Education: The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself (with apologies to United States President Franklin Roosevelt).

Teachers are afraid. We panic when visitors arrive in our classroom (especially unannounced). We fret about teaching to the dreaded standardized test, but if we don’t, how can our students be successful on the test? We worry when new curricula and technologies are adopted because we can’t see any way that we will have enough time to master them.

Students are afraid. They sit with hands glued firmly at their sides when the teacher asks someone to give the correct answer (“What if I’m not right?”). They angst over assessments, evaluations and grade-point averages; sometimes even begging for extra credit when none is needed if they just do the assignment. And they come to our classrooms with anxieties over events at home or in anticipation of very unstable futures.

Families are afraid their children will find trouble rather than success. Administrators are afraid of how to best provide for the myriad needs of their school communities. Legislators fear not being re-elected if schools don’t show improvement.

What if we all stopped worrying and embraced positive uncertainty – the ability to accept and even be positive about the uncertainty of the future? If we want our students to become problem-solvers, we need to let them practice it without worrying about grades or assessments occasionally. We need to be comfortable with them discussing ideas and trying them out. We need to push them to try new things rather than punish them when they fail.

For example, when we started talking about Gender Inequality in my classroom through The Human Differences Project and #TeachSDGs (UN Sustainable Development Goals), my students had no clue why it would ever be an issue, because it is not a part of our lives here. But as they began reading, researching, it was heartening and amazing to watch them become aware of some of the issues others face around the world. It was eye-opening for my students to listen to students from other countries like India and China in which gender inequality is a real challenge. Having the opportunity to hear the story of someone else’s challenges and having a real conversation with them – especially when they are peers – makes those “on the other side of wall” suddenly a real part of your world. Students are up for the challenge, if we give them the right guidance.

Teachers must be focused and flexible, setting reasonable goals. We must feel free to adjust those goals as we learn more about our world, ourselves and our students. Families, administrators and legislators need to find ways to track student progress that creates opportunities rather than instilling more fear. We all need to be both realistic and optimistic so that we reflect honestly on our strengths and challenges and see their positive potential. We need to stop being afraid and take that first step forward. And then the next. And the next.     

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