A Culture of Fear


Clarence Say, 129 TESS

All quotes in italics are taken from The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer.

As a student, I was in too many classrooms riddled with fear, the fear that leads many children, born with a love of learning, to hate the idea of school. As a teacher, I am at my worst when fear takes the lead in me, whether that means teaching in fear of my students or manipulating their fears of me.

When I first started teaching in the classroom, the best piece of advice others could give me at the time concerning classroom management was a serious joke, “don’t smile until Christmas.”

Every teacher I approached gave me the “you’re not here to be the student’s friend” speech. On the front lines of that message was my Classroom Management Professor, I’ll call him CMP for short. He was in charge of instructing us, new teachers, in the art of maintaining order within the classroom at all times and made sure to keep at a safe distance. CMP came to class exactly on time so as to cut out any frivolous discussion before class or disruptive chatting at the beginning. He made us stand first before speaking and required every single individual in the class to answer every single question before moving on. At times, he would bring in buzzers so that we would have to “buzz” in before being allowed to speak. Breaks were the exact length of the song he decided to play and it was up to us to get back to our seats and be ready by the time the last note was sung or played. Every assignment had a rubric and strict guidelines. Scoring was pretty much non-negotiable. CMP was known throughout the Memphis area as a strict disciplinarian and thus, ran some of the toughest schools with an impressive degree of success. Nevertheless, I truly, honestly hated that class.

It didn’t stop me though, from believing in his methods/practice, and in the voices coming from teachers and teaching peers alike all around me:

“Make a list of class rules and stick to them.”

“If students misbehave, take away recess time.”

“There need to be immediate consequences.”

“Only reward students that deserve a reward.”

And of course, “don’t smile until Christmas.”

If you haven’t heard the phrase uttered to you before, then let me briefly explain.

Basically, the idea is that in order to run a tight ship (aka an orderly classroom), you need to start out the year mean and soften up slowly – the logic being that if you start out too nice, it is near impossible to get students to do what it is that you want them to do. Students will learn to love a teacher who seems to get “better” with time as opposed to one who “worsens” as time goes on and the days get longer.

One great example of this concept at play is in the book “Miss Nelson is Missing” by Harry Allard. It’s a childhood classic. The story follows the students in Room 207 who have a sweet, pretty teacher named Miss Nelson who they take for granted. While she is teaching, they are playing around and misbehaving. One day, however, her presence is replaced by that of a nasty, witch-like woman named Miss Swamp who scares the students back into shape. So much so, that the students begin to miss their dear old Miss Nelson and conduct an investigation to solve the mystery of her strange disappearance. When she finally reappears, the students are happy and decide to be perfect little angels for her from then on out. The end. A clear-cut storybook ending if I ever heard one … at least for the most part. What’s not so clear though, is the the rather confusing message it is sending about the teacher-student relationship.

Is it necessary for students to be “scared” into appreciation of their teacher?

And is “appreciation” something that is best shown through obedience?

Something I think about often is my own experience of fear in the classroom, not only as a student, but as a teacher. Teaching itself is a profession riddled with fear and insecurity. As teachers, we show up every day, for better or for worse, because sometimes, that’s really all that we can do. We struggle often, mainly because the act of teaching itself is so personal. It’s soul-baring. What we give and how it is received speaks to us and who we are. Partly because we believe that what we do matters, but mostly because the degree to which we are able to get students to listen to us and do as they are told has been made into a customary measure of self-worth. So when students misbehave (which is natural), we feel personally affronted. It damages our ego and causes us to feel negatively about ourselves and others. The situation we find ourselves in turns hostile and we are trapped by our own desire for greater certainty. We’re vulnerable and in a place where no good things can truly come.

When a class that has gone badly comes to a merciful end, I am fearful long after it is over – fearful that I am not just a bad teacher but a bad person, so closely is my sense of self tied to the work I do.

