Chase away the culture of fear

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Mike Fielding gets to the roots of school-bred fears and urges the new teacher to weed them out of the system

Louise, my hairdresser, was talking about suddenly being confronted with her old headteacher as a client. "I told her," she said, "I may be much older but I'm still scared of you. I can hardly hold the scissors."

She didn't tell me the reply but it made me think about the place of fear in school life and, particularly, what it means for the new teacher. Because, except in rare cases, whatever the apparent benignity of the regime of any school, fear lurks fairly near the surface.

Its causes, perhaps, are not difficult to find but its effect can be far-reaching and the new teacher must work out their response both to the way they may be feared and what they may fear themselves. And they must try to understand the connection between fear and respect.

The tradition of fear stems generally from our social structure but more particularly from the authority relations considered essential to the process of taming the unruly in the early days of compulsory education. Fear of physical hurt kept most in their desks and attentive.

At the same time as controlling children, the "masters" and "mistresses" of old had also to direct the work of people sometimes with little more education than their pupils. They may not often have used physical means with adults but criticism and opprobrium were powerful weapons. This tradition of hierarchy underpinned by fear has stayed with schools even through the development of apparently more relaxed approaches to relationships.

Teachers may be afraid of doing the wrong thing in schools where experiment isn't encouraged or of failing to live up to expectations in schools where it is. It's what gives inspectors their power and puts a flutter in the stomach of even the most experienced teacher when somebody enters their classroom unexpectedly.

Fear is often demonstrated in the many cultural nuances the new teacher must absorb. For instance, the one whose head had introduced himself as "John Smith" and therefore referred to him in that way was quickly told by colleagues that she must call him "Mr Smith", with obvious consequences for her state of nervousness.

Children, of course, have more to fear than teachers. Quite apart from bullies in the playground (a more pronounced phenomenon where the overall ethos is corrosively fearful) they know they can be punished almost at will. While physical chastisement is no longer possible, deprivation of liberty, additional work and removal of privileges are ways teachers use to maintain control. Children, even if reluctantly, by and large accept them as long they feel they are given fairly and with explanation. Arbitrariness is abhorred because it makes them feel insecure. What they really fear is being shown up in front of friends. The teachers they can't stand are sarcastic, cutting, make personal remarks and have the capacity to embarrass with a look. In their classes children keep their heads down and either try to remain incognito or overcompensate with obsequiousness.

This can often pass for respect, particularly among those teachers for whom a good classroom is a silent one and a good lesson one in which the children do no more than imbibe the pearls of wisdom and regurgitate them accurately at the appropriate time.

But real respect is a much more subtle and demanding thing, which no teacher should expect as of right. It has to be worked for. The new teacher who thinks that status alone is sufficient justification for any demands made of the pupils, or that you can punish your way to acceptance, may have short-term success because children fear the consequences of failure to comply. But it will not, in the long term, earn their respect. That only comes when students' recognise the teacher's competence, accept that you have a positive attitude to them and feel you can provide the kind of learning environment that makes coming to school worthwhile.

But while a particular teacher may sometimes be treasured as an oasis of calm and respect, if the overall atmosphere in the school encourages feelings of fear then an individual who is out of step may encounter difficulties because of it. Therefore, ensuring the school has an ethos you are comfortable with is an essential part of job-seeking.

Many people like a tightly structured environment where they know their place and know what will happen if they step out of it. But even where the structure is loose and all staff and students seem relaxed together, fear may still be present, often more in the minds of those who feel themselves subject to sanction than those empowered to impose it. Differences in status alone can lead to feelings of insecurity.

Teachers can also be afraid of children. A class of bored or temperamental teenagers with an instinct for their capacity to wound can be a thoroughly frightening experience which most teachers have been through and often expect might just be about to happen again. But in preparing for the worst they can sometimes provoke it and that's a lesson new teachers often learn the hard way.

Fear, sadly, appears to be a fact of life in school (and other diverse and demanding organisations). Because school is the one experience in life virtually everyone goes through, those feelings are widely held and focused on teachers. Which is probably why Louise, suddenly faced with a situation in which, ironically, she could herself be dominant, found all the old fears flooding back and had to ask someone else to finish the cut.

Mike Fielding was formerly principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, north Devon

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