Understanding Fear and Its Impact on Us
Following Freud’s lead in 1926, psychoanalysts have spent much of their time trying to get to the root of our most basic fears. The tradition of psychoanalysis essentially tries to get at the unconscious root of our behaviors, and that by making those unconscious motivations conscious, we can gain insight on who we are and why we do what we do. For Freud, much of this centers around our fears as motivators, and how they can drive how we behave. The darkest of these fears, according to Freud, are our fear of death and our fear of total annihilation. Certainly, we fear death, but that fear can be very much understood, and even managed, given the simple inevitability of it. Many of us find ourselves accepting it, even when distraught with the concept or reality of it. Fear of annihilation, however, gets at something even deeper, some place in our selves where we not only fear physical death but of a total disintegration of our very being, a place that can be compromised by simple events that threaten our sense of being.
In essence, he argued that there are times (or multiples times, especially in early childhood) in a person’s life when given the sheer scope of a situation, his or her psyche cannot handle it. It overloads, and there is a rush of anxiety. It can take over the mind and body, leading to overwhelming feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and, to put all of these emotions into one space, fear. This phenomenon is known as annihilation anxiety. Other clinicians and psychoanalytic theorists have since picked up on this idea, classifying annihilation anxiety as a bona-fide pathological disorder, yet one that we all experience at some point in our lives. It can lead to what is also called ‘ego weakness’, suggesting that the ego serves an essential purpose in our health and well-being, that is as long as it is held in balance within the psyche. In other words, when we can become overwhelmed by anxiety we can actually make ourselves mentally, emotionally, and/or physically sick.
From Hopeful to Hopeless: A Teacher’s Journey
Many teachers and other educators, as I have found in my own research and experience, I believe suffer from this anxiety disorder. At the very least, I can speak for myself in that I have at many times in my career as a teacher lost any sense of control in a cloud of anxiety related to my work in and around schools; I have felt paralyzed by a fear that my very identity and being – that as a ‘teacher’ – was being threatened by the forces that be, and by the ‘system’. This has even led to some pathological behavior on my part. You know, the catastrophic thinking that can lead to sleepless nights wondering if I was going to keep my job after the test scores were to be announced, or the ranting tirades I have been part of in the relative safety of faculty room. Both, if I were to be honest, are examples of neurotic, pathological behavior, stemming from what has felt like real, bona-fide, unadulterated fear.
I came to becoming a teacher after what I feel was a vocational calling to teach, one that I felt as early as my childhood; many educators come to the profession in this way. When it came time for me to choose a major in college, and later to choose a career, I chose to teach and took on this identity in earnest after my own teacher education in graduate school. When people asked what I did for a ‘living’, I replied with pride, “I AM a teacher”. It was a noble profession, one that I found myself drawn to it to, almost, a level of being. It wasn’t just a profession or career, but a way of being for me. However, this deeply engrained sense of identity and calling also came with some major drawbacks. When I think back to it, I always said this with a bit of a ‘chip on my shoulder’. Somewhere along the way, maybe when I was a young student or maybe during my more formal education as a student-teacher, I learned that being a ‘teacher’ also meant that I would struggle. Being a teacher meant that I was to be underappreciated and underpaid, and once the high-stakes environment of testing, standardization and accountability began to also identify me as a teacher in 2001 with the ratification and implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), this struggle became even more palpable. Here and then, I believe it manifested as fear on a deep, profound, if not existential, level. Older, more veteran, teachers told me that I could lose my job if my student did not perform well on these tests. Administrators reminded us that our school could lose its funding, which, of course, meant that our jobs were at risk. For me, however, this threatened not only my job security, but given my deep commitment to teaching I had found myself in an existential crisis. If I wasn’t to teach, then who would I be? How would I have purpose, if it weren’t for my classroom? In a sense, I truly believed that these tests not only measured my students’ abilities and performance, or even my own, but also my value as a human being. Sounds crazy, right? Maybe a little, according even to modern psychology, but nevertheless not all that uncommon.
I’m Not Alone – Anxiety is Everywhere in Education
As mentioned earlier, I have experienced this anxiety not only in my own life as a teacher, but have also witnessed it in my work as an educational researcher. In a 2015 study that I conducted, in which I interviewed 12 educational stakeholders – 3 teachers, 3 parents, 2 building administrators, 2 superintendents, and 2 state legislators – about their experiences with NCLB and test-based reform, I found that they, too, suffered from a similarly potent fear that I had for many years. The goal of the study was to uncover perceptions of test-based school reform, and to look for commonalities in the language interviewees’ used in their responses to get a better idea as to how these reforms have actually been experienced and internalized. Their language, while not all together shocking, did reveal some interesting metaphors, as well as some very potent fears, that all of these stakeholding groups experience in schools today.
