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Why Do Teachers Feel Guilty Catching Students Misbehaving? With Dr Rachel Hannam

Why Do Teachers Feel Guilty Catching Students Misbehaving? With Dr Rachel Hannam

This week on the podcast I spoke with Dr Rachel Hannam of North Brisbane Psychologists about the guilt that teachers can feel when they see a student misbehaving.

We discussed reasons for feeling this guilt, and how we can redirect that into something more constructive and positive for both teacher and student.

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Show Notes

Dr Rachel Hannam is the Clinical Director of North Brisbane Psychologists and an ex-teacher herself. She completed a PhD in teacher burnout, before turning her focus to psychology. Today she leads a team who work with teachers (as well as other professionals, families, individuals, and couples) to help them through.

You can follow North Brisbane Psychologists on Facebook – they run a weekly live session to discuss pertinent topics in depth, and also have a wealth of actually helpful content they share daily. They also have their own YouTube channel, for video content.


Emily: Welcome, Rachel, how are you?

Dr Rachel Hannam: Hi, Emily. Thank you. Yeah, I’m doing really well today. how are you?

Emily: I’m excellent. Thank you so much for agreeing to be here today.

Dr Rachel Hannam: My pleasure.

Emily: Here is the story from the staffroom, and I know you are the perfect person to help navigate this topic. So I had a beginning teacher in my staff room and I was a mentor to her. She came in from playground duty one day and she was quite concerned because she’d caught a student doing the wrong thing.

She asked about the reporting process for that type of misbehavior. So we went through the steps and she was fine with that side of things. But I could tell that she was still really unsettled. She wasn’t feeling quite sure if she should actually report it, even though she knew that the student was doing the wrong thing.

And then a light bulb went off in my head. She was feeling guilty about catching the student, doing the wrong thing. I was able to recognize that in her because I felt that way myself many, many, many times. So you see a student doing the wrong thing, and my immediate gut reaction is to look away. To, you know, release that sort of situation and ignore it.

Dr Rachel Hannam: Yeah, Cause confronting it is uncomfortable.

Emily: Very uncomfortable. But this beginning teacher, she just looked so relieved when I was able to give her that name for that, for feeling guilty. And that me as a bit of a veteran teacher, I have those same feelings about those same situations as well. So I was wondering if you could give a bit of an explanation of what guilt is and why do we feel guilty when we’re catching our students doing the wrong thing?

Dr Rachel Hannam: Well, I mean, traditionally guilt is defined as, you know, a bad feeling, a disappointed feeling, uncomfortable feeling in response to a perception that we’ve done the wrong thing, but we can also experience emotions vicariously. So if someone else is feeling stress, we can feel stressed. If someone else is guilty, like this student, then we can sort of catch emotions.

And so there could be an element of the student is guilty and I’m feeling some of what they’re feeling. This teacher’s probably quite an empathic person, I would And we called this vicarious, secondary stress in psychology. So we, you know, if someone else is stressed, we can feel stressed. If someone else is sad, we can feel sad. And if the student’s now been busted doing the wrong thing and feels guilty, then we may feel some of that on their behalf. I wonder also though, if the other thing that goes on for teachers in this kind of situation, is that, especially if they’re empathic, they know that kids do what kids do. And this student was just being an innocent kid. We all did the wrong thing at times growing up. And so on the one hand there’s rules and the students breaking the rule, written or unwritten rule. And on the other hand, the teacher knows this is just kids being kids, you know?

I mean, like when I work with adults who are going back to process childhood distress or trauma, I get them to sort of see themselves as innocent. Like you’re just a kid being kid. Okay. So maybe you were doing the wrong thing, but you were just a kid being a kid.

And I think we all have an intuitive sense, but there is a certain quality of innocence, even in those more difficult students, there’s a reason why they do what they do. There’s a reason why they behave that way. And I guess if we have empathy, we sense that their innocence, their naivety as young people. And so we don’t want to punish them, and make them feel bad.

