The fallacy of teaching effectively through fear

A friend of mine asked a question on Facebook last week if any of us teach through fear. This was something that was relatively common when I was growing up, especially in the drum corps activity I was involved in.

And I have been guilty of this in the past. You might even say I have a tendency towards this, so I need to be pretty vigilant about making sure it doesn’t happen.

There are reasons for this of course. (I imagine nobody teaches like this without being taught that way when they were younger, or being otherwise inspired to do so–for me, I got it from how my stepfather dealt with me). But there’s no need to go into that right now–let’s talk about how I work on being vigilant against it and how damaging this can be for the student.

From the students point of view, nobody reaches their full potential when there’s this type of drama in their life. This idea of making progress through fear, threats or bullying is a fallacy. There may be examples of where it “works”, but the long-term applications are negative.

We can all find examples of how this seems to “work”. Amazing programs, where it’s clear that the instruction involves a fair amount of fear and bullying. However, in my experience these programs are having success DESPITE the fact that they are teaching through fear, not because of it. And it’s the kind of success that doesn’t hold up over time. Remember, we’re talking about the lifelong benefits the students get from the teaching (life skills like confidence and focus) not just the short term result.

My sense of how this arises in me – at least at this point in my life – is that it stems from frustration. My frustration (the keyword being “my”) with the progress my students are making at a certain point in time. And, interestingly, it’s an issue I talked about in last weeks post. This idea that I need to be careful not to ask my students to do things that they’re simply not capable of doing at that particular moment or on that particular day.

There’s also the idea that instead of instruction (which is what my frustration always wants to focus on), my students may need inspiration more than anything else. And that’s a very different thing from instruction–although they go together well.

And, if I manage that issue properly, I can nip it in the bud before it happens. What I mean is that this type of frustration might often come to me as a reaction to what’s happening in the room, but the key thing is that I observe the behavior and not let it drive my actions. It’s kind of like this–that frustration I feel is not me, not the big me when I’m at my best. It’s just a thought or emotion from my thinking mind or ego.

The other issue is this–I strongly believe that all of our weaknesses point to our strengths. Each is just the flip side of same coin.

So, if I think of this tendency of mine as a weakness, the flip side or the corresponding strength is this: I care. A lot. Too much sometimes, but yeah–I care. I care about my students and what they’re trying to achieve.

Also, I strongly believe that talent is very over-rated. Everyone I know that is successful got there through hard work, and have often exceeded the achievement of folks who had more talent, simply because they out-worked them.

Both of these things (the caring, the belief in hard work) are wonderful on their own. But again, the flip side is that I can get easily frustrated when the student doesn’t live up to my sense (there’s that word again: “my”) of what they can achieve.

So there you have it–two sides of the same coin. For me, how I fight off the frustration comes down to this:

  • Catch the frustration as soon as it comes up in my mind, and
  • Recognize it for what it is–just a figment of my ego.

Has this ever come up for you–where your frustration has built up and it’s affected how you interact with other folks? How have you dealt with it–what works for you?

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