Fear is the dominant emotion for teachers now

Fear isn't necessarily a bad thing. But when teachers are dogged by constant fear, it starts driving them from the profession, says Jo Brighouse

Scared woman, looking out through her fingers

There’s a global grassroots movement, which started on social media, called WomenEd. Their aim is to support and encourage more women into school leadership

Their battle cry is: “Be 10 per cent braver.” I wholeheartedly support this. Teachers these days need to be brave

While we’re working with percentages, maybe government ministers could be 86 per cent more attuned to the realities of life in schools, and Ofsted 100 per cent more humble. 

Since the chances of this happening are around 0 per cent, we’re stuck with the fear. 

Adrenalin spikes

Fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is, after all, a key weapon in our primal sense of survival. The spike of adrenalin it produces makes us more alert and more productive, and can even burn extra calories.

Wander into any school building and there will be small rushes of fear popping up all over the place: from the five-year-old about to stand up in assembly, to the headteacher summoned to an urgent meeting with that parent.  

When I was at school, our school song espoused fear (albeit of the judgemental, Old Testament variety). We sang: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, a good understanding have all they that do thereafter,” leading me to wonder whether my inability to fathom chemistry was down to an insufficient dread of the almighty.

In classrooms today, the message to “feel the fear and do it anyway” is very much on trend. We gently nudge children out of their comfort zones, mindful that too much fear is counterproductive, and that the default environment has to be one of safety and encouragement. 

Fear as dominant emotion

Unfortunately, a similar environment is far from guaranteed for teachers. Of course you get spikes of fear in the job (like the moment you’re sitting in a packed hall, waiting for someone to lead assembly, before realising that that someone is you). It’s also fairly normal to spend large chunks of your NQT year teetering on the edge of sheer terror.  

But what happens when fear becomes the dominant emotion? 

I think many teachers are dogged by fear. A persistent, low-level strain that permeates their working lives. Fear that they’re not teaching effectively, that they haven’t got the paperwork under control, that they’re not on top of behaviour. Fear that they are simply not good enough. 

You would think that a solid track record and years of experience would eliminate these doubts, but this isn’t always the case. Constantly shifting goal posts ensures that no teacher ever really feels on completely solid ground. Just as you are starting to think you may have cracked it, someone announces their intention to deep dive into your geography and D&T, and fear levels return to previous heights. 

Enervating and stultifying

This kind of emotion is both enervating and stultifying. It won’t improve your teaching, and is likely to hold you back from doing something positive. It’s driving teachers out of the profession and is also completely out of proportion for teaching a load of eight-year-olds their seven times table

The terrible shame is that so much of it can be easily avoided. Good headteachers are great at dissipating fear among their staff, but who guards their fear levels? I bet Roosevelt would never have said that thing about there being nothing to fear but fear itself if he’d been a head with plummeting data, awaiting an Ofsted call. 

Maybe it just comes down to accountability. Teachers don’t fear hard work, but only the brave can withstand the level of judgement and scrutiny we are under. 

Those at the top who get to tinker with the system would do well to focus on reducing the fear factor too. Even 10 per cent would be a start. 

Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym for a primary teacher in the West Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse

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