It’s August, and the first day of school for teachers is a little over a week away. As I start to put my brain in back-to-school mode, I find myself reflecting on the nature of fear.
There is plenty to fear these days. COVID is still a very real thing, where I’m located is currently seeing high transmission, and I don’t know what the COVID mitigations (if any) are going to be like in schools. Also add the text I got this week from our city’s public health alerts about monkeypox, another public health issue that I have no information about regarding mitigations.
I’m also starting in a new school, albeit one I’m somewhat familiar with, and there’s the swirling questions of “will I be able to connect with my students here the same way I did at my old school?”, “how will I connect with the adults in the building?”, and “how will I adapt to a different curriculum and environment?” A fear of failure, a question of “can I be successful here?”
And then there are just the general fears of working in public education in America these days. I definitely saw a rise in jackhammer parents over the past few years. I can understand and empathize that their “jackhammeriness” comes from a place of fear and wanting to control what they can to mitigate those fears, but I fear being on the receiving end of that relentlessness. Also, although I am not in a state that is currently trying to pass laws around what teachers can and cannot say/teach in the classroom, I see what’s happening in Florida, Texas and other places and how those laws are having a trickle effect. Consider, for example, what happened at Heinemann, where two anti-racist educators led the way in severing ties with the company when Heinemann tried to edit out parts of a reading curriculum because of the restrictions in some states. As a science teacher, and more specifically as a physical science teacher, my curriculum hasn’t come under the same level of scrutiny as, say, literacy or history, but sometimes it feels like it’s only a matter of time. As I work to make my classroom more culturally and linguistically responsive, as I work to make it a welcoming environment for all students, what if that is suddenly “too much”? What if something as simple as asking my students for their pronouns comes under undue scrutiny?
I wish it was straightforward to mitigate the fears of other people, because it seems that when the folks around me are reacting out of fear, my own fear rises in response. There was a study from Yale several years back about having conservatives imagine that they’re physically invincible leads to more liberal mindsets (on social issues, anyway). It seems that feeling physically safe leads to less of a hoarding/scarcity mentality. What could we do if we felt safe, if we weren’t governed by fear?
As I am getting more into planning for next year, I am reminding myself to approach things from a place of curiosity. Who are my students, and how do I get to know them? What is the community like that I am stepping into? What are the emotions behind what’s happening here? I’ve learned over the past few years how we can’t get away from our emotions, but also that emotions are not reality or permanent. Additionally, as Elena Aguilar has shared in so much of her work, emotions can tell us a lot if we invite them in. The work I’ve put into understanding emotions, my own and those of others, has helped me be more empathetic and compassionate.
Unlike the constriction of fear, this mindset of curiosity feels expansive. I do not know what this year will hold for me, but I am cautiously optimistic and curious to find out where things go. So here’s to starting Year 10 (!) and all the ups and downs that will come with it.