Fearless Teaching & Learning

Hope Street Group
Hope Street Group
Published in
3 min readMay 29, 2018

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By David Edelman

Fear is the great slayer of teaching and learning. Many teachers I know are stressed, consumed by scenarios from our worst teaching nightmares. What if I take a chance and my lesson goes off the rails at the very moment my Principal walks in? What if I get a bad rating? What if I am called out on straying from the curriculum and standards for teaching to student interest and curiosity? What if my students don’t like this class? What if a parent complains? What if I ask a colleague for help, or admit I need support? Will my colleagues lose respect for me? Even worse, what if this gets back to my Principal?

These teacher nightmares can consume us, whittle away at our peace of mind, joy and ability to focus on our kids. When the joy is drained from the teaching profession and the fear starts seeping in, teachers stop taking intellectual risks, lash out in predictable ways, blame others, isolate themselves and ultimately leave the profession altogether. Worst yet, 99% of the time, these worst case scenarios don’t come to fruition. So why is fear so pervasive in education? Perhaps it’s so systemic we are all to blame.

The intentional creation of fear remains one of the most widely used strategies for managing student behavior and encouraging academic achievement. A well intentioned teacher can often undermine his ability to inspire high achievement by creating an environment infused with fear. The fear of an unwanted call home, a bad grade or a fear of not knowing the answer when called on in class — none of these is a prime motivator for academic success. Similarly, the fear of a bad observation report or rating is not a purposeful tool for improving classroom instruction and the fear of a poor school report card or quality review does not build great schools. Teachers can’t teach scared. Students can’t learn scared. Principals can’t lead scared. When humans become scared our bodies produce cortisol which zaps executive functions like cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory, keys to success for students, teachers and school leaders alike. So how can we make sure we are all performing at our best?

There is another path. One that focuses on getting better rather than getting ahead. One that guides others towards recognizing solutions without telling others exactly what to do. One that drives the idea count up, not down. One that challenges to think a different way and to see things for yourself. People don’t fear change as much as people fear being changed. Living in fear ensures your potential will erode away into nothingness. Everyone involved in education needs to find ways to remove the fear, starting with their own minds and their own hearts. If you love and care for this profession then we must strive towards achieving environments and mindsets conducive to teaching and learning fearlessly.

David Edelman is a Peer Collaborative Teacher at Union Square Academy for Health Sciences in New York City, where he provides instructional coaching, facilitates professional learning opportunities for staff and teaches high school classes in Social Studies, Economics, Participation in Government and AP U.S. History. A 2015–2017 National Teacher Fellow with Hope Street Group, he now serves on the organization’s first Teacher Advisory Council. Follow him on Twitter via @DaveEdelman.

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