How to Teach Past the Fear of “Getting in Trouble”

How to Teach Past the Fear of “Getting in Trouble”

Education Week opinion contributor Justin Minkel teaches 2nd and 3rd grades at Jones Elementary in Springdale, Ark., a high-performing, high-poverty school where 85 percent of the students are English-language learners. He is focused on bringing advanced learning opportunities to immigrant and at-risk students.

“I have always been a teacher who fears the mallet. I worry about ‘getting in trouble,’ a phrase that seems more appropriate for children than adults, which I nevertheless hear from fellow teachers with alarming frequency.”

“Seventeen years since I started teaching, I still get nervous when my principal walks into my room with a clipboard or laptop for an unscheduled observation.”

“Where does this fear come from? I haven’t untangled the source of the anxiety and timidity, for me personally or our profession as a whole. What I do know is that most of us are not nearly as brave in our classrooms as we could be.”

“Our students display daily courage. They deal with all kinds of things they shouldn’t have to—hunger, homelessness, abuse, and neglect. Yet we, their teachers, often implement policies we know will sabotage their best interests.”

“Such as: Lots of test prep. Too few minutes to play outside. In many districts, a focus on ‘grade-level texts’ has struggling readers and English-language learners wading through incomprehensible print.”

“I’m not a rebel or a rabble-rouser. I spend more time reaching compromise than seeking confrontation. I’d rather work to gradually change the system from within than lob stones at it from a distance.”

“Still, there are times when it seems the people who craft education policy must harbor a deep dislike of children. Sometimes it seems they have never actually met a child, let alone taken the time to understand their world.”

“We who teach, who have gained a deep understanding of children and their needs, need to speak and act when we see their world damaged.”

“For any of you who, like me, tend to err on the side of timidity, I have a challenge. For all those who marvel at our students’ courage yet struggle to display it ourselves, let’s conduct an experiment these next few weeks of school. Let’s find out whether our fears of ‘getting in trouble’ are real or fabricated.”

Take the kids out for a second recess. Stick a note on your door, so people will know where to find you, but go do it, simply because it’s a beautiful day and these are children. They need more time to play outside.”

Do that project that isn’t a precise fit with ‘the standards,’ because you know those standards, treated as holy writ graven in stone, were cobbled together by a bunch of haggard professors drinking bad coffee out of Styrofoam cups in a Holiday Express conference room. Trust that you know students need the things your project will teach them.”

Forego all test prep the week before that impending state test. Have the children build things, do science experiments, and go outside to write stories instead.”

Teach your class to play chess. You know the game helps kids with spatial thinking and even their reading development. Resist the impulse to ‘ask forgiveness instead of permission.’ Go down to your principal’s office, tell him you plan to teach the students to play chess this week and explain why.”

Take one week when you toss out everything you’re accustomed to doing in your classroom, so you can figure out what deserves to be put back in.”

Go five days without having your students touch pencil to paper. Watch what happens when they wrap their hands around clay, paint or wood instead.”

“I dare us all to stop worrying about looking good to our principal, to parents, to visitors from the school board. I dare us to try instead to actually become good for the children in our care.”

“Will we get fired? Will we get a written reprimand that goes in our permanent record? Will we get the stink-eye from our principal for the rest of the year?”

“Or will we keep our jobs because the teacher shortage is real and it’s really real in high-poverty schools? Will it turn out there is no permanent record, and even if there were, nobody ‘above’ us in the hierarchy has the time or inclination to write up that reprimand? Will we find unlikely allies, including administrators who prove their own courage and commitment to the children in our care?”

“Sometimes there is no mallet, except the one in our minds. That doesn’t mean the mallet is easily erased. It looms large and weighs heavy, out of all proportion to reality.”

“Once we know the fear is in our heads, though, we can rid ourselves of it. Realize the absurdity of being an adult, let alone a member of the profession that makes all others possible, who frets about ‘getting in trouble.’”

“Once we do that, we can get on with the courageous work that teaching, at its best, must be.”

Education Week

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors


Subscribe today to get K-12 news you can use delivered to your inbox twice a month

More Insights