On the other hand, there is rules. There have to be rules, they’re um, parameters within which behavior is acceptable or not. So it really throws up a conundrum for these kinds of tensions.

Emily: Yeah. So do you think a bit of it comes from, like you just said, you know, we have to follow the rules and the processes, but we know that the student is acting quite normally for a teenager. And how do you think shame would play into this?

Like sometimes if I catch a student doing the wrong thing, I feel ashamed and I don’t know if it’s, I feel ashamed for them or I feel ashamed for myself having caught them.

Dr Rachel Hannam: Yeah. All of the above can be true at the same time. Cause things in our psyche, what we call multi-variant, it’s usually multiple facets of elements going on in our experience and our reactions. I mean, we can all remember being kids. Um, most of us would, would’ve got in trouble as a kid or a teenager at some point, and maybe even felt a sense of injustice or, a sense of shame . Not just I’ve done the wrong thing, but you know, I’m in the wrong, I’m bad. I’m wrong. I’m defective and in some way. And that’s the difference between shame and guilt for people who aren’t fully across this. Is guilt says I did the wrong thing and shame says you are not good enough, you are wrong in some way as a person, I did a bad thing vs I am bad. And shame is an emotion we all have unless way a complete sociopath. So I often say to my clients, okay, you have shame. Congratulations. You not a sociopath. That’s good to know.

Emily: That’s a good thing.

Dr Rachel Hannam: That’s right. Would you like that in writing?

Um, so, you know, it’s a good sign that we have shame. It’s a very difficult emotion though, as we all are aware, we can feel shame on behalf of other people. It’s contagious and it can trigger our own unprocessed shame from earlier in our lives. When. You know, we felt like we were in trouble and we were small and unimportant and shame comes from not feeling seen.

And this is the conundrum in, in schools, in any large organization. If there isn’t the time to fully attune to every child, every teenager, and every moment there just isn’t enough time in the day. And the rules kind of contain the social, emotional environment and behavioral environment of the school.

And yet we all long to be seen. You know, if I’ve acted badly, underneath that behavior is a hidden reasonableness. Like there’s always a reason why I’ve acted in the way I have, multiple reasons coming together to produce that behavior. Um, and when we don’t feel like we have been understood, we don’t feel seen and heard, you know, then we end up feeling shame. Whereas if, if a teacher or any other human being comes to our side and says, why did you do that? Help me understand, you know, it’s against the rules, but I’m really curious to know like, what’s going on for you, then that will produce guilt. More likely to produce guilt that the other person, the student says, uh, you know, I’m really sorry.

Guilt produces apologies. Whereas shame produces either withdrawal or defensiveness and aggression.

Emily: That could result in like further misbehavior.

Dr Rachel Hannam: Exactly exactly. Or the students shutting down feeling really bad, getting a bit depressed, you know, it can sort of either turn inwards or turn outwards, and more misbehavior.

Whereas if we can produce guilt in the other person through empathy, and sort of reminding them of the rules, then the guilt means they’re more likely to learn. They’re more likely to apologize, all of the more adaptive behaviors. And I’m aware having been a teacher myself, it just, isn’t the time in the day to always tune in to every student every time they do the whole thing and kind of really listening and understand what’s going on for them, you just can’t do that.

That’s not realistic. So teachers really are in a bit of a dilemma in these moments.

Emily: So do you think, part of the shame that the teacher might be feeling on behalf of the student is a bit of a reflection of shame that they themselves has felt perhaps as a student also getting in trouble.

Dr Rachel Hannam: Yeah, and that can be an accumulative effect over the life span. So we’ve got our unconscious shame from earlier in our lives. And I happen to know cause I can remember personally, and I’ve got a lot of clients who are teachers. It’s very easy for a teacher to feel, uh, some shame about their own competency as a teacher.

You know, to feel like, oh, I’m not a good enough teacher. If I was a better teacher, this student wouldn’t be acting this way in front of me. If I was a better teacher, the student wouldn’t have failed this assessment. If I was a better teacher, blah, blah, blah. You know, it’s very easy to feel down on yourself as a teacher.

