Teachers Taking Responsibility

Responsibility emerges when I recognise that no matter what response arises in me, the response is about my own interior world and is not caused by the students’ (or other people’s) behaviours. In many ways, this reality provides great hope, because it is not within my capacity to resolve the students’ or colleagues’ or parents’ challenging responses, but I have all the resources to understand and take charge of my own responses. Helping the student is a separate issue to resolving my own annoyance and entails creating a safe and supportive relationship for the student to examine his own troubling responses and to take due responsibility for them.

The most common experiences teachers experience are stress, loss of control, irritability, frustration, exhaustion, loss of motivation, illness, absenteeism and burn-out. Each of these responses are opportunities for the teacher to come into a deeper knowing of self and a more enduring self-reliance. The inner sources of teachers’ challenging responses to students are unique to each individual teacher; there are no common causes or solutions. For example, one teacher’s growing sense of frustration with his work may be due to an underlying fear of authority and a deficit in authoritativeness within self, whereas for another it may be an underlying need to be liked by students and an inner alienation from self. In the first instance, the teacher looks to the authority figure (rather than himself) for approval and direction. In other words, what he wants from his School Principal is what he needs to give himself but is in too much fear to assert his own worth in the face of the Principal and the first authority figure, one or both of his parents. What he now requires is the safety and support to develop an authorship of self (the true meaning of the word ‘authority’). When this is not forthcoming the teacher may need to seek a psychotherapeutic relationship which will offer that much needed support.

In the second instance, the teacher who wants to be liked by his students is creatively making his students the substitute source for what he needs to do for himself – love and like self. Again, the source is in childhood and not having experienced being liked and loved by one or both parents. It is highly emotionally threatening for the teacher to assert her likeability and lovability as she dreads re-experiencing the dark experiences of rejection. By bending over backwards for students and feeling frustrated that no matter how hard she tries some students express hostility, she feels threatened and teaching becomes a difficult experience. What she is looking for from students is what she needs to give herself. When she does that, she will perceive students’ hostile responses as being about themselves and whilst remaining clear and definite boundaries around respect for herself, she will offer students an opportunity to examine and resolve the source of their challenging responses. She will not neglect herself in her offering of support to students.

When considering the most common experiences of teachers, possible interpretations are as follows:


  • metaphorically represents emphasis and what the teacher needs to see 
  • pressure and strain to prove self (substitute behaviours) 
  • need to approve of self

Loss of control

  • symbolically represents no inner stronghold
  • pressure to control students (substitute)
  • real challenge is to take control of self


  • metaphorically represents being irritable with self
  • annoyed that students are not conforming (substitute)
  • real challenge is to form his own identity


  • symbolically, no energy for self
  • an avoidance strategy – how can people expect me to work when I’m so exhausted
  • real challenge is to become energised by loving and believing in self

Loss of motivation

  • symbolically, no inner movement
  • looking to others to provide motivation to teach (sometimes, even to love)
  • real challenge is to move in the direction of a deep regard for self and self-reliance


  • symbolically, an inner dis-ease that needs healing
  • provides a substitute way out from the threat of teaching
  • real challenge to discover the inner wellness of the self


  • metaphorically, being absent from relating to self
  • substitute means of saying ‘I’m not coping’
  • real challenge is to become present to one’s sacred self


  • symbolically, the fire within me is virtually extinguished
  • substitute way of saying ‘don’t expect anymore of me’
  • real challenge is to ignite the fire of love and belief in self

Whether it is teachers or students, when they live out their lives from places of fear rather than love, inevitably, challenging responses that threaten the wellbeing of others will emerge. However, it is only when the inner threats to being real and authentic are resolved will the threats to the wellbeing of others disappear. It is important to understand that teachers who are passive, perfectionistic and over-demanding on themselves pose threats to the wellbeing of students as those teachers who are aggressive, cross, irritable, cynical and sarcastic. The more frequent, intense and enduring are teacher’s acting-in or acting-out substitute responses, the more they are stuck in an interior darkness and the greater the threat to students’ wellbeing.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of A Different Kind of Teacher.