Creeping Fear

Even after teaching for several decades, I was surprised every year at the fear that crept in at the start of each school year. I brought some of this fear. On my class lists I found names of kids everyone hoped would be in some other class. Incoming students brought low test scores with them—and what if they didn’t show adequate progress in my class? As a beginning teacher, I worried that I was too young to handle a class. At the end of my career I suspicioned I was too old, too out of touch.

Parents of my students contributed to the anxiety. They asked for conferences, sent e-mails, and left phone messages laced with fear. My son has no friends. I just learned my husband has been abusing our daughter. My son hates school. Can you help?

And fear harassed my students. What if no one eats lunch with me? What if I flunk? What if someone calls me fat or dumb or a hillbilly? What if my lab partner is racist? What if someone calls me out on my thrift-store shoes?

This fear was insidious, almost invisible. But I learned to notice bodies hunched as if trying to remain invisible, faces with pinched looks, and darting eyes. And I’m sure students could sniff out my waves of nervous apprehension, as well. I couldn’t joke with students when I was afraid or plan creatively or see students clearly.

How can a teacher calm these fears that tighten brains, that leave students unable to concentrate and easily agitated? Here are some steps to take:

  1. Acknowledge fear. Tell a story about your first day in seventh grade. Admit you, too, had trouble sleeping last night.
  2. Demonstrate ways to deal with anxiety—breathing techniques and stretching or relaxing exercises.
  3. Avoid singling students out. Until you know students well, be careful even about spotlights that seem positive to you. Students may be trying to hide their intelligence or their uncanny knack at witty essays. Your showcasing of their abilities may be a social liability to them.
  4. Celebrate differences. Students who bring new cultures into a school may labor under what is sometimes called a fear of foreignness. I’m different, so people will think I’m wrong. I grew up in the hills, I’d tell students, and English wasn’t my first language.

Focusing on what students needed (instead of what I felt) helped me to sidestep my apprehensions, to teach from a place of love, not fear. I found, that though fear still lurked inside me, I could teach with compassion and wonder and intellectual curiosity. This, in turn, helped students calm their fears.

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