Transference in the Teaching Life

by Moira Kelly, President, EXPLO

Back in the ‘90s, when David Torcoletti and I were beginning our school leadership roles at Northfield Mount Hermon School, we read Ned Hallowell’s “Who Do They Think You Are? Transference in the Teaching Life,” a chapter from Finding the Heart of the Child: Essays on Children, Families, and Schools.

The piece confirmed what we were finding to be true: in management, it’s impossible to make everyone happy — particularly if you are serious about doing what you think is right. Freud’s notion of transference – that people will often project feelings onto a leader that come from that person’s past, and do not have very much to do with the person on whom they are projecting these feelings — is something all leaders confront. School Heads, department heads and other school leaders are subject to the transference from their faculty and staff, and while they can’t stop that process, gaining some perspective on it, and recognizing how ubiquitous the process can be is helpful as one suffers the slings and arrows of outsized reactions to one’s leadership.

Since then, we have both used the piece as reading for leadership trainings we’ve run, recommending it to new administrators, deans, division heads, heads of school, and trustees. The piece was written almost 30 years ago and the characters are of their time, but the underlying notion that leading is a challenge fraught with peril —and sometimes joy — is still true today.

The piece is the story of the fictional Marianne Constant, a retiring head of school, and the scene is her retirement party. The action moves from one party attendee to another, examining their thoughts and feelings about Marianne, and how each has a very different view of the same woman, ranging from the best thing to have ever happened to the school to the worst.

In this past months of leading in crisis – through a pandemic, in the midst of a nationwide racial reckoning, through sometimes brutal financial conditions —the story of Marianne Constant has been one I’ve recommended over and over. Sometimes you just need to be reminded it’s not all about you. Realizing that human beings transfer all sorts of things onto others can be helpful as we try to move forward, build communities, and live lives in these complex institutions we call schools.


Many thanks to Ned for allowing us to share his work and to NAIS for allowing us to republish.