Having spent nearly two decades as a teacher and having studied psychology at university, I feel that I have some authority to speak about this topic. I, and a number of my colleagues, have long suspected the possibility of a link between narcissism and the teaching profession. It’s a suspicion that’s developed through my observation of both other teachers, and myself. It’s also a hypothesis that has gained traction in mainstream psychology, as Dr. S. K. Whitbourne writes in her article, The Need to Be Admired Can Make Narcissists Great Teachers.
As a teacher I’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced many fantastic moments that I’ve shared with both my students and fellow teachers. But the classroom isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, the classroom is a highly unique environment presided over by one teacher who acts as the godhead, responsible for giving out praise and rewards in return for their students good work, and respectful behaviour. During my twenty years of teaching I’ve become aware that this classroom dynamic can be toxic, nurturing a teachers’ narcissistic traits. It’s a phenomena that I’ve only been able to talk about with teachers I’ve gotten to know well, and we’ve generally agreed that the classroom environment often acts as a catalyst drawing out a teacher’s narcissistic character traits.
Signs and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder and the severity of symptoms vary. People with the disorder can:
- Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
- Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerate achievements and talents
- Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
- Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
- Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
- Take advantage of others to get what they want
- Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Be envious of others and believe others envy them
- Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious
- Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office
Dr. S. K. Whitbourne’s article in Psychology Today suggests that narcissism can be a positive attribute for teaching. She bases this suggestion exclusively on the research of, Benson et al. who investigated whether people with a high narcissistic need for admiration have tendencies to affiliate with certain people in a group setting. From this hypothesis Whitbourne considers it logical that teachers high in narcissism will identify and associate with successful students. Benson et al. go on to state that people high in narcissism feel poor performance of their group reflects poorly on them, which will result in them disassociating from the members of the group, and may be enough to eventually motivate them to withdraw from the group entirely if it continues to be unsuccessful. In a school environment this is equates to a situation when a teacher is assigned a class that performs well below the standard for their grade. It’s not uncommon for a teacher in such situation to not form as strong a bond as they would with a more capable group. Research has shown that low achieving classes are commonly assigned to the most inexperienced teachers and that a large percentage of such teachers go on to quit the profession within the first few years. In fact this is a pattern that extends beyond achieving classrooms to low achieving schools where teacher turnover is considered a serious cause of low achievement. This creates a chicken and egg situation: are the teachers leaving because of the low achievement of students, or is the low achievement of students caused by high teacher turnover? In truth it’s both, but is it fair to conclude that the teachers leave because of narcissistic character traits?
Teacher turnover rates are high, particularly in schools serving low-income, non-white, and low achieving student populations. Nationally, about 30 percent of new teachers leave the profession after five years, and the turnover rate is 50 percent higher in high-poverty schools as compared to more
Benson et al. might try and claim that Ingersoll supports their hypothesis, but anyone with experience of working in the types of schools to which Ingersoll’s study is referring I expect would be quick to disagree. In fact Ingeroll provides us with an example of people leaving a poorly performing group not for narcissistic reasons, but for self preservation.
A Need To Perform
Teaching is unlike any other profession, I can’t think of any job that requires the skills and mindset unique to teaching. During my career I’ve taught classes ranging from eight students to seventy, all of whom expect to learn something from me everyday, all of whom I expect to listen to my every word.
Good Teachers be able not just to perform but to engage their students in the learning process.
Dr. S. K. Whitbourne
I know teachers always say this, but teaching is a tough job. In a world where every students mind is stimulated to whichever hedonistic kink it desires with a touch of a button, through the medium of the internet, getting students to listen to you and learn the virtues of trigonometry, or the processes of soil erosion, has never been more of a challenge. In my experience teachers are meeting this challenge by finding ways to perform and entertain their students, it shouldn’t be like this. Education shouldn’t be reduced to some cheap vaudeville entertainment, but if a teacher is going to have any chance of engaging their students and getting them to learn something, they have to perform. I’ve experience of teaching kindergarten, high school, and university students, and they’re all alike in their need to be entertained. At the end of each semester I’m left to feel like an abused, denuded party clown, bereft of all his tricks, knowing that he needs to get a new act sorted out before the next semester begins. This pressure to perform, entertain, engage your students is simply do, or die. Insofar as today’s metrics are concerned, good teachers do entertain, bad teachers fall by the wayside. But this pressure to perform comes at a cost, it foments, and rewards a narcissistic character.
Healthy Narcissism – Normal Narcissism
A more rigorous piece of research is provided by Friedman, in his study, Being a Teacher: Altruistic and Narcissistic Expectations of Pre-Service Teachers.
