Susannah Temple, Giles Barrow, Julie Leoni and Trudi Newton describe how teachers can use the principles of transactional analysis (TA) to build relationships that stimulate learning.

Being real

For some time now, our education system has been in thrall to a doctrine that education is about the transfer of officially-approved knowledge through officially-mandated teaching methods. As a result, teacher training focuses more and more on major learning objectives and assessment for learning rather than on how people develop, communicate, learn and make sense of things.

Research, however, shows that young people like their teachers to be ‘real’; to be people who can build warm relationships and model how to learn; who acknowledge that they make mistakes as well as show competence. This stance makes it more likely that students will take risks and be open about what makes it possible for them to learn even better.


The congruence that comes from integrity is a vital ingredient for building positive relationships professionally, but how do we manage to stay real amidst the pressures of daily school life? More specifically, how can we:

  • stay centred
  • maintain awareness
  • respond well under stress
  • get out of difficulties
  • put things right
  • build and rebuild relationships.

As the frosty doctrines of the past two decades start to thaw, giving way to recognition that real learning only happens through the relationships that managers, teachers, other school staff and students have with their peers as well as each others, it becomes more important that we find practical ways to turn theories of human relating into dynamic, rich and meaningful strategies for learning within our schools.

Transactional analysis

An increasing number of teachers and school managers are finding that the principles of transactional analysis (TA) provide new ways of thinking about how to provide the sort of school and classroom leadership that enhances student motivation and achievement.

It was with this in mind, that we organised the Get Real event in the summer of 2006 to explore how the qualities and characteristics of positive leadership in the classroom could be developed using concepts from transactional analysis, and how these related to the development of a whole-school strategy for developing emotional literacy.


We wanted to model the idea that the richest experiences of learning happen through collaborative conversations in which knowledge is co-created. We needed to do that with participants at the event, while also ensuring they would have something clear enough to report back to their colleagues a few days later, particularly if they had been ‘sent’. This meant designing a conference which demonstrated what we were talking about – emotionally literate teaching and learning – rather than just talking about it.

Using TA

The conference was built around Antidote’s research showing that people are more likely to learn and grow in environments where they feel capable, listened to, accepted, safe and included (CLASI). How, we asked ourselves, could transactional analysis help teachers and other staff to achieve that objective?

We four facilitators worked closely with James Park, Antidote’s director. In sharing a key TA concept with participants, each invited active involvement in the process so that everyone could have personal experience of using the ideas, with opportunities for discussion. This meant working spontaneously and collaboratively, using each unfolding situation as a chance to develop people’s understanding of the concepts and the process. It was exciting to see people slowly realise that we were all involved in shaping the workshop learning.

Transactional analysis is a practical approach to changing the way we think, feel and behave. It is a tradition with a rich experience of communicating basic ideas about individual and group functioning, so that participants can make use of them to manage their relationships with each other.

Building relationships

In putting on the conference, we wanted to convince people that working to build authentic relationships in a school setting was not only worth whatever ‘risk’ might be involved, but that taking such a risk would help them to do their job even better. We also wanted to offer people some practical strategies for managing that risk.


The first of these was the idea that in any setting – be it a lesson or a conference – the people in charge need to negotiate a contract with the participants. If people are to take responsibility for their learning, they have to be given opportunities to:

  • review the reasons why they have come
  • declare their assent to what they are being offered or asked to do
  • achieve clarity about the parameters around that process.

By clarifying at the beginning the expectations of Antidote, the facilitators and the participants, we feel that we set the scene for effective learning to happen.

The six key contracting principles

  • Procedural – don’t underestimate the procedural details.
  • Professional – check out that all partners are able to participate and deliver, professionally, emotionally and in terms of time.
  • Purpose – be explicit about who is pulling the strings and why a contract is needed in the first place.
  • Process – clarify roles and responsibilities – don’t assume people know who does what.
  • Psychological – pre-empt relapses – ask the sabotage questions.
  • Physis – identify how partners have opportunities to grow through the work.

What contracting achieves


  • Procedural establishes clarity and avoids misunderstandings.
  • Professional implies delivering within limits of competency.


  • Purpose emphasis that the colleague can achieve.
  • Process establishes clarity about roles and responsibilities.


