The F-Word

Last month, I went to Washington, D.C. to interview as a finalist for the National Teacher of the Year. The process was quite intense.98408751_b5a5712914_z

Like diving into ice water full of bitey little fish

The interview portion began with a mini-keynote speech. I’ve been asked to share that and so this post is a bit longer than usual. If you’re interested, I’ve reprinted it below with some modifications (removing student names/editing for space):

I don’t want to offend you, but I have to tell you that I will be talking about the f-word today.

And that f-word is a four-letter word that’s as obscene as any you’re likely to be exposed to because that f-word is fear.

And I know a lot about fear. I was raised in it by a father who drank to escape it and a mother so fearful of life that she isolated herself from even her children. I come from the fallout of fear: domestic violence, addiction, abuse and neglect. However, what I know about fear is that even though my parents were both strangled by it, they encouraged me to be brave where they could not. And thankfully, I had teachers who made school my sanctuary.

Like Mrs. Belton, my seventh-grade teacher, who taught me to write when I wanted to scream, or hit back or quit. Because I lived in a small town, I’m sure she’d heard about my parents’ very messy, very violent divorce – one of the first in our community. I heard strangers talking about them in the grocery store, so I’m sure she knew. So when I came to her in tears one day, telling her that my mother was uprooting us from everything and everyone we knew, she said, “You’re still part of this class, Shanna. You’re still my student. You write us a letter every day and tell us everything.”

I’ve never forgotten that kindness. It went deep into me and shaped the kind of teacher I am. In fact, I repeated her words to [one of my students] when I signed her drop sheet last week.

And in this story are the lessons that I’ve learned as I’ve done battle with fear throughout my life: we defeat fear with authenticity and connection. I mention this because to me, the greatest obstacle we are facing in public education is fear.

As teachers, we have to face down normal fears of a lesson falling apart or the possibility of losing control of a class. But the fear I’m talking about as a problem goes beyond that to the fear of judgement over student scores or fear of being the one who will tank the school’s performance rating…

The fear is compounded by critics who insinuate that teachers – especially those who work with students in poverty, students in trauma and students who struggle with language and learning disabilities – are bad teachers because their students don’t perform as well as other students. As Parker Palmer has written, this fear manifests in a deep insecurity that whispers, “You’re not just a bad teacher, you’re a bad person” because for so many of us, our identity is so knit to our work as teachers.

Our students are likewise worried by fears of failing and not understanding. They fear being the one who won’t graduate, who will look dumb if they have to have extra help. They fear that in a fundamental sense, they will lose at life. This is why so many decide that the surer bet is to drop out.

Palmer warned that this toxic mix of student and teacher fears creates paralysis in education. And this paralysis comes at just the time when we need our best selves, our best ideas, our creativity  and innovation to face the challenges inherent in our complex world.

But the good news is that we can overcome this paralyzing fear. We overcome it with authenticity and connection. Teachers and students need to know that we CAN because that is our history as Americans, as educators, as students who overcome the odds. Together, we can co-create classrooms that ignite both teachers’ passions and students’ promise. I know that this can be done because of my experience – all in Title I schools – as well as the experiences of innovative and dynamic teachers across this great country.

We are our best selves when we risk being real. Dr. Brene Brown, a social work researcher, says that vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change. And she’s right. Teachers are artists of human potential. And like art, learning is messy. At my school, we’re two years into a special collaborative partnership driven by inquiry where small teams of teachers examine their practice and research, experiment and find solutions.

…When we risk being real, when we do one small brave thing by saying to each other, “Here’s what I’ve tried, what have you tried?” That vulnerability is what saves us. It’s what’s always saved us. It’s why, at my school, we don’t give up when a student doesn’t get it from the 19th or 20th way. It’s what brings us together to co-create the 21st way. This is the best of teaching … that encourages teachers to step up and be brave for each other.

We also need to be authentic in our products…At my school, I created the conditions for students to apply the standards to real problems in our communities. They generated solutions that no one else had tried. One of the most effective projects was created by a group of bilingual students. Their breast health presentation helped a Spanish-speaking woman to get her malignancy treated. It doesn’t get more authentic than that.

…When we teach from curiosity, hope, empathy and honesty, we are embracing real courage. And that’s what our students have to see. Because it’s what they’ve lived. Right now, there’s a 6’3” linebacker… waiting for me back in Amarillo who has major problems with reading comprehension. He’s down to his last chance on a test in April that if he doesn’t pass, he won’t graduate. I owe him my courage, my collaboration with others, my stubbornness that won’t let this fear take us into paralysis. If he can show up every day willing to face this fear of failing, then I have to honor his courage with my own. I have to be a gladiator for him. All of us have to be gladiators for these students. We honor their courage with our own. We must give them the courage to keep moving forward in their struggles because this is who we are and this is the most important work there is.

If students like …, or like …, a 17-year-old who reads on a third grade level can keep coming back to school, if …, a refugee student whose parents handed her over a razor-wire fence into Thailand to immigrate to America because they believed in our ability to teach her, can be vulnerable enough to make myriad mistakes in her English on her way to graduating, if …, who walked past addicts and prostitutes to enter [college], if …, a student born in the dark of a hospital with no electricity can be admitted to [college] because he didn’t let fear of being from a Title I school in the Texas Panhandle hold him back, then surely we can be courage for all students.

…When we risk being authentic in our process, our products and our purpose, we teach our students faith rather than fear. We make a way for our best selves and their limitless possibility. We teach them the most important lesson: it can be done.


Image Credits

The Fear (Homage to Francisco Goya) by Corneliu Baba

Reene’s Swan Dive by Nelson De Witt


10 thoughts on “The F-Word

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  1. Thank you for this wonderful piece. I love Brene Brown and I could hear her voice in your reflections. Thank you for your bravery.

  2. Congratulations on your honor, Shanna. What a wonderful mentor you will be. Keep up the great and extremely important work.

  3. I just love love love you! You deserve so much to be one of the finalists. Thank you so much for sharing. Truly inspirational!!

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