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.
As you know, I am not a professional teacher; however, as a social worker I educate patients on a daily basis. I was speaking with one of my anxiety-ruled patients just yesterday about the ways that fear holds us back. I suggested to her that is why in the Word, time and time again, the Father prefaces His messages with: “Do not be afraid. Fear not!” He knows we have a tendency toward being ruled by our fear (and its Cousin Pride) and tells us the cure for both: Focus on Him instead of self!
I think as teachers/social workers, one of the best opportunities to open up the door to sharing Truth is to let people know that they matter. Not based on the world's standards, but simply because they are created by and for His glory. I've wondered how to show people this recently and it dawned on me to, not just show them, but simply start telling them! I've been humbled by the look in people's eyes and the tears when I tell them they matter. Then I get to tell them why! What a privilege!
Thanks for those insightful words, Angela. I like both what you say about eyes on Him and telling people they matter. Maybe that's why I like reading “The Giving Tree” so much, not just to children at project schools but also to my grad students. The story really resonates with them. It's a picture of what a parent or teacher should be like in their culture. Then, of course, I like to tell them who I think the tree represents, One who DOES love in that way.
In the classroom, I think there are numerous ways to show individuals that they matter. I'm not sure my students always fully embrace it when I say, “No one loves your grammar mistakes more than I do,” but they usually smile. I 'love' their mistakes enough to pay attention to them, think about why they are making them, and help them figure out how to correct them. I love the challenge of finding ways to welcome students as they are–as they are culturally, as they are in terms of language level, as they are in terms of personality. “Perfect love casts out fear.”
Julie, your students are blessed to have you as their teacher, and I think they know that…even if they can't find the right words or grammar structure to express it. 🙂 I love your way of loving them out of their fear, both by helping them and by thrilling to the challenge of helping them. Amen.