Would that be true?

Emily: Yeah, definitely. So I’m hearing that it can be sort of a compounding effect of you catching the student, doing the wrong thing, which makes you feel bad for them feeling bad, but then also bad for yourself for having let this behavior occur. Even if it was completely out of your control.

Dr Rachel Hannam: Right. And even in the moment you might be thinking, am I doing the right thing? Am I handling this well? Am I being too hard? Am I being too soft? You know, like that, that shame stuff can come up in an instant.

Emily: So if us teachers do catch a student doing the wrong thing and we’re feeling all of these feelings and perhaps the students are feeling all of these feelings, how do you think that links into the school procedures and the school rules? And how does that leave room for compassion and understanding on top of the need to correct misbehavior?

Dr Rachel Hannam: I think it is possible to display compassionate correction. And it’s a fine line, you know, because traditionally the educational system was heavy on punishment. You only have to talk to your parents or grandparents about how they experienced school to know that there was still physical punishment until not that long ago.

And then that stopped, but now there’s still social and emotional punishment that goes on in our culture more broadly. And in education, there’s still remnants of this where we shame students, we give them the message that they’re bad or they’re naughty or they’re wrong in some way. but a lot of teachers don’t want to be doing this.

They might be kind of caught up in the vestiges of the cultural, tendency towards shame and punishment. And yet a lot of younger teachers just think, I don’t want to do that to students. I want to be a compassionate teacher. And so. It is really tricky. So first of all, I want to just say my heart always goes out to teachers because you know, like there’s vestiges of punitiveness and punishment in a system, you know, consequences and all of that, which have their place.

I mean, you know, like natural consequences occur in life all the time. And students need to kind of get with the program on this. On the other hand, where’s the compassion. And so compassionate correction is a term that I sometimes use. And I think it’s sometimes as simple as you can say to a student, mate I know that you thought that was a good idea at the time. There’s probably reasons why you did what you did and you know, and is a great word.

Emily: ‘And’ instead of ‘but’.

Dr Rachel Hannam: And Instead of, but.

you don’t want to minimize what you’ve just said. If you want to show some compassion and say, look, I get it. You know, you’re feeling angry. You’re feeling frustrated. You may be feeling lonely.

Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed. I get it. And we have these rules. This is, there’s a rule around this and we have these rules for a reason. And so, you know, we’ve got to do something about this. You know, you can’t keep doing that. We can’t just let it go. So to me, that’s one way of doing compassionate correction is sort of, you know, even though I get that you’re struggling, cause behavior is just a representation often of an emotional struggle that the student is having. Even though you’re struggling. There are these rules, so we can hold the tension of those seemingly opposite things. that we don’t want to shame students. We want to show them compassion and we’ve got to,

Emily: Follow the rules.

Dr Rachel Hannam: Follow the rules.

And the procedures around behavior management. Like it does seem like they’re in opposition to each other, these two things, And yet we need to hold all of that somehow.

Emily: And I wonder if particularly, um, like what you said before, about beginning teachers coming through, they’re younger, society is different. The way we approach behaviors is different. I wonder if some of this shift in the way that we’re approaching our own emotions we’re wanting to see that flow on effect to our students.

We want to accept their developmentally appropriate behaviors, but the system doesn’t necessarily allow for that. Even though we want to see them, we want the students to know that we see them and we understand, but a lot of the time we can’t because of the rules and procedures. And like you said, just the time in the day, we don’t have half an hour to sit and have a chat.

Dr Rachel Hannam: Yeah. Look if I was in charge of the education system, there’s so many changes that I would make, but we’ve got to deal with the realities and that’s absolutely right. There isn’t the time in the day, the human resources don’t stretch far enough in most schools to really dive deep with every student about why they are behaving the way they are.

And yet sometimes just acknowledging the emotions that might be behind that behavior and just seeing behavior as an attempt to meet a need. I think if there’s a couple of things I wish teachers knew, that I wish everybody knew in our culture, but that is sort of a basic tenant of psychology, which is that all human behavior is an attempt to meet some kind of need.

