Is fear keeping Teachers from taking risks with their students?

I love rules. They create order, and a parameter for fair play. Rules can help alleviate stress by taking decision making out of your hands: you simply follow them and all goes well.

So why do I break so many rules in my classroom? Well, let’s look at a scenario. The Developmental Reading Assessment 2, DRA2, clearly states that if the student takes more than 3 minutes to read the level 24 sample of text I am to stop the assessment and intervene. The student is suffering or struggling to an extent that the test is no longer beneficial. But, I have a hunch and refuse to stop the little girl sitting across the kidney shaped desk from me reading about a rabbit named Roger who found a giant cabbage in the middle of the road. She takes so long that by the time she reaches the end of the selection the timer on my clipboard shows 5:32. I fear there is no way she will be able to tell me what this story was about. She has clearly struggled with the text to a point that her ability to focus on the story must have suffered. Her word accuracy was spot on. So, I ask her to retell the story, and out comes a flawless, detail-laden account of the rabbit’s problem and how he solved it. She successfully answers even the difficult higher level thinking questions about what the author was trying to say with the story. I can’t tell you how many 7 year olds read that passage within the time limit, only to say the author wants you to invite rabbits over to eat some cabbage. I feel that this reading assessment was just right for her with the exception of her pace of reading. The test showed me where I need to work with her. What would have happened if I had followed the rules? Had I stopped and moved down a level it would have robbed her of a chance at reading material that she was clearly ready to. I would have underestimated and shortchanged her.

Why do I break the rules? Because the students don’t have any idea that rules about learning even exist. So often the rules limit opportunities, or just don’t apply to a particular situation. Of course, sometimes they do. For example if that student’s word accuracy had been as poor as her pace; that would have been a different situation. Students’ minds work in very unique ways and too often the rules set upon them don’t match. My little reader is just one example and I could provide dozens more.

Fear has taken hold of American teachers like no other time before: fear of being wrong, or caught not doing what was mandated. Teachers are afraid of bad evaluations, loss of respect in their community or from colleagues. Teachers are afraid of losing their jobs. This fear is paralyzing the profession and affecting the learning of the students. All the reform that has led to greater scrutiny and accountability has had a counterproductive effect on students’ learning.

Cheryl Birdsong-Dyer, an ASQ (American Society for Quality) member and professional process engineer, said “If one does not take risks, they risk not solving the problem. As educators, professionals and leaders we need to reinforce to teens that every failure is an opportunity to learn and grow.” I agree wholeheartedly, risk is essential to learning. But teachers are not given this same extension of credit. How can a teacher be expected to instill a culture of risk taking that can lead to deep meaningful learning if they themselves are afraid to deviate from the script? A recent survey shows that in the area of STEM 46% of students are afraid of failure to a point that it affects their decision to not take risks. Teachers are currently being held on a very short leash under evaluation systems of increasingly narrow scope. If a teacher were to take a risk and not achieve the desired goal during an observation, it would cost that teacher dearly. The current system leads teachers to take fewer risks and stick to the “safe” scripted path that will garner them a passing grade, but may not provide for the greatest possible outcomes for their students. In years past, the teacher may have planned one perfectly safe lesson for observation day, but with the system of drop in unannounced observation, there is a constant sense of being watched. No one wants to risk bending or breaking the rules under this type of scrutiny.

I recently had a conversation with a fellow teacher, exchanging stories about some of our struggling students. I shared an extended lesson on vocabulary that had emerged from a story I was reading aloud to my second grade students. The main character went out on a “solitary expedition.” I had the class pair up and discuss what they thought it meant. Eventually I incorporated the meaning of root words, noting that only one player is required for the card game SOLITaire, talking about PEDals on our bikes, PEDestal for a statue, and the PEDs you put on your feet. I defined the prefix EX, and secretly thanked my High School Latin teacher Brother John Gavan after this thorough word dissection. I felt the students completely understood the meaning of the words. A few days later I was reviewing the chapter and asked a student what “solitary expedition” meant. I was met with the dreaded blank stare and silence. Because of my confidence that the lesson had gone so well the other day, I waited, and waited. I rephrased the question and reminded him of our previous discussion, but still nothing seemed to spark a response. The rules would tell me not to let a student sit there for too long lest they become anxious, but deep down I felt he had to know it. I decided to give him the time he needed. Perhaps knowing he was not getting off the hook, or just needing that much time to extract the memory, he gave the right answer! It was a breakthrough for him and his friends all congratulated him. He beamed and basked in his success. I was relieved that my hunch paid off, but it could have gone another way. I ended my story to the other teacher with the comment, “But you just know I would never have done that with an administrator in the room.”

Teachers are afraid to make judgment calls or instructional decisions, yet this is what teachers must do. In an article by NCTM President Henry (Hank) Kepner he states “Teaching mathematics involves making hundreds of instructional, management, and assessment decisions for each class period every day.” He goes on to add “In fact, sound instructional decisions are the backbone of effective teaching.” These decisions are best made in the moment by the professional teacher with knowledge of good practice, and more importantly, knowledge of the students as individuals, not by an administrator in an office looking at aggregated data.

America had an identity crisis back in the 1800’s. We were constantly compared to and comparing ourselves to Europe and other places that had longer and richer histories. America found its identity in part by not being bound by tradition, or rules. We became a country that solved problems by not letting constraints get in the way. We became a country of innovators and inventors. Thomas Edison’s quote of “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” seems appropriate to illustrate what we are squashing in classrooms by forcing adherence to scripted curriculum, and embracing a model of evaluation that does not celebrate risk taking and failure. In my classroom I instill a culture of risk taking and celebrate failure as a step towards success. I show the students this video about famous failures to drive home the point.

Sometimes breaking the rules helps us challenge our students and lead them to moments of true learning. We need to trust our professional judgment and skill as teachers. We need to create schools and classrooms where fear has no place. We know fear shuts down the learning process in students. I would argue it shuts down the teaching process as well.


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