Google “calling the teacher ‘mom,’” and you will find a deluge of pained or embarrassed faces across various memes. This shared humor is a prime example of transference. Transference is a fundamental principle of psychotherapy, which occurs when a person unconsciously projects attitudes and feelings from past relationships into the present moment (Britzman and Pitt 1996). Although identified with therapy, transference shapes many teaching elements, including how and why educators teach (Weiss 2022) and how we respond and listen to students (Baumlin and Weaver 2000). Even Freud noted the presence of transference in teaching, remarking how “these men [the teachers] became our substitute fathers . . . We transferred to them the respect and expectations attaching to the omniscient father of our childhood, and then we began to treat them as we treated our own fathers at home” (Freud 1914, 242–4; Weiss 2022).
Although rarely discussed in the context of a college classroom, transference can be a valuable framework for building empathy for our students. Our students have long histories and full lives before they enter our classrooms. Students entering our classes have a history of learning through a pandemic, witnessing a significant climate crisis, and facing vitriolic political and social instability. Nearly three out of four college students report moderate or severe psychological distress (American College Health Association 2022). Transference reminds us to consider how students’ past experiences influence the current classroom—as well as reflect on our own past experiences. Often, we believe that students’ reactions of engagement, disengagement, anger, or joy in a class reflect the current moment fully under our control—but prior experience and unconscious life are likely affecting the moment as well.
Transference can be a particularly helpful framework for educators navigating moments of conflict or confusion with students. For example, I was recently working with a young student struggling to develop a clear thesis for an essay prompt. I directed them to some of the thesis development worksheets for the class, but they were clearly getting frustrated at not being able to easily or quickly develop a thesis. Sensing this frustration, I tried to identify strategies the student could use to develop a thesis. The student grew increasingly frustrated and ultimately blurted, “I feel like you are withholding the answer! Just tell me what my thesis should be!” At that moment, I, too, felt annoyed! I assumed the student was waiting for me to spoon-feed them the answer and avoid work when I was desperately trying to get them to think critically and independently. But viewing this moment through a transference frame allows for more empathy toward the student. Upon reflection, I considered that this experience may have triggered memories of an authority figure not soothing or supporting them when they felt helpless. After this rupture, the student and I found repair, and I later discovered that the student’s maternal figure had relapsed from a gambling addiction during the semester. When struggling to independently find a thesis statement, the student transferred feelings of frustration at being independent from his personal life into the classroom.
There was little I could do to change the student’s feelings, but acknowledging the role of transference in this moment increased my empathy and acceptance of the rupture. To cope with these experiences, educators can invest in understanding their own emotional self-understanding (Weiss 2022). Keeping a teaching journal to track feelings or experiences that require reflection or developing a network of close educators to reflect with can allow for this form of structured self-reflection.
In psychodynamic psychotherapy, transference is a valuable part of the therapeutic process. Recognizing that “the mother is in the room” and developing a healthy relationship with the therapist as a pseudo-mother can be healing. Within the classroom, we are not our students’ therapists. Yet we can use the psychotherapeutic frame of transference within our teaching. Transference reminds us how limited our power is when the past influences the current classroom and simultaneously reminds us that we can help “repair” some of their experience in education through positive experiences and relationship building.
American College Health Association. 2002. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment III: Reference Group Executive Summary Fall 2021. Silver Spring, MD: American College Health Association.
Baumlin, James S., and Margaret E. Weaver. 2000. “Teaching, Classroom Authority, and the Psychology of Transference.” The Journal of General Education 49 (2): 75–87.
Britzman, Deborah P., and Alice J. Pitt. 1996. “Pedagogy and Transference: Casting the Past of Learning into the Presence of Teaching.“ Theory into Practice 35 (2): 117–23.
Weiss, Stephen. 2002. “How Teachers’ Autobiographies Influence Their Responses to Children's Behaviors: The Psychodynamic Concept of Transference in Classroom Life. Part II.” Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties 7 (2): 109–27.
Shannon McQueen, PhD, is an assistant professor of political science at West Chester University. Her pedagogy research focuses on internships, sense of belonging, and dialogue across difference in the classroom.