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  • Mallory Foster

Leading Forward from a Place of Fear

I remember the first time I carried our newborn around our block without our baby wrap. All I could imagine was dropping her. I remember the first time I mis-taught something and of course, I retaught it during an unannounced observation. I still go to events or drop my little one off at daycare and am scared someone will think I'm a sloppy mom because she has marker on her face. Being a teacher, parent, or caregiver can be so frightening and full of fear. And, a part of our challenge in these roles is to bravely and courageously lead and guide, even in our most fearful moments, with empathy.

Why's there all this fear?

As a parent and a teacher we are entrenched in the business of change. We are asking students to change or add to what they know and understand. That means we are asking them to give up a what they carried with them. In my Earth and Environmental Science classes, we explore the Earth-moon system and look at the barycenter of the system - the midpoint based on the mass of both objects (rather than only the larger object). This means that the moon pulls on the Earth just a teeny tiny bit (on an astronomical scale), so while YES the moon orbits the Earth, it's a bit more complicated than that. At first, the students proclaim this is lies! That their teachers would have told them! We then discuss that we learn in layers. We do a lab that helps them grasp the concept. All the while, I'm asking them to let their understanding evolve and be curious about the gaps in their understanding, which is SCARY work! And, I'm scared I'll explain things poorly or confuse them worse or that what I'm teaching doesn't matter any way, etc etc. As Parker J. Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach (2017) and leader of the Center for Courage and Renewal, describes, "When a class that has gone badly comes to a merciful end, I am fearful long after it is over -- fearful that I am not just a bad teacher but a bad person, so closely is my sense of self tied to the work I do" (p. 37). We fear change in our knowings, our habits, our lives, our relationships because change challenges us to step into conflict and to look at ourselves closely

Befuddling my students with an ocean acidification lab - in my defense, our pH paper was out of date :). AND, one student saved their calcifier (a tums) for years :).

What does this look like outside of the classroom?

In my personal life, I operate from a place of fear when something I do doesn't align perfectly with the identities I practice. For example, as a mother, my daughter should be clean and her clothes should match, and she should behave wonderfully - if not, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking I'm a bad mom. Basically, I've found you can replace "class" with "activity" or "day" and teacher with "parent" in the quote above. Maybe you have felt this way on a rough day with your students or children or friends and family. Another example could be running - if I'm a runner, I need to look fit and eat healthy and be fast. If I'm not one of those things, for whatever reason, even temporary, I lose a part of myself in the change and may get scared.

Little human, big city! Learning not to go in the road (the car was parked :)

So, what do we do if everything is scary?

  • Attempt to notice and name the fear - Try to identify when you are operating from fear. Fear looks different for everyone, and may be seen as automatic negative thoughts. For me, it is mind reading and avoidance. On parenting groups, I see fear when I hear questions like, "Is it okay that my child...?". In teaching, I see fear in the frustration teachers experience because of mandates they receive and the anger and raised voices used when classroom management gets funky.

  • Be curious - Think about the roots of your fear and think about how you can use your fear to grow, teach, and learn! Ask, "What am I scared of in this moment?", "What does this moment say about me to me? To anyone else?", "How can I react calmly?", "What can I learn in this moment?", "What will I do differently next time?"

  • Find a place where you can be honest - To act empathetically while embracing our fear involves courage and honesty. Talk to a loved one or trusted colleague. Write in a journal.

  • Manage real risks - We should definitely be afraid of things like running in a tornado - so some fear is healthy! Use the fear that keeps you safe to do just that, and be curious and honest. Be sure to ask yourself if you are truly trying to stay safe or to control things you cannot control?

  • Set appropriate expectations for yourself and others - I have found that I'm able to be a lot less fearful when I don't expect myself or others to do things that are unlikely to go well. I don't expect my daughter to sit still at story time or to be her happiest self if we miss nap time, yet I do expect her to orbit within reason and be kind. I don't expect myself to run fast or far, but I do expect myself to run a few days a week. I don't expect my students to remember everything, but I do expect them to have their materials ready and brains engaged for review.

Best of luck as you meet the fear, grow from it, and #watchwonderbloom around you! (Full disclosure: I wrote this post 2 weeks ago, but was afraid I was unqualified to write about fear and anything related to dealing with it, so I didn't post it... #slighthypocrisy #growth)

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