It was the first day of school and one student, Tammy, wasn’t there. I wasn’t worried at first, since students often move over the summer and their parents neglect to tell the district. Usually it is sorted out when they re-enroll in another district. Yet the students insisted Tammy was still in town. I found out on the third day that Tammy was scared of me.
I am a male teacher in elementary education. There is a long history of men in elementary education, but these days the majority of elementary teachers are women. It doesn’t help that I’m 6’3”, close to three hundred pounds, and have the same general disposition as “Shrek”. Not only that, but some older children had started vicious rumors about me throwing scissors at students, wiping boogers on students, entering the girl’s restroom, and a number of other classroom atrocities that didn’t ever happen. I met with Tammy and her mother, assured them and they both agreed, but Tammy was still scared. The principal met with them several times and finally insisted that Tammy come to class a full week after school started. Tammy did, found out I am a pretty nice guy after all, and to this day she counts me as one of her favorite teachers.
Sometimes students become afraid of their teachers. It can happen for a number of reasons. The most important thing is to ease the student into their work routine without trauma. You must try to resolve the issue with your child’s teacher, give your child tools to handle their fears, and make sure that your child and your child’s teacher are both set up to succeed.
Fear in the school environment is extremely counter-productive, whether that fear is of the teacher, bullies, a peer group, failing at school work, or whatever. Whenever a student is afraid then they are only functioning out of the cerebrum, the back half of their brain. The front part of the brain, the cerebellum, where learning takes place won’t function properly. That is why a safe school environment is vital to your child’s success.
Question Number One: Are you being played?
We would all like to believe our children are perfect and forthright little angels, incapable of lying, manipulating, or otherwise telling stories. As intelligent and rational adults, we also know that this isn’t true. Chances are you did it as a child, and that your child is capable as well. A student may feign, and feign so well as to believe themselves, fear of a teacher in order to get out of going to school, doing homework, or may request another class which has old friends in it or whose teacher is less strict, prettier, or more charismatic than their own. A student may feign fear because they want to live with another parent, or just to get attention from you or your peers. Fearfulness can be used as an excuse to get out of class to see a counselor, a reason not to complete work, or an excuse of bad behaviors. Try to surmise some other benefit your child could receive with your attention to their fear, and eliminate it.
For example, if a child says, “I’m afraid of Mrs. Gunderson, can’t I be moved to Mrs. Anderson’s class instead?”, make sure that whatever result they desire is not an available option at all. Your response would be, “I’ll talk with Mrs. Gunderson, but I will not move you to Mrs. Anderson’s class for any reason.” Often, once the possible reward for manipulative behavior is gone, then the behavior itself will go away quickly. If the child has a glimmer of hope they can get a result, they will keep up the undesirable behavior.
I’m pretty sure my child is actually scared. Question Number Two: What do I do?
You need to communicate with the teacher right away. A phone call or e-mail first is appropriate, followed by a parent-teacher conference next. You may be tempted to talk to the principal or a school board member first, but that course of action is likely to make the situation worse. A child will see “going over the teacher’s head” as a validation of their fears. Resort to this only if discussions with the teacher are not effective or taken seriously.
Try to get your child to articulate the reasons for the fear. Again, realize what your child says and the real reason may not be the same. Your child may simply be afraid of your teacher’s appearance, voice, or manner, but may be reluctant to say it. For a child, a sixty year old woman whose voice loud and harsh can seem scary. You’ll want to ask directly if these are reasons in a neutral way, so the child has a chance to admit them.
To get a handle on the situation you must begin dialog. Talk to your teacher and make them aware of the situation. Try to see if there is an issue that can be resolved first. No teacher is just working for the money, every one wants students to do well and most understand that a student has to be comfortable in their classroom to be successful learners. Often, the child simply has to see the teacher as a person, not just a source of authority. Regardless, you must show your confidence and respect for the teacher, so that your child sees that their fear is probably irrational.
Ask the teacher if there is a “safe spot” in the room were the student can ask to go if they feel afraid. This is an effective practice so long as the student understands they are still responsible for schoolwork. You will also want to ask if brain-body exercises are done that help children become more centered intellectually and emotionally by integrating the right and left sides of their body. Your child’s teacher may or may not, in which case you will want to have your child do these before heading off to school. If you don’t know any try this one. Have your child clap your hands together and keep them in front of themselves with the palms together. Then have her flip the hands so the palms face out and the back are touching. Move your right hand over left so the palms are facing again and entwine the fingers. She should then bend her elbows so the hands move toward her then veer upward. Have the student cross their legs at their ankles while standing, and tell her to put her tongue on the top of her mouth. Then have your child squeeze inward for a five count and release. Other possibilities include doing any sort of line dance, or simple exercises with bilateral motion, like jumping jacks.
If your child is still fearful than it may be time to include the principal if she hasn’t already attended a conference with you. Some teachers may actually be dismissive of your concerns, or your child’s problem may be too big for you and the teacher to handle alone. You’ll want to come up with a behavior plan with the intent of eliminating the behavior. This may include a weekly visit to a counselor or social worker, and a plan to handle in class behavior along with consequences for problems than arise from the fearful behavior as well.
You want to avoid a request to move the student, which is detrimental both to your student and to school discipline. However, if the child is truly fearful than you may wish to investigate the possibility. Be aware that a teacher being strict, or having high academic expectations, or simply not being easily moved by student emotional displays, are not reasons to remove your child. Those are all expectations they can expect from any future workplace.
Remember that collaboration with your child’s teacher is vital to your child’s success. Many parents feel that they need to prove their love to their child by making demands of the teacher or the school, or must insist that concessions be made to them. This is a poor way to set up a relationship with the school and shows the child that the two sources of authority in his life are divided and can be played against each other. An excellent working relationship can be an excellent solution to numerous problems, not the least of which is fear of the teacher.