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'Why teachers should embrace the idea of instilling fear in their students'

Institutionalized methods such as making children line up or redo a piece of work that isn't good enough are underestimated, writes a British teacher in New York

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We are all likely to remember at least one teacher who put the fear of God into us. For me it was Mr Shanks, a math teacher who appeared to have stepped out of the 1800s, complete with cap and gown, berating any student who dared to misinterpret the rule of Pythagoras.

The education system has evidently changed since Tom Brown’s schooldays. Teachers no longer throw board erasers at poorly behaved students for a start; although I can't say I haven’t imagined doing so in the deepest and darkest afternoon periods with that class who just won’t stop chatting.

And while such outdated, draconian measures are thankfully a thing of the past, I often ask myself – are some archaic rituals worth holding on to?

I have always felt a duty to help my children achieve their maximum potential. I think the same can be said for nearly all educators. We teach because we want to help our students create their lives and make a difference in the world. We definitely don’t do it to make the big bucks.

For this reason, I always hold the students accountable and ensure that they have the highest expectations of themselves.

Over the years, such expectations seem to have built me a reputation of being a strict taskmaster: a chorus of hushes will surge along the corridor as my students hear the approaching click-clack of my loafers followed by something along the lines of, “Shhhh! He’s coming!”

My dear American colleagues’ eyes burn into my back as I order students to line up, berating those who have forgotten homework or whose shirts are hanging out; they no doubt feel my British “stiff upper lip” to be a total non-requisite. One staff member even told me she felt that I instilled a sense of "fear" into the students.

Perhaps I’m mistaken but is this not just good behavior management?

Setting high expectations

I wasn’t always this way. For years, I wrapped my children in cotton wool and smiles, delivering high fives and Haribo for those who remembered their homework.

Soon my classroom had become a reenactment of The Hunger Games; I had no idea how to orchestrate a room of boisterous pre-pubescent boys who could no longer be manipulated by means of candy bars. I was a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter and spent the majority of my time crouching behind piles of old revision booklets.

I believe that kids have a tendency to push the envelope of behavior when they don’t feel safe, when limitations and boundaries are not in place. But when you do pull them up, set the highest of expectations and show that you are going to take no prisoners, they seem to thrive.

Here’s the thing: my children know that I have their very best interests at heart; I am their greatest critic and their greatest advocate.

As educators moving into a 21st-century world, we are constantly asking ourselves how we can engage our students and make learning as dynamic and exciting as possible; how we can be the movers and shakers of educational practice, to innovate and change teaching for the better.

While this is what we should be doing, I worry that we have started to underestimate the power of more institutionalized methods. Making children line up or redo a piece of work two, three, four times before we mark it – or, dare I say it, throwing it away if it does not reflect their best efforts – can in my experience work wonders.

Mr. Shanks, my quasi-Victorian math master, was an absolute nightmare; the sound of his voice still sends a slight chill up my spine. But my memory is also a fond one, for it was Mr. Shanks who also taught me to take pride in my work, pay the utmost attention to detail and above all to never, ever waste my intelligence.

Adam Bernard teaches English at a school in New York City

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