Marie Delaney is a specialist communications trainer, Educational Therapist and Teacher. Here she gives us her reflections on the importance of environment and support for teachers in challenging situations.

Marie is an NLP Master Practitioner. She has extensive experience of working with challenging behaviour and young offenders. Her work has included training at DYP, an award winning, Home Office funded  Mentoring and Education programme in Hackney, East London for young offenders and gang members,  as well as running a Behavioural Unit in Essex. She has trained teachers and senior managers in education, social workers, youth workers, probation and police officers in Ireland, the UK , Europe and the US. Her clients have included Youth Offending Teams, Social Services Residential Unit teams, the British Council in Russia, Lithuania, Egypt, Turkey and Poland, as well as IBM and Hewlett Packard in Germany.  She is currently training staff on gardai juvenile diversionary projects in Cork and education staff from secure units for children in care.

Her particular interests are practical communications strategies for dealing with challenging behaviour and young offenders, building rapport in difficult situations, giving effective feedback and teaching to include all learning styles.

I want to help – so why do I sometimes feel like I’m rubbish? Understanding the feelings teachers can have when working in a secure unit

I really wanted to teach in this secure unit, I thought I could really help the young people , but sometimes I just feel drained, helpless and useless. I wonder why I bother. Some mornings, I set out really positively but find my feelings of hopelessness washing over me as I drive into the car park, even before I go through any security doors.

Jane – a part-time teacher in a secure unit for young people

Do you teach in a secure unit, Young Offenders Institution or detention centre? If you do, maybe you recognise some of the feelings expressed by the teacher above. Having worked as a teacher with young people in secure care and in the justice system, as well as with teaching staff in those systems, I certainly can identify with Jane’s comments.
For me, there are three vital factors to consider when trying to understand and deal with our reactions to this situation. They are
  • the impact of the environment
  • the impact of classroom relationships
  • the impact of the curriculum

The impact of the environment

One of the reasons for such overwhelming emotion, is the impact of working in a different and at times intimidating environment. In my first job at a secure unit for children in care, with young people who were considered high risk to themselves and others, I was amazed at how the locking of  doors affected me. I immediately felt disempowered, unsure of my own authority. There was an alarm system for discipline – I could press a button and someone would come and remove the young person. In some ways that sounds supportive and reassuring, but in practice I found it unsettling and unnatural. It seemed to suggest that these children were dangerous and unsafe. I knew that I had worked with equally troubled students in other environments without feeling so uncertain.
I needed to work harder on developing strategies to manage my own state for teaching.

The importance of managing our own state

Therapists pay great attention to self-management and care, usually through formal supervision. It is accepted that their feelings are an important part of the process. Teachers do not have this. And yet teachers manage relationships, often fraught with overwhelming feelings, all day. This is amplified when we are working in challenging environments, such as the secure unit, the young offenders’ institution.  We have to recognise, therefore, that these feelings are valid and worth paying attention to.

A few ways to do this:

Create positive anchors

Positive anchors are triggers which will help us recall positive feelings. For example, it helped me to play Meat Loaf Bat out of Hell very loudly in the car on the way to work in the unit, so I could walk in with energy and resolve. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know! But find the trigger which works for you. Another colleague keeps an upside down  photo of his beach wedding on his desk– a visual trigger of a happy event and a reminder to think differently when feeling stuck.

Be your own coach  

When things are going wrong, what do you say to yourself? Do you focus on your mistakes, the bad points? What would you say to your best friend if they were in this situation? You would no doubt use a very different kind of self-talk. Choose to be your own best friend and coach and give yourself better advice when needed.

Choose to focus on the highlight

At the end of each day we tend to go home and remember those things which did not work. This can be very obvious when we are leaving a secure institution or unit, often very  aware of the young people we are leaving behind and what we have not been able to offer them.  At the end of each day, take a moment and write down 6 highlights of that day.

Focus on those things you can control

When we feel overwhelmed by negativity, it can be a result of focusing on things which are out of our control, particularly when we are working in environments with locked doors, guards and strict regimes. List those things which you can control and focus on those.

The impact of the classroom relationships

I had worked before with very disaffected young people who did not engage with the education system and had always managed to hold out hope for them.  In this system, I sometimes found myself feeling stuck, as if everything was a bit pointless. I needed to understand where these feelings were coming from. From my work in Educational Psychotherapy, I realized that my feelings could be an indicator of how my students were feeling, what was going on for them in that classroom. I could use therapeutic frameworks such as projection and displacement to better understand what was happening.


When we have unbearable, painful feelings, we may unconsciously externalise them, ‘pushing them out’, trying to attribute them to others.  We cannot bear to think about them, may be ‘looking’ for another person to ‘hold’ them, to have them and take them away from us.  Our feelings of hopelessness and uselessness may well be projections from the young people we are trying to teach. We can decide to notice when this is happening and, if appropriate, name it for the young person.  For example, you might say to the class ‘ It feels as if we are getting a bit stuck now and I’m beginning to feel a bit fed up. Perhaps some of you are feeling like that and we need to try something different.’
Alternatively, you might just decide to do an activity which changes the energy in the room. From my experience, just naming it for ourselves can be a relief.


Sometimes the feelings can be a form displacement, which means we are getting a feeling which is not meant for us, but for another person or situation. In secure units we are often dealing with young people who are very angry with the system, with adults or very sad about the losses in their lives. We are often the target of displaced feelings as we become a key attachment figure in their lives. Tell yourself ‘It’s not meant for me’. This works better for me than ‘It’s not personal’. At times it can feel very personal!

The impact of the curriculum

I was teaching English and French – subjects which encouraged the students to talk about themselves, their families and their interests. My students had often been questioned, interviewed and analysed by all sorts of professionals with various agendas. Why should they want to share all this information again with a complete stranger? I needed to find opportunities to use the curriculum in a positive way but to keep it safe for these young people, in particular,   through the use of metaphor in stories, writing and reading.

The curriculum as a vehicle for exploration

Many young people find it very difficult to talk directly about their feelings and life. It is too painful and too intrusive. Reading stories, watching videos, films, writing stories, discussing characters, are all ways of exploring life and emotions indirectly. For example, the recent remake of ‘The Incredible Hulk’, offers opportunities to explore two sides of a character, the good and the bad, allowing young people indirectly to talk about the different sides of their own characters and their reasons for certain actions. This offers the chance to explore their own life stories and to have someone pay attention to those stories, to acknowledge the difficulties  - without offering to fix them.
For after all, one of the main reasons we feel helpless as teachers is that we want to offer solutions, to fix things, and we cannot fix these young people’s lives, we can, however, manage our own emotional states, provide different experiences of thinking adults and create the vehicle for them to tell and understand their stories.

Marie Delaney

The Learning Harbour, Crosshaven, Cork, Ireland