Dealing with 'The Fear'

11th May 2013 at 21:25

There’s an aspect of teaching that’s rarely mentioned in the adverts and training courses, but it’s something that many, many teachers wade through in desperation: the Fear.


The Fear is when a teacher, usually new, but sometimes not, starts to realise that a gap has opened up between what they expect to be doing and what they can actually do. The crack widens to an abyss over time. The students refuse to do as they’re asked, and even worse, they refuse to do tasks so intrinsically in their own interest that it seems counter- intuitive that they would refuse, for example no throwing chairs at each other.


But it doesn’t take anything so spectacular to generate the fear. The fear creeps, like some fifties sci-fi cinema monster designed to prey on paranoia, through the slightest of gaps. A solitary, unfathomable hum begins in a classroom; picked up by others it becomes a chorus of invisible ninjas: to the teacher it is death by a thousand cuts. A pupil tells you you’re a terrible teacher. You look at a pile of marking and realise that, were you to attempt its ascent you would commit time from your life you don’t possess. Your line manager asks you for paperwork you can barely understand.

This is a job that will bleed you. I used to work in restaurants in Piccadilly, serving fifteen tables on a Saturday night to mobs of angry customers; I also ran Soho nightclubs where my safety was threatened as a matter of routine, but I have never felt the sense of anxiety and adrenalin that teaching often entails. I have also dressed as a cowboy and handed out fliers in the high street; I have scraped and grovelled at the tables of churlish families, and never felt the sense of indignity and humiliation that a bad day in teaching can provide.


Some, like I did, will go home, knuckle tears away and blame themselves, tell no one, ask for no help. Some will, like I did, lash out, leaking their wounds back against their imagined tormentors.


This is the Fear: I’m not good enough for this job; I’m not worth listening to; I barely exist. There are few humiliations so complete as being ignored. I was once told by a homeless man that this was the worst part of his existence, before exposure and loneliness and all the other predations of his life: being ignored. Our own torment differs in magnitude, but not in essence. To be ignored is to be nothing. 

I wonder if the fear ever leaves us. I feel it still, even after all these years, even after all the external reminders that the hand I place on the tiller is steady, the observations, the inspections, the opportunities to train and coach. If there is a seed of doubt within you, no soil will amend its essence. Working with people, with children - often unwilling - will magnify your fears of inadequacy like an echo in a Swiss valley. You never stop doubting yourself. The fear is only contained, never conquered.


Set free, the Fear conquers us; every failure at school looms as tall as Jack’s beanstalk; it haunts us in the dark; it nags us awake when we should be resting, and nips us when we should be thinking of anything else. The Fear is jealous, and needy. 

But the Fear is a false God. Failure is part of our job, just as it is in the lives of every human being. No doctor saves every patient, and failure itself does not make us into failures. Only we permit that. We fail - or fall - to rise. If we’re wise, we file every failure away properly, not forgotten, but tamed, in its place, useful rather than devastating. Slowly, we fail less; our failures cease to torment us, and instead disappoint us. The Fear becomes the Familiarity, and no longer haunts us. Captive, shrunk to its rightful size, the Fear becomes an ally, aiding our growth.

Some might even call that the definition of success