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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021



Parallel Papers Session 2
Friday 5 July 3.30pm-4.45 pm, EEST
Paper Code: PP9

From Milkshakes to Menzies-Lyth: A taste of proposed PhD research into the efficacy of reflective practice as a containing function for teachers in Australia.

Presenter: Kristina Karlsson

In Australia, the United States and Great Britain, school systems and the teaching profession are under considerable stress. This stress is having a negative effect on teacher mental health, teacher efficacy and the sustainability of the teaching profession. The Australian Government reports that ‘only half of those who commence a teaching degree manage to complete it. Among the graduates, 20% opt to leave the professional within three years of starting their teaching journey (Australian Government 2023).’ The flow-on effects impact student engagement and achievement, and relationships between peers, students and school cohesion (Heffernan et al. 2022, p. 196).

There is a real interest in Australia in solving the problems of teacher stress, burnout and the current teacher shortage. Common ‘mainstream’ responses include reducing teacher workload, boosting the appreciation of teachers and respect for the teaching profession, and mentoring and professional education. Few, if any, responses are informed from psychoanalytic or systems psychodynamic perspectives.

This paper introduces proposed PhD research into the efficacy of systems psychodynamic group reflective practice as a containing function (Bion 1970) to support teachers in their ‘working through’ of the discontent in themselves, their classrooms and school systems. The research is expected to contribute to current knowledge about how the institution of the school is used unconsciously by its members ‘ as a ‘social defence’ (Jaques 1953) so as to contain those unconscious aspects that would otherwise overwhelm them with anxiety. In this regard, I will draw on the work of Jaques (1953), Menzies Lyth (1959/1988, 1989) and that of other practitioner researchers to explore the contemporary relevance of the social defence paradigm (Armstrong and Rustin 2015). The research will ask is the ‘defences against anxiety’ paradigm still relevant?

The paper will share the origin story of the research, the research paradigm (subjectivist, critical theory), research questions and proposed methods. The paper will also share the author’s experience of providing regular group reflective space for a small group of primary school teachers as preliminary insights into the research question, and place those insights within the framework of the research. The paper will argue that group reflective practice helped these teachers build connection to their peers, themselves and a greater awareness of the school system and its limitations.

The session aims are to share the goals of this research, share the author’s insights from her professional practice, and invite attendees to share their reflections, questions and associations through a group dialogue.

Biographical Summary

Kristina Karlsson is a settler Australian and lives in Naarm/Melbourne. She is a PhD candidate at the National Institute of Organisation Dynamics Australia (NIODA) studying the efficacy of systems psychodynamic reflective practice as a containing function to support teachers of children. Her business Outside In offers professional supervision, coaching and consulting to clients across Australia. In 2019 she was awarded the ISPSO Bridger Award for her paper ‘From hero to partner in emergency management in Australia’, presented at the 2018 Dublin Annual Meeting.


Armstrong, D., Rustin, M. (Eds.) (2015). Social Defences against Anxiety: Explorations in a Paradigm, The Tavistock clinic series, Karnac: London.
Australian Government Department of Education. (2023). Be that teacher, National Campaign, Australian Government, viewed 4 December 2023, .
Bion, W. (1970). Attention and Interpretation, Karnac: London & New York.
Heffernan, A., Bright, D., Kim, M., Longmuir, F., Magyar, B. (2022). ‘“I cannot sustain the workload and the emotional toll”: Reasons behind Australian teachers’ intentions to leave the profession’, Australian Journal of Education, 66(2), 196–209, Viewed 29 September 2023,
Jaques, E. (1953). ‘On the Dynamics of Social Structure: A Contribution to the Psychoanalytical Study of Social Phenomena Deriving from the Views of Melanie Klein’, Human Relations, 6, 3–24.
Menzies Lyth, I. (1988). Containing Anxiety in Institutions: Selected Essays, Free Association Books: London.