What do we fear as teachers? What are our students afraid of? How should we deal with fear in the classroom? In this issue Chris Mares, Matthew Noble, and our new blogger Matthew Turner will each examine ‘fear’ from their own different perspectives.
by Chris Mares
In teaching, as in life, one of the best ways to develop and grow is to address one’s fears.
Beginning teachers are often beset with fears: fear of not being in control of a class, fear of running out of teaching materials, fear of feeling embarrassed in front of a class, fear of not being able to answer a question, fear of being observed, to name but a few.
These fears are natural and understandable and the best way to overcome them it to tackle them head on with honesty and pragmatism. Fear is an emotional reaction hard-wired into our biological system and its purpose, simply speaking, is to protect us. It is understandable that one might be afraid of a noise in the dark; one’s reaction will trigger a flight-or-fight response. However, the fears mentioned in the first paragraph are not of the same order. They can be tackled and overcome.
First, document any areas in which you have fears or anxieties as a teacher. Try and take a step back from yourself. Move away from your emotions and closer to your truth. For example, you might say you have a fear of trying new activities in class. If you have observed this, see if you can get to the core of what it is that you are afraid of. Is it that you are uncertain that the activity will work? Or, is it that you’re not sure what you will do if it doesn’t work? Do you feel that you don’t have a strategy in place for repairing an activity you perceive as having failed, or that you would be uncomfortable abandoning it and moving on to something else?
In my teacher training I emphasize the importance of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. To begin this process, start by operating at the edge of your comfort zone, rather than in the middle of it. Ask yourself, “What is the worst that could happen?” The answer is probably a temporary silence in which you might feel awkward or embarrassed. It is precisely these moments that we need to take ownership of and deal with proactively. After all, we all make mistakes. It can be encouraging for our students if they see us get back on track with dignity and humor, rather than struggling to hide something that everyone is aware of.
A clear example of this would be when a student asks a grammar question and the teacher is unable to immediately answer it. We all understand the urge to provide the answer immediately and many of us have probably experienced the process of attempting to provide one before realizing that it either isn’t an answer or that it may be inaccurate or wrong. The better response would be to say that you are not sure what the answer is or that you don’t know the answer but you know where you can find it and you will come back with the answer by a specific time. The key is to follow through, find the answer, and bring it to class, reminding the class of the question and providing the answer. This strategy will earn the trust and respect of students and provide the teacher with more confidence.
Most of the fears a teacher experiences can be overcome provided they are dealt with seriously and calmly. The first step is to articulate what the the fear is. This can be done effectively through writing. Here it is important to dig deep and to ask the powerful questions in a systematic way. For example, if you are afraid of being observed, ask yourself, “What is it that I’m afraid of?”, “Do I think I’m not good enough?”, “Do I worry about being judged?” etc. Articulating one’s fears is the first step towards overcoming them. The next step is to provide the counter argument. In this case, the reasons why you are good enough and how being observed can be a positive experience leading to growth and improvement.
One of the pleasures of teaching is that of continuing to find ways to be better. Naturally, one way of doing this is to try new things, and take risks. Over time, what we originally experienced as fears may become opportunities.
by Matthew Noble
Last week I sent around a short questionnaire asking fellow teachers about ‘fear’. A handful of people suggested ‘fear’ wasn’t really the right word. They said ‘‘anxiety’ is more appropriate. Indeed, the term ‘anxiety’ is often found in the literature in regards to individual learners, learner groups, teachers, and its effect on motivation, learning, and (to a lesser degree) teaching.
I didn’t recall or edit the survey, though. I thought that while most respondents would automatically equate the term with anxiety anyway, sticking with ‘fear’ might prove interesting because it connotes a more objective threat and stronger emotions. Anxiety is typically associated with chronic, lingering dis-ease, while fear – with more immediate, intense, and temporary reactions in specific situations. We have anxiety about something, and a fear of something. But clearly there’s a lot of overlap. Together, anxiety and fear trace a fair bit of territory on the heart-map of the teacher’s identity which, I declare, is a land of emotion…stronger emotion than we might usually acknowledge.
In fact, right now I’d like to acknowledge that while I may not be experiencing extreme fear writing this piece for the iTDi Blog, I’m certainly anxious! What will the readers think? Is my writing okay? Just how disappointing will it be? I hear a voice within, and it’s a fearful voice. It’s saying, “someone’s going to find you out”.
