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by Bob Sullo
Table of Contents
Despite compelling evidence to the contrary, many teachers still believe that fear—fear of failure, fear of an unwanted call home, fear of the teacher, fear of ridicule, or fear of an unpleasant consequence—is a prime motivator for students to do high-quality work. The intentional creation of fear in the classroom remains one of the most widely used strategies for managing student behavior and encouraging academic achievement.
But fear compromises our ability to learn. In this chapter, you will meet a well-intentioned teacher who undermines his capacity to inspire high achievement by creating a classroom environment infused with fear.
As students filed into Sam Lewiston's fourth-period U.S. History class, the first thing that struck me was that they were relatively quiet. By midmorning, most high school juniors are an energized, if not boisterous, group. These students were remarkably subdued, quickly taking their seats and opening their notebooks even before the bell rang. It was evident that no one wanted to be caught unprepared for the beginning of class.
At the front of the room, Mr. Lewiston reviewed his notes and the day's agenda, posted on the whiteboard along with two quotations:
"There are no gains without pains." —Benjamin Franklin
"Feel the fear and do it anyway." —Susan Jeffers
The bell rang, and Mr. Lewiston closed the door. Seconds later, two students entered sheepishly. One started to explain that there had been some congestion in the hall, but he was quickly silenced by Mr. Lewiston.
"Caleb, you know the rules. Don't aggravate the situation with a pointless plea. I'll see you this afternoon. Same with you, Trevor."
The two students took their seats as classmates traded nervous glances. Mr. Lewiston calmly wrote the names of the two students on the board under the heading "Detention."
"Okay, let's begin. We have a major exam tomorrow. While the stakes are high for every one of you, some of you are currently failing, and your performance tomorrow will go a long way in determining if you pass or fail this quarter. I won't embarrass any of you by announcing who you are. You know if this pertains to you." As Mr. Lewiston made this pronouncement, he looked around the room, letting his gaze settle on a half-dozen students who worked furiously to avert eye contact.
"I'm pleased to add that some of you are doing quite well," Mr. Lewiston continued, "but remember that one poor grade can negate what you have done thus far. Now is not the time to relax. Tomorrow's test will be fair. It will also be challenging, to say the least."
The bulk of the class period was spent reviewing a study guide for the upcoming test. Mr. Lewiston's pace was brisk. He called on students randomly. Those who were unable to provide an answer within a few seconds were admonished with comments like, "Earth to Alicia. Wake up. Test tomorrow," and "Armand, your lack of preparation never ceases to amaze me." A few students smiled nervously, but most kept their eyes glued to their notebooks and study guides. When students provided correct answers, Mr. Lewiston acknowledged their success but reminded them, "It's how you do in the game that matters. This is practice. Tomorrow is the big game. Don't let up."
With one minute remaining, Mr. Lewiston said, "Kindly put away your study guides, close your notebooks, and give me your full attention. Tomorrow's test will be an important determinant in the grade you receive this quarter. I encourage each of you to remember the stakes, prepare to the best of your ability, and prove that you want to be successful by doing well on tomorrow's test. Caleb and Trevor, remember your detention this afternoon." With that, the bell rang, and students filed out of the room as quietly and orderly as they had entered it.
I had a chance to catch up with several students from the class later that day. I asked about their impressions of their teacher, his style, and his class.
"Well, it's pretty obvious he's kind of a no-nonsense hard-ass," began Caleb, one of the students assigned to detention.
"Is he fair?" I asked.
"Absolutely," answered Caleb. "That's what makes it semitolerable. I knew when I walked into class like two seconds late that I was going to get a detention. I'm not even sure why I tried to explain that it was crowded in the halls. No matter what you say, it's not going to change anything. Mr. Lewiston has his rules, they're nonnegotiable, and that's the end of that story."
"Seriously!" exclaimed Marcy, a girl who had correctly answered several questions during the class I had observed. "I remember one time being late because I was talking with my Spanish teacher. Even though I had a pass from her, Mr. Lewiston still gave me a detention. When I complained, he just said to me, 'Marcy, your Spanish teacher cannot excuse you from my detention. A pass with her signature is not a license to violate my rules.' But Caleb's right. Mr. Lewiston is fair. He would never play favorites. I mean, you heard him in class today. He doesn't just scare students who are in danger of failing. He intimidates and scares everyone!"