During an interview with a parent and former PTA president and current school board member (a very active parent by any means), she shared that when she saw NCLB “pervade” the local school district, she was shamed for doing so by the school district superintendent, which began to “isolate” her from her work and her peers; she explained it as feeling like she was being “cuckoo-fied”, which in her words meant that he (the superintendent) and others in power were treating her as if she were insane for having concerns about the changes in schools after the ratification of NCLB. Similarly, during her tenure as PTA president, she shared that she received a letter signed by a significant number of the district’s teachers. In this letter, they asked her to “save us” from the “crisis” of the new order under NCLB. It was as if their very existence – their survival – was at risk, and they needed help, desperately. She tried, but was ultimately pushed out of the PTA. In my interview with her I could feel her anxiety and the fear that this memory brought up for her; she got squirmy in her seat, at one point cautiously looked around and resorted to whispering to me as if someone was watching.
Similarly, during an interview with a state legislator, she put some familiar words to this feeling, describing NCLB as like “big brother”, a totalitarian, mustached man looking down on a fearful populace, threatening them with propaganda…and this came from someone with a literal voice in the government. If you can remember the kind of internalized fear that drove Winston and Julia to betray each other in the Orwellian dystopia of 1984, well, then this gives fear a name, a face, and a sense of hopeless and helplessness that is not easily shaken off. Many other potent words, phrases, images and metaphor were uncovered during these 12 interviews. One interviewee likened the state mandated test itself to a “bomb” ready to annihilate the public school system. Another likened the preparation for the state test to a “boot camp”, a place where you lose one identity and take on another. There was a description used of this testing movement as like a “drumming”, a threatening, ominous sound coming from the jungle’s depths signaling a savage takeover and a fight for survival. The image of a “black cloud” was used to describe the feeling that teachers and administration have when the test nears. Simply put, another interviewee described the purpose of the test: to “break down” the kids, turning them into “robots”, something other than human.
And Yet, Teachers Still Believe they Can Make a Difference
This all being said, I should note that these dark images and metaphors – this shadowy language based on fear, distrust and desperation – did not completely dominate the study. In each and every one of the interviews, and despite the apparent differences in role, political beliefs, demographics, etc., all of the interviewees ended up speaking about their schools, their educational lives, and their calling to educate with images and language of love, joy, connection, and care. Every one of the them arrived at a point where honesty, humility and inspiration shined through; every one of them talked about relationship-building, about the value of creativity and intuition, about story, voice and empowerment. This was a major shift from the first half of each interview, and to be honest, this change in tone had truly nothing to do with me or the questions I had asked of them. Every interviewee naturally came to this place on their own, and my only guess as to why or how this happened is that once I gave them the space to really open up about their deepest fears as educators, and once they had the opportunity to share them, that this created space within them and within the interview itself to put away that fear and explore the hope and beauty of education and schooling. It was like ‘talk-therapy’ of sorts. I think Freud would have been proud (even though I still am not sure how I feel about him and his ideas!).
So, what does this mean to the future of public education? Will it be annihilated, as our deepest fears suggest? I don’t think so. While I can see Freud and others’ concern for our darker tendencies and the role of the ego in keeping them (hopefully) in check, I have to believe that we also all share the joy and hope that schools can and should provide, if anything as a democratic institution. It could be that while we all share similar fears and desperations, that an honest reckoning of these might open up the space for us to experience the best of what our schools, our teachers and our communities have to offer, test or not test at stake. It is neither an ‘either’ or an ‘or’ argument, however. We have the capacity, I believe, to have pride in our schools yet also provide honest critique of them. We have assets that can, of course, be liabilities if taken to an extreme, but the point is that we have them. I also have come to believe that schools can be organized, operationalized and realized in a way where open dialogue can happen, where we can explore our fears in ways that are healthy, and where we can ultimately experience the love and joy of education together and not in the silos of classrooms or high-performing districts. I can say that, today, I AM a teacher, and yes, I AM a little scared (or maybe a lot scared for that matter), but I AM, also, you.