And usually it’s a psychological social need, you know, so students can behave very badly and ironically the need they’re trying to meet is to be accepted, to be seen and to be understood. And it doesn’t always [00:16:00] take a long time. Sometimes it does but sometimes you can say, Hey, I get it. I see you. I see you’re frustrated. I can understand. Things are hard to you right now. You’re overwhelmed. You’re angry. You’re stressed, just naming a feeling for a student can help them feel like you see them a little bit and keeping open-minded and curious about what need is this kid trying to meet? You know, are they trying to have a sense of belonging? Are they trying to be seen because they feel invisible half the time. We all can relate to those unmet needs because we all have them. And even just naming them, just acknowledging them to a student can help them feel less shame. It’s not their character. They’re just trying to get a need met, and the rules still apply to everyone.

And the rules are there to protect, the rules are there to meet a need as well. They’re there to meet needs for protection, equality, support, et cetera. So I think taking a needs based approach, really thinking about the psychological needs that exist within a group setting. So the whole body of students and teachers, and then the individual needs and all of life when there’s tension and conflict is about trying to sort of hold and balance and understand these underlying needs that sit behind the behavior.

Does that make.

Emily: It does. And so the needs of our students are obviously going to be quite different to our own needs as adults. And I wonder if there is a need for more psychological training in teacher education so that, you know, there’s a lot of behavior management training that is very reactive rather than responsive.

Dr Rachel Hannam: Yes.

Emily: So I’m feeling like there’s, there’s definitely a need for more understanding of psychological developmental stages, acceptable behavior within the different age groups.

Dr Rachel Hannam: Yeah, and I take a needs based approach when I do mediation in workplaces, and when I work with my clients, when I do couples work. If all human behavior’s an attempt to meet a need, then taking a needs based approach can be very compassionate, but also very assertive. Like, you know, I see you. I get what you’re trying to do here.

It’s not effective. Like a lot of our behavior is a tragic attempt to meet a need because, you know, we want to be seen and heard. And so maybe we’re aggressive and that has the opposite effect. So it’s a tragic attempt to meet a need, but there’s still, the driver is still a need. And if that need is wholly unconscious, Then it will be a tragic attempt to meet a need.

We do a much better job of getting our needs met, wen our needs are conscious and language helps us make things conscious. So if we had the language to understand all of the human needs and the unmet needs of our students, then we could name them and at least make them conscious. Even if we can’t always get what we want.

And yeah. So I agree with you. I’d love every teacher to get training in needs based awareness and communication so that they could help students make their needs conscious. And while teachers and students do have some different needs, one need that they have in common is competence. Like one of the most shaming things for both students and teachers is a perception, self perception that I’m not competent.

That feels terrible. Right? If you think that you’re not competent and it’s a terrible feeling for a student as well. You know how students feel when they think are failing.

Emily: Especially in front of their peers.

Dr Rachel Hannam: Oh, whether you’re a teacher or a student thinking that you look incompetent in front of your peers is a really awful feeling.

So, I mean, That’s one need that we can relate to. Nobody wants to feel incompetent, ineffective out of their depth. It’s a very shaming kind of experience. And so just keeping these kinds of needs in conscious awareness means that we can have conversations at that level of feelings and needs, which sit underneath the behavior rather than just focusing on behavior, because students can very much interpret that as I’m not good enough, there’s something wrong with me and I feel kind of defective.

And that makes their behavior worse in the long run. And it usually isn’t good for academic learning and so on. So yeah, I wish that teachers all knew that we’re all just trying to get at needs met. Staying open to what’s going on in that regard really, really, might help us navigate this

Emily: So do you think that then links back to this beginning teacher feeling their own guilt of catching the student, doing the wrong thing. So perhaps maybe part of them not wanting to report was not about the student at all. It’s about them feeling like, well, for some reason I let this happen somehow it’s happened under my watch and therefore I’m a bad teacher.

I’m the one who’s in the wrong.

