Fearful students

Fearful Students

Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear – Albert Camus

In the ESL /EFL field, there is a lot of talk about reducing the effective filter. In Gamification, the talk is about encouraging the Psychosocial Moratorium. Yet, even for all this talk, there is still a lot of fear inside classrooms. Not just performance anxiety, when the student is unsure if they will be able to achieve the general goals, but systemic fear.

People in an environment of fear react in very particular ways. One of the most common reactions is to attempt to control their immediate surroundings to restore a sense of mental equilibrium.

In the caveman days, if you were scared of predators, you would find a pace where you could control the potential engagement so it was in your favour, a cave mouth, where you were surrounded by others who could help. Or, you might take preventative actions like setting traps. Having taken action, we feel a sense of relief and are more ready to take action.

The systemic fear in education, however, is more insidious than a simple predator. It can be traced to how the curriculum is often set up with limited resources.

There are limits to the amount of time that teachers have available to cover the material. There are grade curving limits as to how many students can receive top marks (even if they have demonstrated mastery of the subject), setting up false competition in the name of rigour. There are pressures placed on students about their perceived behaviour outside of the classroom and often things that are not associated with the skills being taught are being assessed.

The students aren’t the only ones who are exposed to this fear.

Teachers are under pressure to produce specific quantifiable results or, in some cases, risk losing their jobs. This fear is then brought into the classroom as teachers try to control the classroom to re-establish their own mental equilibrium. The actions that are often taken are reinforcing of established procedures.  This in turn has lead to continuing practices in teaching that have been shown to have little to no pedagogical value in academic research due to the inertia of the system.

In the ESL/EFL field it is quite common for a teacher to use this fear as an “effective” form of gaining “Classroom Compliance”.

The teacher is the judge of what behaviour is rewarded and which is punished. In effect this creates a situation in which the teacher is being respected out of fear. The myriad of pieces of advice given to new EFL/ESL teachers bear testimony to this. “You have to establish that you are in control of the the classroom”. “Bad behaviour can not be tolerated”. “Once you establish rules, they must be maintained no matter what”. “Why haven’t you done your homework? You know its part of your final grade.”

Teachers use the promise of rewards (and of course punishments) to attempt to control their students. In many ways, it sets the teacher up for inevitable failure by casting them in the role of the respected bully. We respect them only out of fear of the consequences that they can choose to inflict.

What can we do in the classroom?

  1. Be willing to lean into the uncomfortable situations you find yourself in as a teacher. For more information on how to do this, see Breene Brown’s Daring Greatly.
  2. Ask yourself, “am I attempting to control the classroom for my own comfort or does this have a benefit for my students?”
  3. Be willing to examine the entrenched practices of the school you are teaching for, and ask if they truly fulfil the purpose they were established for.

Fear is passed on like a virus. Building up your immune response can be very useful.

Spend some time thinking about the worst case scenario of your fear. Then take it to an absurd extreme to help diffuse it of its power.

For example, if my students don’t do their homework, they won’t pass the test. If they don’t pass the test, they will be angry. If they are angry, I will get a poor performance review. If I get a poor performance review, etc. Bring this line of reasoning all the way to the sun going out and the end of the universe. Then, look at it and laugh.

Emphasise the importance of the skills you are teaching, not the importance of grades.

As Machiavelli asked in The Prince: Is it better to be loved or feared?

His conclusion, which has been very misrepresented, is that it is better to be loved but it is easier to be feared. However, if you are to be feared, you must not be hated.

Teachers instil fear in their students not because it makes the students more effective or increases a positive atmosphere, but because it is easier to pass on the fear they have been instilled with than to stop the cycle.

If you are interested in reading more, check out Alfie Kohn’s Beyond Discipline.

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