Anyway, let’s get back to the survey. When respondents shared about fears they remember from their early days as teachers, what do you think was front and center? The most common thread running through their accounts was the often intensely fearful “impostor syndrome”:
“I was afraid of students finding out how much I relied on the textbook because I was just learning how to be a teacher, and I did not have any formal training in TESOL…”
“…Screwing up complicated classroom management or a task set up and that someone would realise what an impostor I was…”
“The first time I taught I had butterflies in my stomach, I was afraid of being labeled ‘stupid’, of not knowing something I should know (‘my native language’), of being asked questions and having no answer, of being an impostor…”
Does any of that ring a bell? Or perhaps flap a butterfly wing? The next question asked about fears they encountered as more experienced teachers. The responses here were more varied, as well as much more specific.
1 – “I fear students get confused about my instructions or writing prompts”
2 – “Now and then think I may someday get bored or tired and want to leave the profession”
3 - “My fear now is that my students (who pay for English classes) won’t get their money’s worth out of the class”
4 – “Now that I am into teacher training I am afraid that I might project my own perceptions of good/bad teaching on my trainees”
5 – “I still always get nervous when facing new classes”
Interestingly, to me these read more like ‘fears’ than the first batch. Do we tend to shift from experiencing a more overarching ‘anxiety’ to having more ‘focused fears’ as we develop? Another thing to note is that many responses in the first question about the early teaching days ignored the prompt to report what they did in the face of the fear they experienced. In contrast, there was much more about facing the fear and responding to the situation in connection with more recent fears. And since I’m a teacher, I’m now going to have you do a little matching task with some of these comments. Match the four responses A-D below with the items 1-5 above. Yes, there’s one without a match! (Answers below)
A – That’s why I always talk to them in regards to specified criteria
B – I get feedback from students about class activities
C – I always try new things and seek further professional development
D – I think it’s a good thing and I try to stay open to new experiences
These comments reflect the resilience and resourcefulness teachers develop over their careers. It’s not that anxiety or fear in the face of problems disappears. Rather, there’s a shift. Expert teachers have been described as “working at the edge of their competence”, thereby maximizing opportunities for both encountering and solving problems. They invite challenges, lean into them, and live the questions that once caused fear. And as they develop they increasingly live out the famous Maya Angelou quote, “Having courage does not mean that we are unafraid. Having courage and showing courage mean we face our fears.”
Respondents to my survey also identified what they thought were common teacher fears. Can you relate to any of these? Take a minute to simply reflectively connect one or more of them to your own experience. These are memories of the past, but what might you take out of this recall and reflection for tomorrow? If there is fear or other negative emotion around it, what could be your first step through it?
“That they may be missing out on something else career-wise”
“A lot of teachers just want their students to like them, but fear they don’t”
“Not feeling respected and appreciated for their hard work”
“Murphy’s Law and technology – constantly on edge: will it work?!?”
Finally, some of the additional prompts teachers offered for reflection on teacher’s fear and anxiety:
“The impact of fear is on teacher’s professional development choices. Does it spark a bigger desire to learn or does it paralyze the teacher? Sort of like what happens with anxiety, which can be positive if it is not overwhelming”
“I really enjoy being in the class and feel comfortable 99% of the time, but I am busy and I have been worried about exhaustion and burnout”
“Do teachers feel that their English proficiency causes them fear as well?”
“Teachers need to know they do not know everything. Putting our defences down is a great way to open our hearts and learn from students”
If one of those prompts (or anything else here) inspires you to respond, please don’t be afraid to do so in the comment box below, or on twitter, or on your own blog! Because what is very clear to me is this: the negative side of fear thrives in isolation. Dan Lortie called teaching “the egg-carton profession” because we may work in close proximity to our peers but too rarely connect and collaborate in important ways. As one of my respondents commented, “Schools should have an open door policy and teachers should walk in and out of each other’s teaching rooms!”. Now that’s unafraid! And it’s beautiful. It’s also, unfortunately, unrealistic. So while we keep working to break down the more physical walls, we should use the connective vessel of the internet to share thoughts, experiences, and especially emotions with colleagues through social media and teacher networks like iTDi. This is one powerful way for teachers to beat fear and be free.
