Professional Development Opinion

Fear, the Kryptonite to Learning

By Starr Sackstein — March 26, 2019 3 min read
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The youngest learners see the world with curiosity and wonder.

Questions fly from them with genuine interest for understanding about the way things work and why things happen as they do. They crave the knowledge of a deeper connection with their bodies and the world around them, even if they forget our answers minutes after they ask.

These young learners fall when they try to walk and get up and try again. They get hurt when they ride a bike for the first time, but they don’t give up.

They may be afraid to jump into a pool before they know how to swim, but their desire to swim outweighs their fear, so they muster the courage and leap into the arms of a parent in a pool or into water they can stand in.

Around 3rd grade, when standardized testing in the United States often starts, we can start to see a trepidation and/or anxiety around learning. All of a sudden, it matters if you get an answer wrong.

Before this point, students asked dozens of questions, raised their hands to share ideas that were not even aligned with the questions being asked, and didn’t even seem fazed or self-conscious about it. As a matter of fact, when my son was little, I went to read to his kindergarten class and I was blown away by how many times the same kids would try to answer a question without shame if they didn’t get the question right.

After that experience, I asked Logan (my son) if he would come to my school and talk to my seniors about how to ask questions and explore learning through his eyes to remind my seniors how unscary it actually is.

The older we get, the more afraid we are to get things wrong, to fail. We talk a good game about a growth mindset, but some of us will go to great lengths (just like our students) to not have to change or try new things. The experience is actually terrifying.

Although we may understand that we won’t die from trying something new, the fear of not being as competent as we want to appear and/or feeling stupid in front of our students or our peers can be completely overwhelming.

So what do we do about it?

We have to model a growth mindset if we want kids to understand the importance of lifelong learning, and some people are more comfortable with that level of transparency. However, for the ones who aren’t we need to be compassionate and firm as we bring them into the pool of risk for the first time.

As leaders, it is essential that we create an environment where teachers feel completely supported when trying something new.

Here are a few things to try:

  • Make sure to arm teachers with as much knowledge and information as needed for them to feel safe. This could be resources, professional learning opportunities, conversations, co-planning and co-teaching, modeling and/or allowing them to visit in their colleagues’ classrooms. If we can expose teachers to what it looks like in a lot of different ways, it’s not quite so unknown.
  • Try to anticipate their needs, but when you can’t ... ask them what they need if they can articulate it. Then go to great lengths to try to get them whatever it is they need.
  • Listen to their pushback. Take it seriously. Then at another time, talk to them about possibilities.
  • Acknowledge concern but don’t allow it to cripple the movement forward. Pair teachers up so that they have a buddy or mentor who they feel comfortable sharing with and brainstorming with.
  • Create a culture where sharing mistakes is a part of the norm and is celebrated. Lead with transparency and share the mistakes you make and how you reflected on them to continue to grow your learning.
  • Be a cheerleader for those who need it. Make sure that you are really positive about what needs to be done and cheer on those who need the acknowledgment to keep going. This encouragement is essential. We have to help our folks see the growth and progress they are making, especially when it is just a little at a time.
  • Remind them that it is OK for things to fail. Learning is messy, and when we try new things, they don’t go right automatically because we will it to be. This is essential. So we have to build an expectation of reflection into the process, so when things don’t go right (and they will often not go right), we can really look at why and problem-solve together so next time, it will be better.

The older we get, the harder it is to make change. Think about the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It is ingrained in us that change becomes almost impossible as we age, but that is simply not true. If we truly want to make a change or take a risk, if the circumstances are where they need to be, it will happen. It will take time, and we must be patient, but we mustn’t give up.

How have you moved past a fear in order to learn? Please share

*Picture made with Pablo.com

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.