Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one’s fear. The timid presume it is a lack of fear that allows the brave to act when the timid do not. But to take action when one is not afraid is easy. To refrain when afraid is also easy. To take action regardless of fear is brave. ~Ambrose Redmoon aka James Neil Hollingworth
Let’s be brave.
Fear in education is harming students and school efficacy. It takes many insidious forms.
Fear of failure that keeps people from trying/achieving.
Probably the most common fear students face is that they won’t be successful, that any effort they make will expose that they aren’t smart. They make mistakes. They FAIL. This fear is paralyzing for numerous students, many of whom are highly capable. Anxiety is at epidemic levels among modern youth with the National Institute of Mental Health reporting that 32% (one out of three) adolescents have an anxiety disorder (8.3% with severe impairment.) One in eight children has an anxiety disorder according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Some students have given up fear for the glorious freedom of not attempting and avoiding any efforts that might show struggle. They avoid the frustration and negative emotions altogether by choosing for themselves to not try. The number of students choosing this path is skyrocketing as poor grades have lost their stigma, and media celebrates the “cool” kids who buck the system by refusing participation.
Fear of failure isn’t isolated to students.
Those who work with students may choose not to innovate or improve their skills and strategies because they anticipate failure. They announce at the onset that any change is doomed to failure, and they list the obstacles likely to kill an initiative. “It will take too much time, effort or money. Downtown administration isn’t supportive. We can’t get enough volunteers. Students will misbehave. It’s too much extra work….” Thus, innovative effort never gets off the ground.
Fear of liability that chills innovation and activities
Teachers may well fear that administrators won’t be supportive of a host of beneficial opportunities. Schools are reacting to families’ and communities’ decreasing tolerance for risk and the associated financial liability should something go wrong. As a result of litigation concerns, regulations are increasingly strict and paperwork (red tape) is time consuming and risks rejection. For example, taking children into nature carries inherent risks, yet the natural world is sometimes the best environment for instruction and learning.
Multiple experts, concerned schools are over-responding to fear, write that schools are fearful and risk- adverse in a way that is negatively impacting children. When a crisis happens in our community, one author says we tend to respond with two thoughts: “1. If anything bad happens to any child, anywhere, it is likely to happen to my kid, tomorrow. 2. If we are proactive to the point of paranoid, we can achieve 100% safety.” This reaction, another author highlights, is imposing adults’ fears on children and “stealing the freedom of our society at large.”
Fear of threats to safety
Our greatest fears, of course, are about the safety of our children. News events depicting children running, sobbing, and bleeding after yet another school shooting coupled with, a list of the fallen cause us to consider how it could happen to us in our various situations and environments and the imperative to prevent future massacres. Unfortunately, violence can happen anywhere. The world isn’t always a safe place.
The good news is that children are actually very safe without fences, gun-toting teachers, check points and constant vigilance. Rates of violent victimization in schools has been steadily falling over the past decade. Children are ten times more likely to die riding their bikes or walking to school.
Unfortunately, we don’t feel we’ve done our due diligence unless we create copious barriers to slow down or prevent a bloodbath that could, but is highly unlikely, to happen. Unfortunately, those barriers are also barriers to freedom.
Fear of not being enough
Many wonderful teachers struggle with the realization that they cannot help every child all the time. They struggle with meeting the intense needs of children from abusive, neglectful, or otherwise challenging home lives. They struggle to differentiate for the wide scope of individual needs in their classroom. They struggle with the demands of the job. There are always more and better ways of preparing, teaching, managing and assessing. They struggle with balancing home and work. They recognize when they don’t measure up to their own impossible standards. They second guess their best efforts. The fear of not being enough eats away at their confidence and steals their joy in teaching.
Schools as Confidence Building Zones
It is not necessary for fear to determine our actions and attitudes. We can conquer the various fears that threaten education.
Schools should not necessarily be fear-free zones, yet they should absolutely be confidence building zones for students, for teachers, for administrators. Education is one of the great confidence builders.
Experts suggest that a mind shift is in order. We need to tackle our reasonable and unreasonable fears with an approach called “cognition retraining.”
Attribution and efficacy retraining help people see that failure is rarely due to our lack of ability but rather something we can change. This is empowering. To make this happen, students and adults alike require achievement experiences in which they are coached to
- Set a reasonable and reachable goal.
- Concentrate on the task they seek to master.
- Cope with failure by retracing steps to find mistakes and analyzing problems to try a different approach.
- Identify that failures are usually a result of lack of information, insufficient effort, or ineffective strategies RATHER THAN a lack of ability.
- Celebrate the attainment of the goal.
Likewise, educators can provide these retraining efforts when they encounter students who fear failing. They can follow these steps and provide success opportunities, intentionally looking for areas of growth and the positive effects of their own efforts.
Fear is fed by the terrible self talk we hear: “You’ll never get this,” “This is too hard,” “This problem is impossible,” and “They/we might get hurt.”
It is essential that we learn, model, and use problem solving strategies to persevere and handle tasks successfully. It’s important that we not allow competition, social comparison, and exaggerated risk to feed anxiety. Iinstead we can focus on facing actual and likely risks and providing positive, private feedback with an emphasis on personal progress. Our self talk should include, “I may not be there yet, but I’m on my way” and “We are strong enough for this!”
Teaching and learning RESILIENCE defeats failure and powerlessness. Educators must be the model for this for the sake of our schools and our students.
When others point out problems, we can be the voice for rational solutions.
We can do hard things.
Let’s be brave.