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Today we are up to "F" and there are a lot of choices, ranging from "F" and its cognate "Failure" and "Freshman/Freshmen" and "Faking it" but instead of all those good choices, I wanted to talk about Fear.  

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
                       -Frank Herbert, Dune, from the Bene Gesserit litany against fear

Fear is something we all deal with at all levels of our lives, including in academia.  It manifests in a wide variety of ways -- I can only talk about my own experiences, but there are a lot of different implications for each of us when we are afraid, and when we let fear influence us and our choices.  And there are different levels of fear -- there are the overwhelming (largely) irrational fears of heights and small spaces, of flying and people of differing backgrounds, and there is a fear of stepping outside of your comfort zone, doing new things  that you  don't have any faith in your ability to complete successfully.  So... fear is phobia, and nerves.  But fear can also be the result of physical and psychological threats and actions.  I was only once threatened by a student who was unhappy at a grade.  Today I would insist it be taken more seriously than it was 20 years ago.  That was not irrational fear, by any means, and I was lucky it never went beyond one telephoned threat, but that can also be an important component of academic life (and of non-academic life that can influence academic performance, etc.) and I think it can be looked at as probably a useful experience to have that happen once, as long as it never went beyond a single threat.  I know a bit of what that not-being-sure-if-it-is-safe-to-be-in-your-own-home thing feels like.  It was scary, and I would not have spent that night at home for a million dollars.

Fortunately most of my experiences with fear are ones that I can control internally but that I haven't controlled very well.  I do get intimidated and have to work through that.  As a freshman at college, I was intimidated by the huge stacks of books for some introductory level classes, including Philosophy and Anthropology.  I was not sure that these classes were what I wanted to really get into, but because of the tall pile of required textbooks I didn't even try.  In retrospect, I realize I was scared of doing something outside of my comfort zone, something that required effort I wasn't sure would lead to success.  I wasn't necessarily scared of hard work, but I was afraid to do put the effort into something without a guarantee of success.  It was just starting to occur to me that I wasn't going to be good at everything.  But I hadn't processed what that was doing to my academic trajectory.  I think I recovered, but I never did the full year-long anthro class, and I never took chemistry.  I did two years of Geology and the cultural anthro class and an upper level one in archaeological methods (ironically largely statistics that I never got in a stats class it would have been good to take).

My students are, in this at least, more sophisticated than I think I was at their age.  It is at least partly the way they are taught -- the distribution requirements in high school these days are broader than I had and therefore students are more experienced in a wider array of approaches to learning and they are sometimes more understanding of how to make it through things outside their comfort zones.  It doesn't mean they will want to do it, of course.  But they know they have to and they know, in a way, that they can.  For example, my art history majors have to take a drawing class, which is teaching them how to look at and record the world in a completely different way. It is nothing they have necessarily done before, and it is something that is not easy, even for someone who wants to be a studio artist.  But while they aren't all happy to do the class, they don't let that discomfort stop them.  They don't let fear overwhelm them and stop them from doing something they would benefit from.  

Then there is submitting an article, a grant, starting to write a paper or teach a new class or teach subject matter that is not familiar to you.  Teachers have a thousand opportunities to be afraid every day.  We have students who are happy to be in class, of course, but some are not.  Some are pushy, some are angry.  You can't help but think of the situations where a student has been angry at his grade and has brought a gun to the class.  This all is scary.  But standing in front of a class is scary, frankly.  Being a teacher is performing without a net.  

What is frightening to you in the classroom?  Or are you one of those lucky people who doesn't feel fear?  

Originally posted to annetteboardman on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 11:33 AM PDT.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Fear can be useful. (6+ / 0-)

    It isn't as though I welcome it, as I don't. But I've been trying to learn to recognize it and understand it. Ask basic questions such as "what's the worst that would happen?" "How can I avoid that?" or "is that even realistic?" Often the "worst" thing either isn't very bad, or the bad thing isn't very realistic. Knowing that makes it easier to push through and do the thing I'm afraid of.

    Fear in the classroom, for me, usually happened when I wasn't as prepared as I wished. Same thing happened when I wasn't really ready for client meetings. Same thing should have happened for a few other meetings. The experience of fear itself is enough to push a little harder, to be better prepared.

    I was only afraid of a student once. He did not threaten me with words, but he was quite angry. I still remember him, what he looked like. I don't remember many students individually like that.

  •  My biggest fear was that I would fail to reach (8+ / 0-)

    all the students in ways that let them knit new data into the fabric of lives.   It made me overly frustrated trying to create lesson plans for as yet unknown students who brought such wide variations in previous learning.

