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Fear And Self-Loathing In The Classroom

Earlier this month, my ninth-graders read the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet.” Whenever I teach Shakespeare, I like to have my students do some acting. When I teach the balcony scene, I push the students to take this process very seriously. I look for enthusiastic volunteers who can read the lines with aplomb. This is, after all, one of the great scenes in world literature.

In case you’ve forgotten, teenagers are extraordinarily self-conscious. A few of them put their hands up right away, ready to stroll up to the front of the room and try on some Elizabethan English, but they’re a small minority. When I ask for readers, most students aren’t even thinking about Shakespeare’s language; they’re worrying about the pimple on their nose or their changing voice. So when I ask for volunteers, it’s never surprising that many students simply slump down in their chairs and try to hide.

I teach in Brooklyn now, but my hunch is that this response, this hiding, is universal. Some years ago, I taught at a private school in Ann Arbor, Mich.; my students there used to hide too. What are these kids hiding from? What are they so afraid of?

It’s clear to me that they are afraid of failure. In many cases, they’re absolutely convinced that they will fail. Day after day, dejected students tell me that they can’t do things. They can’t write a paragraph; they can’t draw a tree; they can’t multiply fractions. Very often, our job as teachers is simply to push students to engage in tasks that they already know how to complete. It might not sound like hard work, but many of our students are so demoralized, it’s a wonder they even get out of bed in the morning.

Here’s the thing: They’re not just being moody teenagers. These students are expressing a hopelessness that’s been drilled into them for years. Day after day, year after year: our students hear the same message: that they are failures.

The 2010 film “Waiting for Superman,” which played like an informercial for charter schools, exemplified this message. It’s subtitle was “How We Can Save America’s Failing Public Schools,” and a widely aired preview made a point of telling the audience that American students lag far behind their international counterparts in every significant area but one — confidence. In other words, not only are our students failing, but they’re too dumb to realize it.

Granted, this little dig said more about the filmmaker’s attitudes than any educational reality, but these attitudes have been embraced and repeated for years. President Obama has said our students are failing; President Bush said they were failing. How many times do our students have to hear they’re no good before they start believing it? (Both presidents and pretty much every other prominent education reformer ignore the fact that when you control for poverty, our students are keeping pace with their international counterparts.)

Despite assertions to the contrary, academic overconfidence is not a big problem, at least not in the four schools I’ve worked in over the past 13 years. Fear and self-loathing most certainly are. I’ve counseled a weeping ninth-grader who couldn’t bear to be in the classroom because she felt like she wasn’t smart enough for high school. I’ve watched a student shake so violently that she could not complete the recitation of a 14-line poem. I’ve proctored a high-stakes trigonometry test where a student became physically ill because she was so terrified of failure. (She had to be excused which meant that she failed the exam.)

Which brings me to my next point: On top of all the nasty rhetoric about our students, our educational leadership has actually created a system designed to make our students fearful. I’m writing, specifically, about the fear induced by years of repetitive, stressful, high-stakes testing. In a system designed almost entirely around these tests, how could all but the few who excel on these tests feel good about themselves? The fearfulness we teachers encounter on a daily basis is a predictable consequence of this system, not some surprising side effect.

And this brings me to my final point: The fear is not only predictable, but is in fact desirable for a small number of people. Specifically, fear is very useful for the people who will employ our students, if those students are lucky enough to make it through high school. A frightened, malleable workforce, desperate for approval, is far more agreeable to some of these employers than a confident workforce that demands its worth be recognized.

Sound too conspiratorial? It’s exactly how our schools treat their workers. From allowing unreliable Teacher Data Reports to be published to leveling vicious anti-teacher rhetoric, the city and state have worked hard to create a climate of fear.

Earlier this month, the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher was published, and its findings suggested that fear is the dominant trend in American schools today. According to the survey, fear of all kinds — from teacher fears about job security to student fears about family finances — pervade American schools. In an excellent analysis of the survey, teacher Dan Brown writes, “Pessimism and worry are pervasive in American schools. Contending with elimination of services, suffocating poverty, more layoffs, larger classes, and an accountability regime at odds with genuine teaching and learning, America’s teachers are freaked out.”

This type of fear has no benefit for our students; it certainly has no benefit for our teachers. As long as a submissive workforce is a priority, we’ll all keep suffering in the classroom — and our Shakespeare performances will suffer too.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.