Friedman’s research refers to the concept of ‘healthy‘ narcissism, an idea attributed to psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut (1977). Kohut believed that ‘Healthy narcissism is expressed by adults through behaviours including creativity, humour, and expressions of sympathy towards others, personal and professional pride, and a desire to be considered good. The need to be recognized by others for being good at what you do is considerde by Maslow (1943), in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation, as Esteem Needs, in his Hierarchy of Needs
Hartman (1964), proposes the term, ‘normal’ narcissism, which he defines: a person’s investment of energy and drives within themselves, to heighten others perceptions, real or imaginary, of themselves.
When considering both Kohut and Hartman’s definitions of ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ narcissism, I acn’t help but feel that they’ve got it confused with self-confidence. Narcissism is a psychological condition condition much like a physiological illness, saying you can have ‘healthy’ narcissism sounds as much of a contradiction as saying a good disease.
The Reflective Practitioner
Teaching is probably no different from any other profession in that it has its own vocabulary and phraseology which it manipulates them to have a meaning specific to the profession when used in the context of that profession. And it’s ironic that a profession beset with narcissism chooses the term ‘reflective practice’. If the teaching environment doesn’t already lend itself to fostering narcissism, then encouraging teachers to look at themselves seems about as responsible as giving a pyromaniac a can of gasoline and a box of matches. just like Narcissus himself, teachers are encouraged to look at themselves, and their practice. The last thing you want to be encouraging a narcissist to do is look at themselves, because as the story tells us, they’ll only end up seeing whatever it is they like to look at. If the teaching practice was truly reflective it would acknowledge the propensity for it to develop narcissistic personalities and do something to address it.
Criticism of the Healthy Narcissism / Teacher Dynamic
Narcissism is normally always framed in the pejorative, but the truth is that some
One of the greatest weaknesses of the discipline of psychology is its inability to define its terms and to have everyone using terms as agreed. Narcissism provides an excellent example of this, Kohut (1966)coined the phrase ‘healthy’ narcissism, Hartman (1964) invented the phrase ‘normal’ narcissism. What they both describe as being ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ narcissism, I’d describe as something more simple, self confidence or self belief. My understanding of narcissism is derived from the Greek myth, it is a significant personality disorder that has a negative impact on the life of the person suffering the disorder and those they come into contact with. When Narcissus spends his life staring in admiration at his reflection, that’s a serious condition, it goes well beyond glancing at yourself in the mirror and being comfortable with your appearance. When Whitbourne talks of narcissism being beneficial to a teacher, what she’s actually referring to is self confidence, but self confidence is pretty much beneficial in any given situation so to get more attention the title becomes, The Need to Be Admired Can Make Narcissists Great Teachers. Narcissism is no more healthy, or normal than alcoholism. There’s a vast difference between having a drink, and being an alcoholic. Just like there’s a vast difference between self confidence and narcissism. The term ‘healthy’ narcissism is no less an oxymoron than say, ‘healthy illness’.
This grey area has been encouraged since the advent of psychoanalysis, by practitioners such as Paul Federn and his work, On the distinction between healthy and pathological narcissism (1929). Like I’ve mentioned already, there is no healthy narcissism.
Narcissism is recognised by the DSM-5 as a personality disorder. Narcissism can be no more healthy than any of the other nine recognised personality disorders. Nobody would suggest that there’s a healthy level of schizophrenia, or obsessive compulsive behaviour. What gets called a ‘healthy’ level of narcissism goes by the far less dramatic name of, self-confidence. It’s my belief that the practice of psychoanalysis has unnecessarily blurred the distinction, although, Dr’ S. M. Spain argues this point in his article, Healthy Self-Esteem versus Healthy Narcissism.
When does self confidence become narcissism?, It’s a grey area in a domain of behaviour for which their are no definite measures. What separates self confidence from narcissism is a fine line, but where that line is exactly is a subjective interpretation. What’s wrong with wanting to associate with the successful group? In fact I rather think that associating with the stronger group has been pivotal in seeing my genes having been passed as far as they have, a necessity of, survival of the fittest. What’s wrong with striving for and acknowledging success? If a teacher didn’t demonstrate these traits what sort of example would they be setting for their students?
From being a teacher for the last twenty years I have little room for doubt that the classroom is a toxic dynamic when it comes to developing a teachers narcissistic character traits. Character traits that would have most likely lain dormant had they pursued any other profession.
I’m a teacher. I write a blog. I mean, how much more narcissistic can a person be.