Fear can be debilitating. Kissing cousins with pride, it can breed defensiveness and make people pigheaded. It can get us off track or completely stop us in our tracks. In the classroom, it can put huge roadblocks between students and learning. Below you will find two learner characteristics and four classroom techniques that might help us understand and manage learners’ fear.
Two Learner Characteristics
As the Israelites could attest, following Yahweh is a good place to encounter fear. At one point in their history, they had just experienced a rather harrowing set of events involving a narcissistic Pharaoh and a frenetic midnight escape. Now, panicking, they’re stuck between a sea and an army where they hear two contradictory messages from their leader and his God:
Moses: Do not be afraid. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.
Yahweh: Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.
Conflicting messages or two sides of overcoming fear?
On one side, learners engage in the art of letting go. They open their hands (or hearts) and release self into the more capable hands of Yahweh in spite of the unknowns of what, when, and how. In the classroom, this tolerance of ambiguity, in healthy measures, can release minds paralyzed by anxiety over the unknown. In language learning, it can unlock both minds and mouths overwhelmed by the complexities of linguistic rules.
On the other side, learners engage in the discipline of moving forward. They progress through the unknown with faith in spite of looming obstacles. In the classroom, this willingness to take risks, wise risks, can advance learners through new territory and into the beyond. In language learning, it can lead to, not necessarily perfect, but successful communication.
Four Classroom Techniques
With or without Yahweh in their picture, infusing students with these characteristics is impossible. We might, though, be able to create a classroom environment where a healthy tolerance of ambiguity and measured risks are encouraged. Here are four classroom techniques I’ve found helpful.
- unambiguous expectations: When I first started teaching graduate students, a seasoned professor suggested that clear expectations make for easier grading. Students appreciate them too. i + 1 is appropriate for new material, i for the context of learning, for explanations of assignments, activities, and the type of participation we expect in every class.
- pleasure in the process: Step by step through new territory is not meant to be an insipid plodding. Learning should be challenging and can be arduous. I’ve noticed, though, that when I demonstrate a technique, elicit students’ ideas, or have them synthesize by creating a poster, proverb, or speech, they get lost in learning while fear fades into the background.
- genuine encouragement: One day a student’s expression caught my attention when I brought her earlier ideas into a later discussion. It was as if a burden had been lifted. I’m learning that encouragement may be a better balance for fear when it’s specific to individuals, situations, and the whys of a job well-done.
- an atmosphere of trust: Conventional wisdom says that creating a safe environment in our classrooms will lessen anxiety and encourage risk-taking. Some teachers I meet with once a week for English language practice have emphasized trust as foundational to our safe environment, trust between all members of the group not just between teacher and students.
Severing relations with Cousin Pride may be the best way to help our students. We imitate the Master Teacher when we yield our right to be in the know. They see a model of fear management when we admit our weaknesses, laugh at our deficiencies, and humbly attempt a new technology, language, or skill in which they are proficient and we are not. Most importantly, this modeling begins with us sitting in the Master Teacher’s classroom, soaking in and living out His curriculum for conquering fear: In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.
Quotes from Scripture, in italics, are from the NIV.