The Fear Factor

I went to an academic conference over the summer.  Several of the speakers zeroed in on an area of research that is finally getting some traction.  The question they addressed concerned student success in college.  One survey, taken at the Community College of Baltimore, discovered two primary reasons students drop out of school—They are overwhelmed by life problems.  Or they are overwhelmed by affective issues, mostly centered around “fear, anxiety, and a suspicion that they are just not college material.”

In other words, ability is usually not the problem.  Life is. The fear factor is.

So, how do we help these students?  The suggestions given are common-sense ones—“Create a safe atmosphere” in the classroom.  Find a balance between “flexibility” and “tough love”—between “compassion” and “firmness” (a lot harder than it might sound).  Implement “confidence-building experiences” early on in the semester.

And be aware of mindsets—because students will have “fixed mindsets” or “growth mindsets.”

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck says that a fixed mindset is “the belief that intelligence is fixed [which] dampens students’ motivation to learn, makes them afraid of effort, and makes them want to quit after a setback.”

So when classes get hard, students give up.  Because when they struggle, Dweck says, they “feel dumb.”

Do I have students who have this mindset?  Of course.  But my confession is this: Sometimes I have the same mindset.

I fear failure.  And in my profession, where performance is evaluated and measured each semester, I often feel like I’m not measuring up.  And when I struggle, I feel dumb.  This doesn’t motivate me to be better.  It discourages me and makes me want to give up.

I guess the question is this: How do we establish growth mindsets?  How do we establish the belief that just because something is challenging and causes us to struggle, this is not a reflection of our intelligence or ability?

I’m pretty sure that most of the speakers at the conference did not embrace a Christian world view.  If there is such a thing as grace, I learned, it is merely a human grace we extend to each other.  And as teachers, we know the expectations of gracious teaching.  Help students to realize their potential and to be true to themselves.   Encourage.  Uplift.  Reinforce.  Reaffirm.  We do this because we care about them.  But we do this too because we care about retention, and we must always be looking for ways to keep students from dropping out.

But is this all there is to teaching?  Just getting students to finish college and get jobs so we not only identify them as successful but ourselves, as well?

I worry a lot about leaving God out of this equation.

Do I care for my students? Yes.  Do I want them to graduate?  Yes.  Do I want them to get good jobs?  Yes.  But. . . .

If this is all we are about as educators, we only address part of the need.  Because each one of us has a soul.  And souls don’t have expiration dates, like milk.  We will all live forever.

I take education seriously.  But I take eternity much more seriously.

I admit to my students that college is a big thing.  But it is not the whole thing.  God has opened this door of opportunity for you, I tell them, so seize it.  Work hard and be successful, not to bring honor to yourself, but to bring glory to God.

And when they get scared.  When they start to struggle.  When the challenges seem insurmountable.  I remind them that they can do all things through Christ who gives them strength.  Trust Him, I say.  Lean on Him.  Because He is real and He is relevant.

I work hard in the classroom.  I take the material seriously.  But I am also serious about modeling a life that glorifies God, the author of grace.  If they don’t see that life in me, I have failed.  Measure me all you want.  Evaluate me all you want.  But I have a greater judge.  And when I stand before Him, I hope I hear these words—“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

I want that for me. I want that for you.  I want that for my students.  Because that is true success.  


First Day

He raised his hand.

I walked to the back of the classroom toward his desk.

It was the first day of class—my first day ever to teach.  And just ten minutes earlier, I had climbed the creaking staircase to the second floor of the science building.  As I walked down the narrow hallway that smelled of formaldehyde, I checked classroom numbers.  When I found mine, I stood outside the door and tried to catch my breath.

I leaned my back against the hall wall and wondered what I’d been thinking.   Me, a teacher?  I hadn’t even taken the required speech class in college because the idea of standing in front of a classroom paralyzed me with fear.  And now here I was, starting a career doing just that.

They began to arrive.  One by one.  I managed a smile for each student.  And when the bell rang, I asked God for a miracle and walked into the room.  My voice quavered as I introduced myself.  I passed out a bio sheet for my students to fill out.  Buying myself some time.

And then I saw his hand—near the back of the room.

“I don’t have a pen,” he said.  And so I gave him mine.

At the end of the semester, I got my first student thank you note.  He put it in my hand as he walked out of the classroom on the final day of the semester.  It read,

Dear Dr. C,

I will never forget the day we met.  Your class was my first-ever college course.  I was so nervous.  And when you gave us an assignment sheet to fill out at the beginning of class, I realized I didn’t have a pen.  So I raised my hand. 

I was scared.  But when I told you, you smiled and reached into your pocket and gave me yours. I couldn’t believe a college teacher would do that.  Thanks for being so kind to me. I will always remember that.

His first day.  My first day.  Both scared.  Both hoping to make a good impression.   A student and a teacher.  Both so different.  But with so much in common.

Now, after 25 years, I no longer hyperventilate when I walk into a classroom.  I’m no longer terrified.  No longer frozen with fear.

But they are.  Many of them anyway.  And I often forget that.  Some of them are first generation college students.  Some of them have never heard of a syllabus.  Some of them have no idea how to write an essay for an academic audience.  They don’t know what a fragment is.  Or how a writing process works.  Some of them are worried about money and about the girlfriend or boyfriend back home.  Some of them already dislike their roommate.  Some of them are homesick and wondering what they were thinking when they said yes to college.  They are scared, just like I was 25 years ago.

Easy for me to forget.  Easy for me to say, “If you don’t have a pen, then borrow one from someone else or go back to your room and get one.  This is college.  You have to be prepared.”

But I know that students can absolutely think they have things under control, and it can still go wrong.  The computer crashes.  The printer runs out of ink.  The power goes out.

And, as teachers we have a choice to make.  We can be harsh.  Or we can be kind.  Some might say that students have to learn accountability or else they’ll think they can get by with anything.  I get that.  But perhaps a little compassion and flexibility along the way might make an impact we could never imagine.

Funny thing.  I had a campus meeting this summer.  And I was scheduled to give a presentation.  I wanted to get to campus early.  But things didn’t go as planned.  Traffic was heavy.  Stop lights weren’t friendly.  And by the time I got to the campus, I was stressed.  I managed to get to the meeting on time.  But as the session began and the first speaker was introduced, I reached for my pen—and I realized, in my haste, I had forgotten mine.

And so I took a deep breath . . . and raised my hand. . . .