“Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.” Hafiz, 14th-century sufi teacher & poet, quoted in Margaret Wheatley’s Perseverance
Fear comes in many sizes and shapes. The beautiful and inspiring online magazine Fear.less documents the many forms of courage people demonstrate as they overcome their various fears. In the September 2010 issue, Alex Gibney writes about his fear of losing his life while filming the documentary “Taxi to the Darkside” onsite in Afghanistan. Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of the Acumen Fund, writes about her fears of mediocrity, losing relationships, or losing humility. Spiritual leader Tom Kelly writes about fearing that he will not live out his life’s purpose. Ogilivy creative director Michael Paterson writes about confronting the fear of quitting his job. And in two deeply moving essays, Brian Clark and Karen Preziosi write about the fear they experienced at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Like the people featured in Fear.less, teachers experience fears in numerous shapes and sizes. Among them, the following are some of the most common.
Fear of Students
Students are victims of the same institutions that teachers may struggle within, and students’ alienation, frustration, anxiety, anger, loneliness, and especially their fears, can lead them to act in ways that are disrespectful to their fellow students, to adults in the school, and to themselves. Standing among a group of students in a classroom can be very intimidating, and fearful of losing control or losing face, some teachers resort to coercive tactics. In fact, confronted with the fear of losing control of a class, teachers may decide that teaching students coercively, as a way of maintaining control, is a better option than teaching students respectfully and risking losing control.
Fear of Looking Foolish
Few jobs are more public that teachers’. Every day teachers conduct their professional practice under the watchful eyes of sometimes more than 150 students--and few mistakes go unnoticed. If teachers try new teaching practices and find that they flounder. If they express compassion toward their students and see their compassion rejected. If they risk being silly, open, or innovative, and fail and look foolish, all these experiences can make it tempting for teachers to stop taking risks and stick with what is “safe.”
Fear of Caring
In the 1990s, I conducted a study of teachers as they explored their personal vision. As part of that process, I was fortunate to work with a bright, enthusiastic first-year English teacher. We met frequently over a year, and on a few occasions, through tears, the teacher told me she was finding it harder and harder to care for her students. She so passionately wanted the students to find more of their humanity through the study of literature, but instead they seemed completely uninterested in her class. This was heartbreaking for this idealistic young teacher. As we talked about her vision of herself as a teacher, she confessed that she was beginning to fear that she would stop caring. The pain of failing her kids was overwhelming, yet she was recognizing that her life would be easier if she didn’t care so deeply.
Fear of Other Teachers
In 1989, after an exhaustive qualitative and quantitative study of schools in Tennessee, Susan Rosenholtz concluded that our behavior in organizations is often “socially constructed.” In other words, how well teachers teach is as much a result of where they teach as it is a result of who they are and what they know. For example, an outstanding teacher in a learning-impoverished school, Rosenholtz calls these “stuck schools,” may be criticized and ostracized for her success or for winning recognition of acclaim. In the face of such negative reactions, the temptation may be to stop trying so hard so as to attract less attention, to join in when conversation in the staff lounge turns destructive, or, in the worst case, to quit teaching altogether rather than feeling alone and alienated in a school.
What to Do
The solution, I believe and hope, is not giving into fear. Your students need you not to quit. They need you not to stop caring. They need you to take risks. They need you to keep being innovative and to find the courage to empathize and keep trying for your students. Margaret Wheatley writes wisely that one way to address our fears is to use our curiosity to transform fear:
We can stay where we are and bravely investigate our fear. We can move toward it, curious about it. We can even interview it ... What’s important is to question the fear itself ... Our investigation moves us closer and closer, and then the fear begins to change. Paradoxically, the more we engage directly with it, the less fearful it becomes.
And you do not have to be alone as you take on the daunting task of investigating your fears. You can partner with the people commenting on this site, for example--our growing network of radical learners all over the world. We can help each other find the courage to steady ourselves, to find the courage to support us in doing what is best and stand up for students.
Jacqueline Novogratz, mentioned at the start of this post, also describes how she addresses fear: "It’s not that the fear isn’t there; it’s a commitment to looking at the fear and walking through it.”
If we investigate our fears and move through them, we can realize our potential in whatever endeavor we take on. And no endeavor is more important that inspiring, empowering, educating, and liberating our students.