    De fund + de bunk = de EXIT--->>>>>

    by Neon Mama on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 01:22:37 PM PDT

  •  What I fear in the classroom (9+ / 0-)

    Actually, I dread the possibility that my students  think I am boring. My biggest fear is that I will look like the teacher played by Ben Stein in Ferris Buehler's day off. Occasionally, especially on the days when I actually do talk about "fiscal and monetary policy" I will actually do a Ben Stein imitation-and some of the students even get it. Of all the comments on my evaluations that rankle me the most is "he talks in a monotone"-which I should add is completely unjustified.

    I agree that threats need to be dealt with seriously.

    The very fist semester I was a TA in graduate school I had a rather odd incident-though I am not sure I would classify it as a threat per se.

    A student confronted me as I was walking out the building. he held up his exam and asked excitedly-

    "Do you see this? Do you see this grade"?

    Yes, I replied. I am the one who gave you that grade.

    "This is 2-this is a 2!" (the grade was a 2/4 which was actually a C not a 50%).

    Yes, I can see that it is a 2 I said. A 2 is a C.

    "well" he asked-still very excited. "What are you going to do about it"?

    I replied-why I have no intention of doing anything about it at all.You
    "Well" he said-still extremely excited-"You had better do something about it, or...I will do something about it".

    I was a bit taken aback but fortunately i had enough presence of mind to ask

    Does that mean you intend to study harder for the next exam?

    This seemed to silence the student who just stood there absolutely dumbfounded as I walked on.

    A few days later I relayed the incident to the Director Graduate Studies or the "DOG" as unaffectionately often referred to him. You know he said, you could file a complaint.

    i decided not to.

    While this incident was more humorous and I saw the student's conduct as just blustering and letting off steam-more on the level of a tantrum than a threat-years later I also came to understand how differently male and female professors will perceive potential threats.

    A colleague of mine years later was told by several of her students that another student was talking about how he wanted to chop her up into little pieces. My colleague was absolutely terrified.

    The student's conduct was eventually dismissed by the University as just trash talking even though it probably meets the legal definition of menacing under the laws of some states-including the one where it happened.

  •  My fear is this thing called "check outs" (6+ / 0-)

    you have to perform a nursing skill like starting an IV or suctioning a trach while being watched and graded.

    I get the cold sweats every time.  I'm definitely at level 2 on test days.

    4 levels of anxiety
    1.Mild: day to day: learning easy
    2.Moderate: heightened awareness, before an exam
    3.Severe: diminished thinking and perception; skidding on wet pavement
    4.Panic: overwhelming: paralysis or hyperactive; dangerous

    Silence is GOLDEN, but duct tape is SILVER =)

    by effervescent on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 02:03:13 PM PDT

  •  coming at this from a different perspective (6+ / 0-)

    that would've been darn useful when, as a teenager trying to teach my seniors about firearms safety, I didn't have the life experience to know how to make it work ...

    Level 2 fear as described above is a good thing.

    It's how you ride a motorcycle in traffic without getting turned into red goo.

    It's how you stay in the saddle, how you throw that lariat, how you make that 3-point shot at the buzzer, how you evade that oncoming tackle, how you stand up in front of that class of new students or how you present that paper or how you breathe on that bungee-cord jump or how you brake the rope rappelling. It's how you don't get in a wreck driving your kid, or your spouse, to the ER.

    It's how you fly and land a plane safely.

    It's how you focus your awareness of the problems your students may be having in class.

    It's what drives you to find the resolution to that irresolvable problem.

    That's the edge -- that's where you see and hear and feel and smell and taste and somehow just by osmosis understand the difference between tightrope-walking ... and falling off with no chute.

    But it's a very fine line before the fall, admittedly.

    LBJ, Lady Bird, Anne Richards, Barbara Jordan, Sully Sullenberger, Ike, Drew Brees, Molly Ivins --Texas is no Bush league! -7.50,-5.59

    by BlackSheep1 on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 02:34:56 PM PDT

  •  My fear: Not holding the line at the right time. (4+ / 0-)

    I'm an obstinate enough person, but I also think of myself as someone who can work professionally with just about anyone. I want to be known as tough but fair and as an effective educator.

    There's no magic lens, though, for knowing in any given moment whether I'm sticking to an unpopular position out of professional integrity or out of sheer pigheadedness. I want to be able to acquiesce gracefully when I'm shown to be wrong.

  •  My fear: idiot State Ed edicts (7+ / 0-)

    In NY, we're now subject to a new type of teacher evaluation.  Basically, if teaching is art, the new system reduces it to painting by numbers.  I am worried that my teaching, my curriculum, and my overall goals for teaching will be forced to change to conform with the new assessment system.  It's very frustrating.

