Fear in the Classroom

Fear is contagious. And, in the classroom, it can spread quickly. Year in, year out, fear always reared its paralyzing head in my La Ceiba class at this point in the semester. You see Progress Report #2 was coming due. And, it was at this point in the semester when most of my students realized that they had been spending too much of their time on other classes (classes whose assignments clearly specified what was due, when it was due and how to do what was due) and not our class (more of a choose your own adventure class where your choices had real-world consequences for our microfinance clients in Honduras).

The fear my students felt was understandable. Their work impacted real people. And, the fear my students felt could make them lash out at me, the members of their project team and who knows who as they struggled to come to terms with their lack of progress. Over the years, I grew accustomed to the histrionics that could accompany Progress Report #2 coming due. It was all part of the process of my students becoming one of Us. And, I knew, as a class, that we would always right ourselves. Because, our returnees (those students who had taken the class before and had returned to take the class again) would step in and lead the class through this moment. However, this year, unlike previous years, it was one our returnees who was lashing out.

This returnee was so possessed with fear that they were lashing out at Us as a class. Us as culture. Us as a process. And, by openly lashing out in class, they gave others permission to do the same. The returnee and those falling into their orbit, instead of acknowledging that it was their choices that had brought them to this moment, started questioning the ways in which we go about building our community. In particular, how we do not accept everyone who wants to join us, how we screen prospective members of our community, how we are exclusive and how our being exclusive hurts others. Now, questioning our ways was always welcomed as long as it came from place of making us better. But this was fear. All fear. And, fear is a genius when it comes to deflecting responsibility.  

At the beginning of our next class, I sat at the head of the two beaten-up boardroom tables around which we gathered and I held court. I rarely (if ever) held court in this class. But I had to take this fear-induced uprising head on. Here’s what I said:

Our work impacts the lives of others (our clients) and we decided long ago, from day-one that we would do our best to do them no harm. Doing no harm means getting the work we promised to get done, done. And, our work can only be accomplished by working collectively. It takes all of us. Working in unison. Working together. And, in order to meet this collective challenge, we need to do two things.

First, we need to bind ourselves together. And, second, each of us individually must take on our fear of acting without the guidance of external authority. External authority is a recipe for complacency and inaction. External authority absolves you of the responsibility to act. This cannot happen. So, in place of external authority, we have built an ethos, a culture, a way of being that is specific to us. And, how does this ethos work? Well, there’s going to be a moment (many of you are experiencing it right now) when you will have to make a choice between giving into your fears or doing the work that needs getting done. Someone possessed of fear is not someone who is able do the work that needs getting done. And, doing the work that needs getting done is currency in our community. So, if you give into your fears and don’t do the work, then you will lose standing in our community. Moreover, if you internalize our ethos and give into your fears and don’t do the work, then you will also feel guilt. Yeah, those are two sticks. However, in our community, there is an incredible inducement for you to take on your fears. What’s that? Love. That’s right, love. Our love for you. Your love for us.

So, the choice is rather simple: you have to choose between being with Us or being with your fears. This choice is hard. I get it. We are asking a lot of you. We are asking you to grow. And, what most of you are feeling right now are growing pains. But, let me tell you, if you choose Us over your fears then you get the chance to be part of a community with a history of service. You get the chance to be part of a community that will always be there for you. You will always be a part of this community. Forever. For life. By being one of Us, you get the chance to practice taking on your fears now. Today. With Us. Surrounded by Us. And, when you graduate, you will carry this practice forward with you.

Now, everyone is not ready to make this choice and do the work that we need them to do. Therefore, we do not accept everyone who comes to our door. That means that we exclude some from entering into our community. That also means that on occasion some people would rather leave our community than take on their fears. That also means that on occasion I will ask some people to leave. And, that also means that some of those who leave may get their feelings hurt. I do not feel good about that. But I too have to make a choice. I cannot be all things to everyone at all times. And, my commitment is to you – those of you who are ready to make this choice and do the work. You take precedence over those who are not. I choose to be everything I can be at all times for you. So, here’s the choice each of you have to make today: accept us, accept our ways and accept our process and stay or don’t and leave.

I paused. The room was quiet. It stayed quiet. That is, until Kelsey, one of our returnees, a senior and a fiercely-committed carrier of our culture, stood up and said:

“This is the process. It works. Get on board or get out.”

With that, she left the classroom with graceful authority. And, starting with the next class period, she took those two beaten-up boardroom tables, put them on her back and carried her classmates to a successful conclusion of the semester. From that day forward, Kelsey entered into our mythology. She became Kelsey the Magnificent. We told her story again and again.


I’m writing a book on my pedagogy called Rewild School, blogpost-by-blogpost. This is one of those blogposts. You can learn more by visiting Rewild School.

Thanks. – shawn