What if it’s fear?

The student goes home and the backpack is left unzipped. Video games, Netflix, cell phones, and cable TV medicate and empower the student after a day of high school. Maybe after a day of failure.

The students that are best at this are the students that are the worst at school. They come to school and stiff arm the whole experience. They jam papers into their backpack with a command that says “I don’t really care where you are.” They disrupt the learning of nearby students. They lack focus. They are disengaged.

The common diagnosis of this is ADD, ADHD, poverty, poor parenting, disengagement, disenfranchisement, or disobedient. But what if it was fear?

What if I came to school and every hour on the hour I was met with something that I could not do or did not understand? How would I cope? After a day of failure or the threat of failure, I would want to feel powerful. Nothing says power better than a great video game.

The common solution to this is to berate ourselves as educators for our lack of . . . something. In blogs that I’ve read, writers sneer at education as lacking creativity and steeped in control and suppression. But what if students didn’t have the mechanisms for dealing with their own fear?

Around the world students languish in refugee camps and war-torn communities that unhinge education and derail learning. Wouldn’t they want to come to my school? To look at the school in which I teach from that perspective makes it a paradise of education. We should rejoice in the space and time that we have to work with students on their education; however, for some that backpack is unzipped and we stand amazed at why they don’t engage.

The solution is not the absence of fear but the introduction of courage. Courage acknowledges fear. What would I give a fearful student? What skills would allow them to face the day and go home victorious rather than needing something to medicate the experience?

I would teach them to stop and think about their day. I wish that each day a student would take five minutes and think through their day, maybe even journal through their day. What happened? What was discussion? What was confusing? What was understood? What was clear? What questions do they have for tomorrow? My sense is that “I don’t get it” is answered by hiding, avoidance, and shame. That grows fear and grows coping mechanisms that are usually counterproductive to learning.

I would teach them to put stuff where it goes. I wish that students valued the tasks of education by valuing its currency: paper. Too often we want application for everything that is learned, but in reality education is not like that. The immediate success and application of education is found in successfully completing the task at hand to the best of their ability.

I believe the victory and courage is found in the short game. Attempt the work. Reread the notes. Organized the backpack. Think about what happened today and what might happen tomorrow.

These little things give students control and tame fear with action that ultimately leads to small successes, which develops habits, which then builds the power and speed to push through things that might contain the more timid.