M. Colleen Cruz

Writer, Educator, Consultant

Embracing Trouble

November 18, 2015

Tags: responsive teaching, facing fears, writing workshop, NCTE

Full disclosure: I have two major fears. They are fear of flying and fear of public speaking. Which, makes my career choice a little odd. Because, as a literacy consultant I travel all over the world to teach in front of people, give speeches and conduct workshops. So I face my deepest fears on a daily basis. By choice. There are actual ways around my fears. But I choose to instead jump into them and roll around, wallowing in their magnificence.

But, as someone who has dealt with fear in some form my whole life, it wasn’t that strange. I have a tendency, as those of you who know me can attest, to head straight toward the hard stuff. And fear is no different. For the most part, when I look back at my biggest accomplishments in life, (my relationships, my children, my writing, my teaching), they all started with me walking directly into a fear.

The way I’ve dealt with fears most of my life is almost always the same. I study them. I interview people. I read about them. I learn as much as I possibly can about them. For my fear of public speaking, I first learned everything I could about public speaking. I read as many books as I could. I talked to the people whose speaking I most admired (thanks Katherine Bomer, Carl Anderson and Lucy Calkins!) I learned about the science behind it – such as that many people’s bodies go into a fight or flight state that ramps up the hormones making your heart race and your palms sweat and breathing challenging. I then examined my absolute biggest concerns (not being able to breathe, saying something awful) and allowed my brain to go to the absolute worst case scenario (then I’ll faint, then I’ll make some people angry at me). Once I learn everything I can possibly learn about whatever it is I’m currently fearing, I feel strangely empowered. Even if what I learned is not exactly happy news. For example, I’m pretty sure I did not need to know most people have cockroaches in their ears at one point in their lives. However, finding that information out was strangely comforting. So, if I ever wake up with a cockroach in my ear (again), I will know all over the world there are people experiencing the same thing. Learning about fears can give one a sense of community and control.

Sometimes learning about fears can also give us the tools we need to make decisions that can help vanquish those fears. Once I found out which commercial airline has the worst safety record, I knew to avoid flying them. Learning about hormones that arise when public speaking helped me seek out relaxation exercises like stretches and deep breathing, and herbal remedies such as chamomile to combat those hormones

This week Jennifer Serravallo, Barb Golub and I are presenting at the Annual NCTE Convention. The title of the presentation is “ Embracing Trouble”. In the course of the presentation we plan to address common troubles faced by teachers in the reading and writing workshop model. In my section of the presentation, and in my book THE UNSTOPPABLE WRITING TEACHER, I posit that most of the things that cause us trouble – in life and in the classroom – are somehow connected to fear.

The example I often cite is my writing teacher, Jennifer Belle, responding strongly when I made an excuse for not finishing up some writing. “There is no such thing as lazy. Only fear.” And I realized all at once that was absolutely correct. That if I looked at why I hadn’t written that chapter that day, it was because I was afraid of not getting it right. When I looked at students who weren’t working on their writing, it was often because they were afraid of something: spelling, embarrassment, confusion. That was the beginning of me realizing that most of the things that happen in a classroom that cause us trouble, that become roadblocks in our path, are often things we’re afraid of. I’m going to ask you to go on a little thought journey with me to see what I mean. Grab some paper, or something else you can write with. Then follow the steps below:

1. Think of a problem that is getting in the way of your classroom going the way you would like it to go. (Not enough time, a students who does not write, a colleague who disagrees with the work…)
2. Rename the problem as a fear (I’m afraid I won’t get to everything I have to teach while I teach the things I want to teach; I’m afraid this student won’t grow as a writer ; I’m afraid to upset people and mess up relationships…)
3. Let the fear lead your response. (Do I need to learn more about this topic? Is this something that would be better for me to learn to ignore? Do I need to recruit help?)

There's more to this, of course, but I think by consciously reframing our problems as fears - even if just for a few minutes of reflection or as an exercise - we can bring more empathy to ourselves (and our students and community) while also gaining another perspective to what is stopping us.

If nothing else, I think simply pausing when something in teaching stops us and asking, "Is there anything I could be afraid of here? If so, is there anything I can do about it?" will at least stop us from banging our heads against the proverbial wall.


  1. November 18, 2015 8:04 PM EST
    When watching a spiritual topic show recently the speaker shared that there really are only two emotions in the human experience: fear and love. Anything that moves us away from receiving or expressing love moves us closer to fear. When we show compassion for ourselves we move our mindset away from fear. Speaking of, your blog also reminds me of Carol Dweck's work with attribution theory, in that what we attribute our motivations for success and failure can be tied to our accomplishments. Furthermore I think the idea of fear really ties into the educational paradigm movement towards more technological based classrooms. Many times people fear the unknown and giving up control over what they know and the wide expanse of technology and the fact that the children know more than the teacher age generation can bring on that fear. In our current high-stakes testing educational climate I also think that there is a external induction of fear placed on schools and specifically it's teachers as well. Thank you again Colleen for a thought-provoking piece of writing.
    - Dina M. Weiss
  2. November 18, 2015 8:16 PM EST
    Hi Dina,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I do like the idea of there just being love and fear. Totally could see that. And you're right, there are a lot of things in the current educational climate that can pull right on our most primal fears. Now you've got me thinking...
    - Colleen
  3. November 20, 2015 10:17 AM EST
    Powerful advice, Colleen. The logic behind your argument about how to deal with fear/trouble makes a lot of sense to the practical side of me. Fear of failure doesn't have to paralyze us, especially if we choose to view mistakes as opportunities to improve future work. I love how @ILAToday framed this kind of thinking as "failing forward."
    - Robin Griffith

Selected Works

A book that addresses some of the most common and challenging struggles a teacher of writing might face - and offers solutions
Professional Literature
A practical resource for 3rd grade teachers looking to teach writing workshop
A practical resource for 4th grade teachers looking to teach writing workshop.
A practical book and quick read from Heinemann's Help Desk Imprint
Co-written with Lucy Calkins, this book is a part of the Units of Study First Hand Series from Heinemann.
Designed for teachers, this book discusses the ins and outs of teaching students to cultivate independent writing lives.
Young Adult Novel
A finalist for the Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award, this book follows the story of Cesi as she embarks on a journey to Mexico in order to learn more about her family, and herself.