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Embracing Trouble

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.

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