"Does he scare you?" I asked.
"Of course he does. Isn't it obvious? Most of us spend the class trying to avoid being singled out. To be honest, if you do your work and you're prepared, you can get through most classes without much of a problem. But a surprise attack can come at any time. That's why I just try to fly under the radar in that class," said Marcy.
"Are you a good student?" I asked Marcy.
"As of today I am," she answered with a slight smile. "But as Mr. Lewiston reminded us, that could change tomorrow."
"Do reminders that things could change for the worse keep you focused and on your toes?"
"I don't think so. I mean, in my other classes I stay on top of things, and I don't have this big cloud of fear hanging over me, so I'm not more conscientious because I'm constantly scared my grade will drop. I do know that I would never say anything controversial or risky in that class. It's just easier—and way smarter—to follow the script and move on with minimal damage."
"Anyone want to add anything else?" I asked.
"I've got something," offered Armand. "I think if you ask most kids, they'd say Mr. Lewiston is an OK guy. I mean, he makes sarcastic comments like he made to me today about not being prepared, but he's not trying to be nasty. It's just his way of motivating us. I think he believes if we're not constantly afraid of imminent doom and failure, we'll do less. Even when he's being critical, most kids don't feel that he's the enemy or anything. He's just thinks his job is to instill fear."
"So his style is OK with most students," I said.
"Oh, no!" the students exclaimed in chorus. "It's a struggle to get through his class. You live in constant fear that you'll be zapped and humiliated. A good day in Mr. Lewiston's class is when you remain invisible."
"One last question," I said. "Anyone here planning to go to college and major in history?"
"Now that," said Caleb, "is one of the funniest things I've ever heard!"
When I arrived at Sam Lewiston's room that afternoon for our follow-up conversation, he immediately stood up, shook my hand, and asked if I wanted anything to eat or drink. The contrast between how he treated me and how he managed his students was so glaring that it deserved mention.
"Whole different atmosphere and approach in here," I ventured.
"Absolutely," said Sam, a grin spreading across his face. "You and I are colleagues having a conversation about something I love: teaching. When you saw me earlier today, I was wearing my teacher hat. There are specific things I need to do and ways I need to act with my students if I'm to have the success I want."
"Tell me about that," I encouraged. "It sounds interesting."
"Sure," said Sam. "When I said I was wearing my teacher hat, I don't mean that I wasn't being genuine. I was. When I'm in the teacher role, my job is to make sure the kids learn as much as possible. To do that, I need to engender a healthy fear: fear of me, fear of failure, fear of an unknown future. Fear is a great motivator; without injecting it into my classroom, I wouldn't be doing my job."
"The students clearly fear you. It was palpable in the classroom today, and my subsequent conversation with a few students confirmed that they certainly experience fear."
"As strange as it may sound," Sam replied, "that's good to hear. If they weren't afraid, they'd be less motivated. I am curious, though. In your observation or conversations with students, was there any mention of fairness? Was I seen as too emotional or angry?"
"The students acknowledged your fairness and obviously appreciate it. They told me that you are tough and instill fear in them but never play favorites. And there was no mention of any emotionalism or anger."
"Good. I try to keep the emotion out of my teaching. I want to take a matter-of-fact, 'this is what happens here' approach. Like this morning, when I assigned detention to those two boys who were late to class. Nice boys, both of them. But I have rules, and there are consequences for violating those rules. At the same time, I never want to come across like I'm emotionally distressed by their behavior. They chose to be late. I invoked the sanction. Everyone in the room gets a wake-up call, and we move on."
I was struck by Sam's easygoing manner. He seemed to truly enjoy teaching and wanted what was best for his students. At the same time, his classroom was devoid of joy and laced with fear. "What about your use of sarcasm?" I asked.
"It's just another tool in my toolbox," Sam replied. Referring to his comments from earlier that day, he said, "Alicia is a nice girl, but she zones out and needs a jolt to reel her in. And Armand is a capable young man who has slid by on his native intelligence rather than developing a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility. He needs to hear that in the most unambiguous way."
"Fair enough," I countered. "But are you worried that your sarcastic comments will do more harm than good?"
