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Let’s strip the fear out of education

Updated: Oct 17, 2019

By Jackie Bland

Let's strip the fear out of education, for pupils AND for staff.

Two small boys were coming towards me looking terrified. A member of staff was behind them, yelling furiously. The boys clearly wanted to run, but running is against the rules here so they did that walk- your- legs- off- terrified thing that children do in these situations. They made some distance from the staff member but the yelling continued, reiterating their crime over and over. There were a few other adults around but no-one batted an eyelid or seemed moved to intervene, it seemed they were used to this. Eventually, the boys were out of shouting distance and the person was left huffing and red-faced to get on with the day.

I had arrived to do some workplace intervention - helping staff who were stressed. I retreated into the room allocated for me.

At the end of that working day, I left wanting to shout from the rooftops, I am not sure what but hopefully by the end of this blog I will have said it.

You might have guessed that I was in a school, and the stressed staff were teachers and other classroom staff. The incident I had witnessed was simply a couple of 5/6-year-olds who had broken a school rule. A bit naughty or mistaken perhaps, but that wasn’t really the problem. The problem was that their crime had tipped an already stressed and frustrated teacher over the edge. If we interpret the yelling, it was really a frustrated cry; ‘I have no capacity to deal with this, you are going to have to take the brunt of my stress because I don’t have the resources to deal with you properly.’

But the sad and concerning thing is that five years olds cannot understand this and they cannot defend themselves against it. And whilst all children are different, and some can shrug off an adult three times their size bearing down and yelling at them, others can’t and can carry such incidents with them into adolescence and beyond. I see them in therapy, one deeply humiliating or frightening incident/episode in school, sometimes decades before, has created a disproportionate cloud over how they live their lives now. Human minds often do this, especially in the formative stages before the age of 6/7.

During the course of my work, I meet many teachers who are stressed to the point that they admit their teaching ability suffers - and with that knowledge, their confidence also falls, so that they actually think they were even worse than they are.

This isn’t all schools of course, but the fact is that it is some schools, and many teachers will recognise at least part of what I am writing about here. The stress caused by the way the education system is organised, teaching methods prescribed, and teachers’ work examined, is, as I see it, doing three damaging things:

- Stressing many teachers to the point of being ill.

- Subjecting their pupils to all the disadvantages of being taught by stressed teachers; stressed teachers, like stressed parents, create stressed children.

- Compromising the very learning and achievement that the whole system is supposed to be creating (stressed brains simply cannot learn effectively).

It’s even worse when a school carries the designation ‘requires improvement’ and has to wait for a visit from the Schools Inspectors OFSTED to see if they have done enough to shake off that label. These days OFSTED do ‘swoop’ visits, to make sure that schools don’t just put their best foot forward on the day of inspection, but have systems and practices that are integral to the operation of the school, and can, therefore, be observed on a snap visit.

You can see what lies behind this argument, but imagine doing your job each and every day as if you are going to be subject, with hardly any notice, to the most intense scrutiny on every aspect of it (and what you are going to be scrutinised on also changes as more and more is added to school practices and policies).

While you are being scrutinised and observed you also have to hope that the kids in your class don’t have a particularly lairy day and undermine what you are trying to demonstrate. And all this at the same time as continuous lesson planning, marking, and all the additional non-teaching duties that get piled on teachers as budgets are cut and results are demanded. No-one is immune, the teachers at the ‘chalkface’ feel pressure from above, put on them by often stressed senior staff who have the Governors to answer to, and the reputation of the school at stake.

An OFSTED visit, according to teachers I have worked with recently, leaves them ‘terrified’. In their drive to prepare and make sure ‘standards’ are met, children are pushed, play and creativity is reduced and the school day becomes a timetable challenge to fit in all the prescribed elements, methods and techniques that the inspectors will want to observe.

It’s mindless and deeply depressing. Because these approaches aren’t how you create young people ready for life, and it isn’t how you prevent experienced teachers becoming ill, retiring early, or simply dropping down to basic survival level and losing confidence and competence.