Matching task answers: 4 – A, 1 – B, 2 – C, 5 – D.
by Matthew Turner
In a conversation with a teaching colleague after class at the start of the term, we talked about how fearful our learners appeared to be feeling towards us and how perfectly normal the feeling is after all. While we both agreed that we wanted to make our learners feel comfortable around us, their new classmates, and within their new environment, I recalled the fear that I’d previously felt being a learner. Fear isn’t always such a bad thing, perhaps a little bit of fear might be a useful classroom tool. With this blog post, I want to unpack what I mean, what my experiences have been, and think about how a learner’s fear of the teacher might be something worth harnessing.
As teachers we often aspire to be like educators we’ve met or been students of. For me it’s my history teacher Mr. Cunningham back when I was about fourteen years old. He entered our classroom on his first day at our school and immediately told us all to get out. He sent us out to the playground confused, books and bags in hand. He then invited us back into the classroom one by one, choosing appropriate seats for us. Mr. Cunningham told us to sit where we were told and be silent at the start of each class; he’d made us fear him. As each class progressed, Mr. Cunningham’s persona followed a common path: he’d begin authoritatively, then get us laughing and make sure we left the class having learnt something, and then return to being scary all over again the following day. The element of fear was palpable and ever present amongst us. We were forever aware of what would happen if we stepped out of line, so everyone was so eager not to do the wrong thing. I remember one time Mr. Cunningham stopped an amusing anecdote mid-sentence to deal with two older students smoking outside behind our classroom. After handing down a scolding, he returned to our class and concluded his story, without a hint at what had just occurred.
It wasn’t just down to a sense of fear that I feel inspired as a teacher and felt determined as a learner. Mr. Cunningham was a very engaging and thought-provoking individual. However, fear for me at least was a motivation to work hard in his class because I knew what could happen if I didn’t conduct myself correctly. As an English teacher working in Japan, I think again about this fear that I felt at the start of term all those years ago, and I want to replicate it in some way with my learners. I am by no means the kind of a teacher who has a short fuse or expects learners to do everything as told, I’m open to a bit of mischief in the right places. But it’s an act I feel I must play at the start of term at least in order to get groups of learners on my side. There is no way of knowing if Mr. Cunningham consciously knew what he was doing or thought the same things, but I’ve indeed taken away a lot from his way of doing things.
Using, maintaining, or adding an element of fear to the classroom is not something that has hard or fast rules, I feel that it’s more of a tone that has to be recognized and conceived. In the first classes of term, everyone and everything is new. The learners don’t know you, and you don’t know them; it’s the complete fear of the unknown. As a teacher, an early aim should be to set expectations for the learners and establish the right path forward. From teaching similar courses in the past, you know the journey you’re about to lead them on and you know their potential. However, some teachers may want to expedite the process and reduce tension in the class by trying to be friendly from the get-go. This could have a negative effect. I feel that the air of uneasiness and fear could be left to sit for a little longer, making this a great chance to set clear expectations. If the learners are too relaxed with you and each other, rules could also become relaxed. Here’s an example.
I work on an oral fluency-focused English program, a program where learners are assessed on their ability to use different communication skills effectively with one another in discussions tasks. One of these communication skills is to negotiate meaning in English, with L1 use being discouraged and often penalized. Although I’m not entirely convinced with an English-only policy, this is a rule that I feel needs to be established early on. In the initial lessons of the course, if learners overtly and knowingly flout this rule, I feel it’s my duty to address this immediately, and not always in a measured manner. If learners are clearly called out on this straight away, they could be more likely to remember the incident in the future, monitor themselves and others, and work harder not to do it again. Of course, it’s always our duty as teachers to help them to understand why something is a problem and how to remedy it. Like Mr. Cunningham with the smokers, I reveal my ‘dark side’, a glimpse behind the curtain, and then continue onwards. Hopefully, the learners recognize where the lines are drawn and when lines have been crossed.
In class I’m hard to please and try to demand more. On the inside I’m constantly amazed and in awe of what my learners achieve, but I tend to use praise and outward satisfaction sparingly. This is my teacher self, a persona that plays with fear for the good of the class and learning. As teachers, perhaps we could understand the fear that our learners are feeling, and rather than try to reduce it, we could get into character and be a little fearsome ourselves.