    I don't mind paying taxes. If I wanted to live in a libertarian paradise where everyone's actions were guided by rational self-interest, I'd move to Somalia.

    by TeacherH on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 03:44:04 PM PDT

    •  I wish I'd thought of this first (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mamamedusa, annetteboardman

      Fortunately, evaluating higher ed faculty by standardized test scores hasn't surfaced *yet* but we deal with the consequences on a daily basis.

      Perhaps it is just because I am getting old but it seems t me that there has been a marked increase over the last several years in students expecting to be prepped for a standardized test in their subject matter. There has always been a good deal of course of students wanting to know "will this be on the test?" or wanting to know "what will be on the test?".

      Now I find that students complain when you don't write test questions that cover specific, literal points you make in class. This is combined with an increased desire to know "where is this answer in the textbook" in response to a homework problem or an assigned essay.

      I see this as a consequence of the educational "reform" movement.

      Of course I'm not sure that what we do in higher ed is any better because no matter what everyone says (from University Presidents, to Deans, to chairs of department promotion committees, etc.) college faculty are evaluated on the basis of student evaluations.

      Anyone want some fries with your fiscal policy multiplier?

  •  Here's what a teacher had to say (6+ / 0-)

    about meeting Mitt Romney:

    "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." -Benjamin Franklin

    by hotdamn on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 03:48:00 PM PDT

  •  I am one of those awful folks who is pretty (5+ / 0-)

    fearless. I think that a bit more fear might actually be helpful in certain situations.

  •  I let fear rule my life for over 40 years. (10+ / 0-)

    I was afraid people would discover whoI was and how I felt.

    Eventually I had to surrender...and I discovered I what I feared would happen would, indeed happen, but that I could live through it.

  •  I not in the classroom any longer, (9+ / 0-)

    but I taught elementary, middle, high school and graduate courses over a period of twenty-seven years. I still work for a union that represents teachers and educational employees. I cannot think of single time that I experienced real fear the classroom. Concern and frustration yes, but fear not so much. I do see fear in teachers today. The pressure exerted on them from all directions is incredible. From test score pressures to outright threats to their job security and a public who envies them because they have benefits... How sad that fear has become a dynamic of the classroom. Is it conducive to learning? I think not!

    If we don't change, we don't grow. If we don't grow, we aren't really living. - Gail Sheehy

    by itisuptous on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 04:21:05 PM PDT

  •  FERPA (2+ / 0-)

    I would fear that I might reveal something personal about a student as l write about him or her on the internet and that a detail in my teaching story might indentify that student to someone who does not have the right to the information. However, I am hyper-ethical and refrain from that sort of thing. Sadly, I have many great stories that I will never tell. I'm that person who reads all of the hiring documents before signing. Omitting names covers the legal part, but I wouldn't feel comfortable divulging the details of student's behavior.
    Not teaching in the classroom anymore, but still working with college students...I enjoy reading this series,though.

  •  Fear o' the peers (6+ / 0-)

    I've been teaching long enough that there's not too much that worries me in the classroom.  I remember there certainly was a time when I had the cold sweats having to get up in front of a class, but that was quite a while ago. Occasionally I've had to deal with a belligerent student and it's been unpleasant. I had a rather nasty confrontation with a right-wing jackass last year, but fortunately it was in an online class, so it wasn't up close and personal.  I manage to avoid most of these types of encounters by being rigorously fair, pleasant and professional -- I find that diffuses almost all conflicts.  The problem with the jackass in question was simply that they were batshit crazy and reasonable wasn't going to cut it (go figure!)

    However, I still get the cold sweats sometimes when I have to present in front of my peers.  Thinking back over the past couple of years, the worst moments have when I've had to do presentations at conferences.  A couple of years ago I was on a keynote panel representing my college at a national conference --- man was I nervous!  I was terribly worried that I was going to let down my college and look like an idiot in front of a vast audience of my peers.  Fortunately, the presentation went very well, as they almost always do (in part because, being nervous, I usually obsessively rehearse for these types of events).  I have had a couple go south.  A while back I was put in charge of organizing and moderating a panel. It was going ok until one of the panelists I had recruited started going off on wild tangents and I couldn't rein them in!  Embarassing!

  •  My fear (6+ / 0-)

    came from not doing things out of my comfort zone or from being around students. My fear came from being bullied by narcissistic administrators.

  •  Fear? For my job (6+ / 0-)

    I got over all my fear of presenting in advertising, when I had to present numbers after 90 minutes - 2 hours of creative presentations. The classroom doesn't really hold many horrors for me, but the California budget for higher education absolutely does.

    And yes, I still have a degree of fear when my department head decides to observe me for a few minutes.