There is so much talk about the ‘new’ qualities required in the workplace, emotional intelligence, a growth mindset, adaptability, higher levels of consciousness etc for both the leaders and the ‘followers’ of the future. How are we going to magic them out of systems like these?

It doesn’t seem to make any difference whether it’s a primary school or a secondary school, regimes which are underpinned by fear and endless targets and penalties seems to dominate.

There is so much threat and punishment. There is no time for the students to be people, they are cogs, elements in a system that doesn’t even produce what it set out to do. It doesn’t produce a certain kind of person, fit for working/independent life, it produces a certain pattern of exam results.

When I was selecting schools for my daughter I chose the one that talked least about children as exam data and stats and more about individual development, but it seems that even the schools that talk the ‘softer’ talk cannot fully extract themselves far from the system that sucks the life and joy from teaching.

At the same time schools are busy issuing the required ‘mental health’ policies, made necessary by rising levels of anxiety, depression and stress among pupils. Stressed and anxious students can go to teachers or counsellors designated to provide support and there is more classroom time devoted to ‘mental health awareness’. Welcome support…...

But there is this embedded irony, this lack of self-awareness. We create stressful systems that create stressed headteachers and teachers. This, in turn, creates more stressed children who then require more mental health interventions - we are creating a perfect self-perpetuating loop and we are doing it by educating children and employing teachers based on fear.

I don’t like to criticise without at least starting to tackle a solution. What can be done to make it different for our education providers, our parents of school children, and most importantly the children who are the products of this system? No simple solution I hear you say, imagine unravelling all of that….

And yet to me, at its most basic level, it is simple.

We just strip out the fear.

We make a decision at the highest levels to bring children up in a culture that operates through intelligent understanding, mindful processes and fundamental kindness. Then we apply the cleverest brains to building 21st Century systems, including education systems around that.

When we abandon fear and punishment, we no longer have to go actively looking for misdemeanours. We don’t brand and label schools as failures, or teachers, or children. When we stop using threat and punishment we gradually take away the expectation of fear. When we no longer expect to feel fearful we allow our defences - our stress level- to drop and we become better versions of ourselves, with more capacity to create and achieve.

So, if you take away the operating system, fear, punishment, blame and all it brings, what do we replace it with?

What about that trained individuals, properly supported, will be good at their that children properly supported will learn? Why don’t we train people to build trust, to be trustworthy?

Encouragement. Sure identify things we want to make better (whilst acknowledging what is already good just as much) but supportive, encouraging systems nurture people to be their best.

Praise. Thanks for the job you do, we recognise its challenging. Thank you for giving your life to be with our children. Thanks for getting in before your contracted hours to prepare and have meetings, do that bit extra...thanks for staying late because someone’s parents are stuck in traffic...thanks for coming in when really quite poorly because there is no one to cover you and you don’t want to burden colleagues and let the children down…..

And what about on-going purposeful evaluation rather than inspection? Constructive, on-going management support and feedback in other workplaces can be so much more effective than annual appraisals, which fill many staff with fear. So schools too could get on with their lives so much better without the built-in apprehension of a short sharp and for some, brutally demoralising inspection, with the long-term label than can follow.

Even ‘outstanding schools’ are not immune, I have talked to heads who live in fear of losing the outstanding designation, and so hanging onto the label overshadows everything else.

It would be pretty massive, to take many schools out of their fear-based regimes, but then the products of our schools are the people who will mould the future, and that’s massive too.

If young people emerge from schools that are time-rich cultures of encouragement, mindful planning, intelligent interaction, and yes, kindness, we can hope that they will begin to influence the rest of our institutions and systems similarly.

If we frighten them into compliance, continually subject them to stressed adults, and build fear into their motivation for doing everything, then they cannot help but recreate those systems and experiences when they have the power to do so, as they, in turn, influence their communities and wider society.

I think that’s pretty much what I wanted to shout from the rooftops, thanks for indulging me.

And just to reiterate, this was not to suggest there aren’t shining examples of what I am talking about already, and I am not suggesting that all teachers/children are stressed by the system.

But I report what I observe, and there are still too many.

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