role in it as an adult by examining their personal journey through childhood, schooling, college and professional situations. Questions about the past, and awareness of the reasons for the decisions made, throw light on the range of both positive and negative motivations for becoming a teacher. Questions about the future illuminate the personal rationale for professional decision making in the present.

An exercise

  • Individually. Bring to mind a favourite teacher from your past. Jot down words to describe the person. Add a note about the most important things that you learned from her or him.
  • In pairs. Share your memories and reflections, comparing the two teachers and your learnings.
  • Whole group. Gather some of the adjectives used to describe these people. What do we learn from this?
  • Pairs again. Discuss why you chose these people. How effective were they? What did they model? What messages did they give?
  • Individually. How do these teachers feature in your parent, adult and child ego states?
  • Concluding discussion. Focus on how those experiences with past teachers may still be affecting your professional practice in the present.

This exercise often illuminates teachers’ practice in surprising ways. For instance, John, a primary teacher working with children with learning difficulties, had hero-worshipped a teacher he had as a young adolescent. He knew he had chosen his career as a result of this influence. What he did not realise until he did this exercise was how seriously he had limited himself professionally by obeying two injunctions he had incorporated from this revered teacher: ‘Don’t outshine me!’ and ‘Don’t leave me!’. John identified his reluctance to apply for promotion and thus acquire management status as his way of “staying with” his hero, who, John realised, had had a strong anti-authority attitude. This was the start for John of reassessing himself and his career as a teacher, and as a result opening up new possibilities for himself. Awareness and self-understanding are the keys to the sort of teacher development that promotes emotional literacy and professional effectiveness.

Further information

Barrow, G Bradshaw, E and Newton, T (2001) Improving Behaviour and Raising Self-Esteem in the Classroom, London, David Fulton Publishers.

Tudor, K Ed (2008) The Adult is Parent to the Child, Lyme Regis, Russell House Publishing.