In troves of tromping feet, students and educators begin yet another school year this month. With the advent of another academic year, there will be loud cries from citizens, educators, researchers, and politicians about all the changes that need to be made in education. Students need to change. Teachers especially need to change. Administrators? Please change.
We bemoan the “failing” state of our students, of our teachers, of our education system, pointing to every possible psuedo-study as a panacea. But, through all the different participants of our educational system — the students, the teachers, the parents, the citizens — we are all united by a single thorn that prevents our best step forward: Fear.
What delays us most in creating the best version of ourselves is our own fear. For students, it collapses from every corner: Fear of social failure, of academic failure, of familial failure. of personal failure. From cracked voices to friendship faux pas to feeling like crap because after three-days of being held hostage completing a multiple-choice scantron, you find you don’t “rank in the top quartile.”
For teachers, it stalwarts our greatest decisions: Fear of career failure, of personal disappointment, of fulfilling the worst of teacher stereotypes. From pushing students too far, to not pushing them far enough, to feeling like a failure because someone is forced to quantify your entire worth as an educator after spending 90 divided minutes in your year-long marathon — only to find that you are “minimally effective,” with no constructive ideas to help.
If we want growth — if we want true change on the personal, district, and national level — we need risk. Growth cannot exist without risk beyond our comfort zone. As babies, we came into the world being useless burdens to those around us — crying, bumbling, defecating blobs. But, we also came equipped with insatiable curiosity and resilient risk-taking. We fell on our faces as we took our first steps. We threw things, smashed things, touched things, swallowed things — all in a fearless attempt to learn and grow. And yet, as our lives progress and we become even mildly “useful,” we rest in our normalcy. It’s safe. It’s easy. It’s the beginning of a slow decay. We spend the first decade or two of our lives with risk-to-grow as our default, only to flip the switch to static-to-survive.
We need courage. We need the courage to be ourselves, to speak our own truth without fear of being wrong. We need the courage to take academic and professional risk and accept the potential of failure without fear of being ridiculed, being fired, being disappointed in ourselves or our peers. Whether it be a teacher asking for help from a colleague, or a student following her heart into a career that “doesn’t pay very well,” or a parent going against the coddling culture and not giving into what the “cool parents” are letting their kids do, we need to muster up our guts and follow our hearts. I see the fear of risk daily. As a teacher, I see it with young adults who rest in their fear afraid of damaging their developing images. As an instructional coach, I see it with teachers who lock themselves in their rooms in their fear of being “marked down” by their bosses or judged by their peers. Courage is not aimless, impulsive action. It is a calculated decision that is necessary to make true, positive change — a decision that is not guaranteed to succeed but guaranteed to yield learning.
We need to build cultures of trust in our classrooms and in our schools that promote positive risk by guaranteeing support, safety, and belonging when we fail –and support, safety, and belonging when we succeed. Students need respectful, positive atmospheres in which effort is acknowledged and rapport is built with teachers and peers daily. We need to trust ourselves and our colleagues in taking full-hearted risks with new methodologies and approaches. We need communities that support our schools in attempting change. Too often we hear threats of removing children or tax dollars if the results don’t fulfill our instant need for gratification — forgetting that massive systems need time to implement true change. We lock ourselves in a paradox of wanting growth but stifling change. We demand better results which require risk, yet threaten punishment when the risk doesn’t work out.
A great thinker once told me that FEAR stands for “False Expectations Appearing Real” — a recognition that our survival instinct leads us to “disasterize” to such an extent sometimes that we don’t take calculated risks in order to grow. So, consider what risks you need — or your students or children or teachers — in order to become the best possible version of yourself.
In our next post, we will be looking at the “how” of reducing this fear in students and teachers.
In the meantime, our personal challenge in overcoming the fear hurdle is to:
1. Take a calculated risk and follow it full-heartedly.
2. Don’t wait for the right moment — it may not exist.
3. Acknowledge the potential of failure — and learn from it with humility.
4. Patiently support teachers, students, staff, and communities in stepping beyond their comfort zone.
We cannot wait for some perfected, scientific approach to overcoming fear and taking calculated risk. The beauty and bane of fear is that no man or woman will know what result will follow until he or she dives full force into the experience — accepting the potential of failure before, during, and following the leap. Perhaps the risk will set us back farther than we started. Perhaps it will hurt and burn in ways we’ve never felt. And, perhaps this is what we may have needed — to be humbled.
But, perhaps the leap will create something in us we have never known.