When I think about the story by Harry Allard today, all I can think about is how Miss Nelson must have felt on page one of the book:

“The kids in Room 207 were misbehaving again. Spitballs stuck to the ceiling. Paper planes whizzed through the air. They were the worst behaved class in the whole school…”

This is an all too familiar scene of the archetypical “Class from Hell” where everything, from the teacher’s point of view, seems hopeless. Fear sets in, and the desire to strike fear into the hearts of those causing that fear in you grows and grows. You picture yourself creating a system that not only causes the troublemakers to suffer some, but also gives your saints a little pat on the back. You start thinking in terms of leverage, what you can give or take away in order to make things work in your favor. Your voice and demeanor changes along with your language. No longer are you listening to students, but rather, you are telling them what to do, when, and exactly how. You give commands rather than direction. It’s a sad, slow, but somewhat familiar decent towards authoritative manipulation, but the signposts along the way are clear. Students start “shaping up” at the drop of a hat. You start holding rewards against students and turning everything into either a competition or a pop quiz. Rules and grading become set in stone and are not up for discussion. Zero tolerance policies start coming into play. Every moment of every day is made into a routine or a procedure. Before and after class interactions become less and less frequent because familiarity can lead to comfort and comfort can lead to a loss of control. What I’m speaking of is the crossing of a line that can seem to be somewhat hazy at times but exists nonetheless.

In a culture where fear is the air we breathe, it is hard to see how deeply fearful our education is – let alone imagine another way to teach and learn.

For me, control-centricity is the opposite of student-centered learning. It is the modus operandi of most U.S. and Thai schools today mainly because it is what we know and have been raised up on. Very few of us have ventured beyond this model because both us and the schools in which we work have already been conditioned to respond to it. Using fear (whether it’s fear of the stick, fear of losing, fear of standing out, fear of being lectured, fear of something being taken away, fear of being left out, fear of being seen as too smart or too dumb, etc.) to get what we want has become a part of the culture and it is a rather exhausting uphill battle to try and do something different.

We cannot see the fear in our students until we see the fear in ourselves. When we deny our own condition, we resist seeing anything in others that might remind us of who, and how, we really are.

The most difficult part of making the shift from control-centered teaching to a more student-centered approach is learning to face our own fears in the classroom before embarking on the quest to teach students. We must seek to first become self-aware and conscious of our feelings. Understand that every decision we make comes from inside of us – feelings that turn into thought, and thoughts into action. Those actions become the great determiners of our ability to reach students, to guide them. When what we project through our actions is based out of fear and insecurity, then those are the pieces of ourselves that will be taught and mirrored back to us. Knowing that, it then becomes clear to us that the only way in which we can actually teach, is by practicing what we want first. We must walk the walk. Show respect. Demonstrate courage. Feel love and compassion. Speak with character and conviction, not just during school hours, but at all times. In order to be a good teacher, you MUST be a good person, and that, my friends, is what makes teaching so damn hard.

If I want to teach well in the face of my students’ fears, I need to see clearly and steadily the fear that is in their hearts.

Students challenge us every day. They challenge us to be our best selves through their own outward projections of fear and insecurity. Feelings that oftentimes cause them to think in ways that lead to words and actions that make us feel uncomfortable, afraid. In these moments, fear is met with fear and we are offered a choice: Either, we tend to our own fear, defend our needs, and ask our students to do the same, or we use the moment to connect with our students, learn, and hopefully teach something.

Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.

In retrospect, CMP’s class taught me something big through the way it made me feel as a student. It made me feel small, weak, less than – powerless to change anything in the face of a what I perceived of as then a “higher” power and authority. All my life I have been trained and conditioned to be afraid of those above me because of what they can do to me. I’ve been made to feel guilty for my mistakes and ashamed of my failures, both of which are things that come part and parcel with this thing called life. Learning itself is a chaotic process of crazy experimentation that, when done right, is impossible to control, and yet, we somehow believe that it should all fit into neat rows and boxes, instructions that leave no room for trial and error, and chairs that should never be left. Through his rigid structure and imperviousness to change, CMP showed me the way to freedom from this long-standing way of thinking, and for that, I am eternally grateful. (Who knows? Maybe that was the real lesson that he was trying to teach me all along.)


3 replies »

  1. Quality content from a quality man. The world needs more people like Mr. Say.


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