Last night was our fall edition of parent-teacher (and student) conferences. I really enjoy an evening of sitting down and talking with parents and students together, discussing their goals for the course and how we can work together to bring them to reality. The thing that struck me while reflecting back on 4 hours and 30 conversations was how much FEAR students have.
Students are afraid to fail. For many students in Physics 11, they are use to being "A" students. They are use to things being easy. But even for the best, Physics is rarely easy. It's something completely new and seldom experienced. It is a combination of totally theoretical and mathematically complex and while learning something new can be exhilarating, it can also be scary. But for many students, they aren't use to struggling. They aren't use to not understanding an idea. Or getting many questions wrong. Or getting 3/5 on a quiz. They are SO AFRAID of failure. I talked this week with a student, who for the past six weeks, despite intense struggles in my course, would not have a conversation with me about it. She would just nod and say she understood. Finally, in talking with her, I came to realize that she had become paralyzed with fear. She didn't know what she was suppose to do, when she didn't know what to do. This fear isn't about their learning anymore - it is about their self-esteem and self-worth. Little do their realize that their confidence and sense of self will only benefit from working through the problems, not avoiding them. I continue to work on building a course focused on patient and persistent problem-solving. One were students are expected to get things wrong, and work through it. I believe this to be essential in both Physics, and life. But it is hard to help students develop this when they have become so afraid to be wrong that they are unable to hear or access the tools that I am giving them. They get stuck in a cycle of fear that limits their ability to grow. This is a significant problem.
Students are afraid of looking stupid. There seems to be a growing trend of students unwilling to ask for help because they are afraid that the teacher (or their peers) might think that they are "stupid." They believe that asking questions or seeking help somehow makes them weaker, or less capable. This is a huge barrier to success. This fear of what others think of them prevents them from owning their own learning. I had to remind students (and parents) that I am here to help them succeed. And in fact, I expect that they don't know everything. And that in no way am I judging them for their struggles. The course is built in a way that they should need help from time to time, and shouldn't be afraid to access it. This is part of the scaffolding. They are meant to be challenged! Helping overturn the culture where students are fearful of being wrong is crucial. This goes hand-in-hand with building a culture of relationship. Getting to know students, helping them understand and feel safe in the classroom, and knowing that I am in there corner is necessary. Yesterday I looked into my students eyes, and into their parents eyes and said "I am here to help you succeed." I will say it again and again. I spend my days asking about soccer games and bake sales and club activities. I try to engage as many conversations as I can. I want students to know that I am here for them, that I know them, that I genuinely want to help them. I want them to feel safe to be vulnerable, and to struggle, and not to fear that I am in any way judging them. I don't know where the turning point is that students stop believing this about their teachers, but my number one priority is providing them a safe learning environment - and that happens through relationship. This was reinforced to me last night.
Students are afraid of the unknown. They are afraid of their future. They are afraid of things they do not know or do not yet understand. And they don't always have the tools to know how to face this fear. This is normal for a teenager. The future can be overwhelming. They need beacons of light to help guide them as they face this fear and navigate the course. Parents. Teachers. Mentors. Friends. We have a role to play. To help illuminate their paths when needed, as they take brave steps forward. Students need to know (or be reminded) that they are not going it alone.
What I was reminded of through my evening of conversations with parents and students is that the most important roll I have as a teacher has nothing to do with Physics. Or Science. Or PE, Socials, French or whatever topics you engage in. These are but a door to helping students grow up. Helping them develop confidence. To develop problem-solving skills. To help them as they learn to persevere through problems they once could not even dream up. To encourage them when they try. To help them get up when they fall. To ask a question that makes them think, and encourage them to think harder when they otherwise would get up. To help them become stronger, more confident, individuals.
So as I sit here at my desk this morning, looking at the empty room and enjoying my hour of solitude before the students start flooding through my doors I am not thinking of equilibrium, or DNA, or the net force of a person on a scale in an elevator (as important as those ideas are) - I'm thinking about how I am going to engage with my students in a way that will help them leave their fear behind and fully - FULLY - engage in the learning. And this can only be done by putting fear aside. So I ask - how do you help your students let go of their fear?