“No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”

– Edmund Burke

If you asked my grandfather what he feared most in class when he was growing up in country NSW during the Depression years, he would most certainly rattle off a list of various nuns. It wasn’t the scuffles in the playground, not the uncertainty of a decent meal during those days of scarcity, but rather the whoosh of a cane breaking through the air towards his open palms. Fear was a useful tactic of teachers for many years in the area of behaviour management.

Today, as much as we might joke about it on a tough day, the vast majority of teachers would recoil if handed a tool by which to exact corporal punishment on one of their students. Teachers are trained to use less abusive methods of behaviour management and pastoral care in order to defuse a potentially dangerous situation and to help students work through difficult problems. Fear of physical punishment as a consequence of ‘bad behaviour’ is no longer present. At least not at schools.

But it is not about fear generated in students that I wish to explore in this post. Rather, the focus of this post is the undercurrent of fear that I believe is the prime motivator for much of what we do as teachers.

Fear of inadequacy

Reading Alain De Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy recently, I enjoyed reading about Montaigne’s attitudes to inadequacies and how we must confront them, acknowledge them and accept them then move on to lead a worthwhile life.

In teaching, due to many factors, teachers fear being inadequate both as members of a profession and as leaders of learning in the classroom. How often have you questioned a particular practice or strategy, regardless of how many times you know it has worked? How often have you walked out of a classroom feeling a sense of failure? How often have you ended a year feeling that there are so many loose ends and unfinished business that you need another six months just to get it all sorted?

As a teacher of HSC students (for non New South Wales readers, the Higher School Certificate is our final year of secondary education and is usually the measure of a students’ progress to post-school studies or other pursuits), and as a Year 12 Mentor – in charge of 15 Year 12 students for roll call/administrivia and pastoral care throughout the year – I am feeling the fear of not stuffing it up for them. The resources I help them access, the processes of learning I try to instil, the unending content of the HSC Modern History course, it all plays on my mind constantly. Fear, it seems, of being an inadequate teacher and mentor for these students drives me to look for new materials, go to professional development and try to ‘do better’ than previous years.

Is this rational? Not really. Each cohort of students is different to the last and the makeup of the cohort is different as well. The tension between standardised education and individual needs is, I think, never more prevalent than in the HSC. It’s all about playing the game so that each student can access the opportunities they are aiming for. Fear of denying my students that access due to my own professional inadequacies is something I do think about.

Luckily for me, I have a great support network in my peers and school community. The fear is still there, but is tranquillised by the support of others. In terms of inadequacy, it is the support you get from your colleagues, peers and leaders who’s views you respect that allows you to avoid paralysis.

Fear of punishment

Go on, admit it. There are many elements of what we do as teachers that are only done because we know there are negative consequences if we don’t. We have to take rolls. We have to actively supervise exams. We have to assign alphanumerical marks and grades to assessment tasks. We attend staff meetings and briefings. We complete our registers (eventually).

The fear of punishment is something a good principal and a good leader will always have ready to use but hardly ever mention. Once punishment is raised as a definite possibility, the myth of professional choice and intrinsic motivation is shattered and replaced by a begrudged sense of duty or obligation. When we are told that a school inspection is coming up by the relevant educational authority, or when New Scheme Teachers in NSW are told that their school can be fined thousands of dollars a day if they are not correctly registered with the Institute, is that anything but fear of punishment?

“Speak softly, and carry a big stick” is a phrase attributed to President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. Fear of the big stick in teaching – that of being suspended or fired, or even has seemingly harmless as being singled out – is prevalent in many aspects of our work. The fact that we have a duty of care for young people, the legal responsibility for their physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing, is something most teachers seem to take in their stride, but is often the cause of angst when teachers are called upon to plan and conduct excursions, experiments or even yard duty. Today, students are now more open than ever to emotional and physiological harm due to their connection with potentially dangerous and confronting information and experiences through the internet and communications technologies.

On the one hand, many schools are taking the challenge head on – as a community – to support and educate students in how to navigate this brave new world. On the other, how does a school protect or educate students once they leave their care? The wider community and parents often hold high expectations of schools to do this despite it being outside their jurisdiction.

How do we deal with confronting situations? I am lucky to have the support of excellent year coordinators and colleagues who have advice and support mechanisms in place and ready to spring into action when it is needed. But what about teachers who don’t? Or who feel they don’t? What about less experienced teachers or teachers who don’t have the personality or training for conflict resolution? How often have you had to really mull over a situation before acting because you fear the outcome for the student, others, or yourself?

Teachers need clear and supportive structures and guidelines in place that are clear enough to be activated at a moment’s notice and that respect the actions of teachers and that are agile enough to avoid fear-inducing uncertainty in new or different situations.

Fear of change

Naturally this is not a fear shared only amongst teachers. Everyone fears change to some extent. Even if but for a moment.

I asked a speaker recently at a conference whether he was concerned about a growing divide between the world that exists within the school gates and the world that exists outside it. Rapid and constant change is one of the only certainties of our world today, and yet school structures and processes often take extended periods of time to be planned and enacted, only to find – especially in the realms of technology integration – that the world has moved on and their ideas are now outdated.

Teachers fear change because, in our heart of hearts, we are a conservative bunch. We like things as they are, we like our bubble – whatever shape that may take – and our comfort zones. I’ve met many innovative and ground-breaking teachers who are happy to experiment with pedagogy and use their students as guinea pigs for new ideas, sharing the success and failures of them with their students. For most teachers, I would argue that fear of change dictates their attitudes to many aspects of their work and this has been highlighted for me by the dawn of the Australian Curriculum over the pastures of education.

Though NSW is dragging its heels a bit and demanding that the Australian Curriculum fits the skinny-jeans of syllabus structures (fashionable, cutting edge, not exactly right for everyone but seemingly all-pervasive) , the Australian Curriculum is well on its way to be what teaching and learning is founded on for generations of Australian students.

I have been involved in talks and consultations as part of various groups and it is clear that most teachers fear either the loss of their area of speciality (based on either tertiary education or experience or both) or a structure or process that they know, and therefore want to keep for no other reason that it’s what they are paid to do now and consider themselves good at it in its current form. If that is how inflexible and rigid the role of a teacher is, something needs to change.

Teaching through the fear and despite it

Teachers will always feel inadequate (unless given constant and meaningful support – or if they don’t care), will always fear punishment and will always fear change. Unless we change how it is we do what we do and what we understand a teacher to be in the age of instant information. What is your school doing to allay fears? What do you fear as a professional and how do you work through the fear? If we accept that we don’t know everything, if we accept that we are learners too, if we accept that we will make mistakes and that the world will keep turning… Fear will not rule us.