  • Psychological dimensions are made explicit.
  • Physis acknowledges the wider context in which the colleague operates.

Windows on the world

A fundamental belief in transactional analysis is that everyone is capable of acting in a positive spirit. They can learn, adapt and solve problems. When they are treated in a positive way, they are more likely to learn, adapt and solve problems. Their enhanced responsiveness to others is what enables them to change and grow.

At the conference, we worked with this idea by looking at how it felt to be in a space where one or both parties felt negatively, either about themselves, other people or both. Exploring the associated feelings helped participants to feel more connected to each other. It also stimulated thinking about how the experience of being in negative space – because either party feels ‘not OK’ – can undermine confidence, concentration and motivation.

What emerged was just how crippling it can be to operate from a position that is dismissive either of oneself or of another person. Energy that could be used to generate learning is diverted to putting people down, describing oneself as a victim or communicating despair. We discussed what is needed for a relationship to stay in the ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ part of the quadrant.

Learning scripts

Our beliefs about ourselves are expressed in ‘lifescripts’ that go on to shape the way we respond to others. When we are young, we decide how we are going to be in the world on the basis of the way we are treated by the important people in our lives.

A child who is told ‘You don’t know what you are talking about,’ when she has an original idea, may conclude that it is not worth thinking. TA founder Eric Berne described messages such as ‘don’t succeed’ or ‘don’t be important’ as ‘injunctions’. The need to be countered by ‘permissions’ – to think, feel, do things, succeed, be important, belong, and be yourself.
These lifescripts clearly have a powerful influence on our attitude to learning. If these permissions have not been given to us in childhood, we may not believe that we can learn, grow and change. We need to become more aware of our scripts is if we are to change them.

So that learning can happen

  • Everyone learns best when they can relate new information to their own experience.
  • We each have our individual preferences for how we learn.
  • Our learning process will be influenced by our previous experience, and the attitudes we have acquired as a result.
  • The way in which teachers and students relate in the classroom affects learning.
  • Strategies for making learning more effective can be learned through reflective practice.


Becoming more aware of our lifescripts involves understanding how they were shaped by our experience, and through that finding different ways of telling our story.

At the conference, we used storyboards as a way of recounting to each other what we had learned from the event. A storyboard is a series of ‘boxes’, one for each of the nine questions below. These are laid out on a large sheet of paper, which can be filled with drawing, symbols or words. Using a storyboard is a great way into storytelling for those who claim they can’t tell stories. It provides an effective ‘scaffold’ for generating story and can be used for autobiographical work with children and young people.
The individual building a storyboard is asked to tell the story by asking a series of key questions:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What is the main mission/task for our main character?
  • Who or what can help in this task?
  • What are the obstacles in the way?
  • What prevents the task from being achieved?
  • How does the main character go about overcoming the obstacle?
  • What is the outcome?
  • What is the landscape of the story – where does it take place?
  • What type of dwelling does our character live in?
  • What learning takes place as a result of the story?

Sessions can be spent on the whole storyboard, or on any individual element within it. It isn’t necessary always to begin at the beginning. Sometimes it may be more appropriate to start with a different element.


To be leaders for learning, promoting motivation and achievement, teachers need attitudes and beliefs that will help them relate positively to their students. For instance, they need to believe in students’ potential for success and their own capacity to make a positive difference.

At the conference, Susannah described how her functional fluency model (first described in Emotional Literacy Update, issue 4) puts emphasis on positive ways of being in charge and using authority, helping teachers to learn more ways to empower and care for their students so that they become more self-confident and more self-disciplined.

As Susannah went on to argue in issue 20, it is ‘vital to get away from the argument over whether it is better to be ‘harder’ or ‘softer’ on students, and realise that the key issue is how to exert authority that is both strict and kind, as well as being always respectful.’ Teachers, she said, need to be themselves as people in the classroom, at the same time as being authority figures – only in this way can they foster the creativity and ingenuity needed to solve problems, and find ways to encourage a spirit of cooperation and responsibility in the classroom.

Questions about leadership

  • How do I behave?
  • How do I empower people and help them do well?
  • How do I keep track of the flow of events and situations so that I can choose how to handle things and respond appropriately to people?
  • How do I come across as a person?

Find out more at course3.html