"Not really," Sam answered. "These are adolescents; they trash-talk with each other routinely. My little sarcastic jabs just get their attention. More subtle forms of communication are lost on most of them. I'm sure it does no harm."
"Does it bother you to 'play the heavy' with kids?" I asked.
"Not in the least. My objective is to get kids to perform, and the simple truth is they wouldn't perform as well if I didn't hold their feet to the fire. You saw the quotations on my board. Fear and pain are essential to success, and I want success—for my students and for me. If I were to adopt a different approach, I might find my classes more enjoyable, but I would sacrifice the satisfaction I get every day knowing that I am helping my students experience academic success."
There are teachers who feel that they must create a fear-laden environment to be successful. Sam and others of his ilk are well intentioned in their approach, in that they are driven by their desire to be as effective as possible. They truly believe that fear is a necessary component of successful learning.
My conversations with Sam and his students clearly illustrated that Sam has the best interests of the students at heart. As Armand told me, "Mr. Lewiston is an OK guy. … It's just his way of motivating us." When Sam was not in his "teacher role," his kindness and commitment to education were evident. The vast majority of teachers like Sam who intentionally create fear in the classroom do so because they believe such an atmosphere inspires academic achievement. But does it?
Let's examine the impact of fear on learning. When we feel threatened and experience fear, we downshift to survival mode. Students are less able to learn effectively because their primary focus is on self-protection. As the students told me, a good day in Sam Lewiston's class is defined by one's ability to "remain invisible."
Fear activates the well-known fight-or-flight mechanism. This autonomic physiological process sends increased amounts of oxygenated blood to the large extremities so that we are prepared to fight or flee. Because we have a finite amount of blood, the increase in blood flow to our arms and legs leads to a corresponding decrease
in blood flow in other areas—specifically, the brain. Physiologically speaking, students in an environment characterized by fear are not able to think as effectively and learn as much as those who are in an environment that feels safe and secure.
Erik Jensen states, "Start by removing threats from the learning environment. No matter how excited you are about adding positives to the environment, first work to eliminate the negatives. … There is no evidence that threats are an effective way to meet long-term academic goals" (1998, p. 30).
One of the "tools" Sam discussed with me was his use of sarcasm. Even if Sam is right in his belief that adolescents routinely "trash-talk" with each other, there is no place for sarcasm in the repertoire of any teacher. Unfortunately, sarcastic comments remain a staple in the management approach of many teachers. Like Sam, these teachers probably believe that their sarcasm "does no harm" and is necessary to get the attention of their students. But sarcasm affects students' sense of well-being and confidence in themselves. Some students will try to "even the score" by disrupting the class and interfering with the learning process. Others will shut down and disengage. Either way, effective teaching and learning are compromised by the use of sarcasm.
Learning can be a scary process. Whenever we take on the challenge of acquiring new knowledge or developing new skills, we make ourselves vulnerable. We are moving from a place of competence into uncharted territory. As adults, we are keenly aware of how difficult it is to leave our comfort zones. We speak glibly about the discomfort we experience during the "steep learning curve" that is part and parcel of each new learning experience. We must keep in mind that we ask our students to embrace that uncomfortable sensation and the onslaught of steep learning curves we offer them. If we want our students to open themselves up to new learning and risk being vulnerable, we must drive fear and sarcasm out of our classrooms and schools.
There are countless teachers like Sam Lewiston who believe that fear inspires higher achievement. His values are reflected in the comment he made to me: "If I were to adopt a different approach, I might find my classes to be more enjoyable, but I would sacrifice the satisfaction I get every day knowing that I am helping my students experience academic success." Sam and others like him will change only when they discover that their strategies make it more difficult to attain their worthy goal. Arguing with Sam would be futile. Because we share the same objective (high academic achievement by students), it is essential to develop a positive relationship with Sam and identify a commonality of purpose. Because Sam describes himself as "goal focused," showing him that there is a more effective way to achieve his goals than using his current methods will allow him to examine the true impact of the fear he engenders in his students. With effort, Sam can abandon his current practices and create a classroom that minimizes fear and supports the high achievement he wants for his students.
This is important.
You can do it.
I won't give up on you. (1997, p. 296)
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