Dr Rachel Hannam: I think you’re absolutely onto something there. I remember being a beginning teacher and having this inflated kind of fantasy of how, you know, I wanted to be this amazing teacher and there’s a delusional quality to that, which means that you can easily think that anything that happens under your watch is somehow a reflection of you. Even when it’s not, right. It can feel as if it’s a reflection on your in competency or your lack of power to, you know, influence students positively or whatever. And it’s actually delusional because we just don’t have that much control and that much power, but in the beginning, because people want to do such a good job and we value competency so much, the trick of the mind is to think that anything that happens under my watch is somehow related to my ability, or my personality or something. And so, yeah, I think that there is some shame in the teacher having to go to a colleague or the principal and say, You know, this is what’s happened under my watch.

It’s the same for us in psychology. And if we have had a client who has not improved under our care, it doesn’t feel good to admit that to a colleague. So we all suffer from delusions of grandeur. And that’s another thing I wish teachers knew particularly early career teachers.

I wish someone had said it to me as explicitly, as I’m about to say it now, which is that you’re working in an overwhelming work environment. Schools are overwhelming place. Like schools and hospitals, I’ve worked in both as a consultant psychologist. They’re overwhelming places and you are one person and any delusions that you might have that you’re going to be perfect and that you’re going to be amazing and you’re going to be able to handle every situation with poise and brilliance and aplomb, like, get rid of that right now. You can only do your best. There are a lot of restrictions. And a big gap between what you wish you could do and what you can actually do.

And so go easy on yourself. I see a lot of early career teachers who are very hard on themselves. Well, they come into my office and tell me they’re very hard on themselves. You as their colleague might not realize just how hard they are. But they’re perfectionistic. They expect so much. They expect that, you know, everybody should like them and that should always do everything really, really well.

And I wish that teachers knew they do a very hard job. Go easy on yourself. There’s lots of things you can do, but there’s lots of things out of your control and just accept those limitations as quickly as you can so that you don’t out.

Emily: Amazing. Thank you for that message. I think that is definitely something that all teachers need to hear, not just beginning teachers. Everything that you’ve said is ringing bells with me. I can tell you right now, it’s going to be a cause for some self-reflection, as I feel like it should be to everyone who’s listening. Particularly about going easy on yourself. It’s not all in your control, even though it feels like it’s supposed to be.

And we have to remember, particularly, you know, as a high school teacher, you could be teaching up to 150 different students. You can’t possibly be in control of 150 different people, particularly when they’re teenagers .

Dr Rachel Hannam: Yes, you’ve got to be so realistic. If you want to preserve your mental health, it’s a messy, messy job. Well sort of psycho-socially, it’s messy. You’re going to have the most beautiful lesson plans, but psycho-socially, it’s a messy job. Would you agree?

Emily: Yes, a hundred percent the mental load and the emotional load. I think if you haven’t been a teacher yourself, you just cannot possibly understand.

Dr Rachel Hannam: I know I remember. And so go easy on yourself. You’re doing a very hard job, everybody.

Emily: Thank you so much. All right. So where can our listeners find you if they want to learn more about your practice, more about your work, where can we find you?

Dr Rachel Hannam: So we have a very active Facebook page, which is just North Brisbane Psychologists, and we post three times a day or more. I do a live stream every Sunday where we talk about different topics from burnout to emotional intelligence, to addiction all sorts of topics within psychology and therapy, and people can sort of type questions and it’s interactive.

And we have Instagram also North Brisbane Psychologist, and our website is where we have resources and articles that people could look into as well. And our practices. We have two locations on the north side of Brisbane, not surprisingly, given a name in Lutwych and Aspley but we also do sessions on video [00:26:00] if that’s not a convenient location for people to come and see one of our psychologists, we have a fairly large team these days, and I work closely with all of my psychologists in the team. So people can get in touch with us if they wanted to come and see someone in our practice they can use our Facebook page to get in touch with us, if they want to.

Emily: Perfect. All right. Thank you so much, Rachel.


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Photo by Fin MacBrayne on Unsplash


Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys sharing the real and human teacher life, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine.

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