    -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent, and we are all Wisconsin.

    by Dave in Northridge on Sat Sep 22, 2012 at 09:06:34 PM PDT

  •  I learned that it's not the worst thing... (4+ / 0-)

    ... in the world if my students fear me a little. At least enough that they are motivated to read the assignment before class, and come prepared to discuss the ideas in the reading.

    It was an important lesson for me to learn, as a young female professor, because it's not good to want your students to like you above all else. The key is to ensure that students respect you, and putting a little bit of fear in their hearts can help to do that. As I was advised by a tenured female professor and mentor, it is best to start off firm, and then loosen up a bit later in the semester if all the students are really engaged in the learning process.

    I had a ton of fears as an assistant professor about research and getting my article submissions reviewed and how I would make it through the tenure process... but relatively few about teaching. I generally had enough positive feedback from at least some of my students to know that I was growing as a teacher and learning to be even more effective in facilitating students' learning. Sadly, it turns out that a lot of my fears about the politics of the tenure process turned out to be true... but now I am teaching at a different university, and all the ugliness of that political nightmare is well behind me.

    There was only one day as a professor when I was truly terrified at work. I was on campus on the day that a former student at our university came into our building with automatic weapons and held 90+ of my colleagues hostage for several hours. I was truly fearful that day... even though I wasn't in the building, I had just filed final grades for the semester, including several F grades to students who I was concerned might be emotionally unstable. My biggest fear was that the shooter might have been one of my former students, and that I could be indirectly responsible in some way. It was a horrible day.

    I'm fortunate that I've never received any threats from students; some  of my TAs did, and I had to talk them through filing formal complaints. Yech.

    On the first day of class at the beginning of a new semester, I'm always a little anxious as I walk into the classroom. Will I be able to show up as the competent, professional, effective, and welcoming professor that I am, or am I going to somehow get off on the wrong foot and make a fool of myself. A little bit of that fear always motivates me to be well prepared to go into that room and be "on stage" without a net. Some fear is motivational.

  •  Want fear? (6+ / 0-)

    I fear losing my job in my charter school.  
    I fear the state test my students will take at the end of the year and how it will affect my evaluation.  
    I fear the AP exam my students will take at the end of the year and how it will affect my evaluation.  
    I fear my administration because of unchecked power, little oversight, and little accountability.  
    I fear I may not get paid each week or that my check will be inaccurate as it already has been at my new job.  At my previous school which was shut down I didn't receive my last 2 pay checks.
    I fear for my former colleagus who also were not paid and have not yet found jobs.  
    I fear retirement, because without a pension, I cannot save effectvley through a 403b plan with my meager salary.
    I fear I will be payng off my student loans the rest of my life due my meager salary.
    i fear I will never own a house and will rent the rest of my life.
    I fear I am only one of a generation of teachers who face the same issues.  
    I fear for my students whose parents are struggling to make ends meet and are not saving enough for their own retirements.
    I fear for my students and what college will cost them.  
    I fear for their future.  
    I fear for the future of this country.  
    I fear that as an educator in 2012, I like many other teachers are the canaries in the coal mine of this society and nobody is listening.    

    I take political action every day. I teach.

    by jbfunk on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 06:47:27 AM PDT

    •  By Design, a feature, NOT a bug, the Rahm-Arne (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      -ites working hand in hand with the fascists have you exactly where they want you.

      we don't have this too much, yet, in Washington ... of course, with our politically incompetent union leadership most focused on having meetings and meetings and meetings with all the other people with big titles,

      so they can discuss what activism is, or could be, or might be,

      we're getting set up to get our asses completely kicked.

      best of luck to you - if you can get a better job for a few years - same / better money / crap benefits, with less of the incessant teacher / parent / admin stress,

      consider it.

      there are THOUSANDS of union and university pooh-bahs in the usa who've let this deformer shit happen, it ain't your mess to clean up, and, they're the ones who should be out on their asses, not you.


      Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous

      by seabos84 on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 11:46:53 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I taught mostly at the college level (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mamamedusa, annetteboardman

    Only rarely were my classes a required course for graduation- and those were for students with anthropology majors. A required general ed course might represent a greater barrier/threat to a student which could increase their angst and arousal. One of my colleagues was beat-up rather badly by a failed PhD candidate. I think student suicide is more common, and something I worried more about than being attacked. In about 40 years I had one student attack me physically. He was large and very drunk, and did manage to break 2 of my ribs before he went down. It wasn't even about a grade issue. I don't know to this day what he was thinking. He left school within a week.

    My work experience also included some very non-academic activities. For example, I was a private investigator for a few years. I was also an environmental/archaeological monitor on large construction projects. In both those jobs, I received death threats fairly often, even sometimes from people working for me! (5 total, two involving guns or knives). So, academic setting threats seemed mild in that context.

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