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Educational Fear Factor: Are Roaches, Snakes And Spiders In Your Baggage?

Educational Fear Factor: Are Roaches, Snakes And Spiders In Your Baggage?
Many educators want their institutions to change, but are too threatened by the possibility of reprisal to speak up. Photo by Linda Tanner.

Sometimes I hate being right. It can be an emotional bummer. Tangible evidence (in the form of numerous private emails following my latest article Bullet Points Are Comforting But They Are Just Snacks ) has demonstrated to me that what I long suspected was true – IS! A lot of educators are living in fear and are afraid of speaking out publicly about what they see, what they want to see happen, how the students are being impacted, etc. What does this mean? This means that those on the front lines of implementing immediate change for the benefit of the student are, often, too afraid to do so for fear of reprisal. Wow! Turns out that the experts can talk about what is needed top down but those in the field are living in fear of speaking out. They have critters in their baggage!

To begin, I have been researching, implementing, speaking and writing on issues/solutions surrounding distance education for over a decade. I’ve seen a lot of change. I’ve seen a lot of hesitation. But what I always appreciated was the dialogue directed by hope and potential. I have been privy to be part of many groups and organizations where the passion flies fast and furious and ideas, solutions, and commitment are an intoxicatingly reality. Change happened here, people!

That was until the last 4 years. When the country started in its Great Recession (feel free to pick another name if you want) people started getting nervous. Suddenly the passionate people turned into polite chatterers. Then they left the table and went back to their jobs. The exodus had begun. The fear began to set it. Apparently it is no longer safe to be a “Champion of the Cause”.

Educators do what they do because they believe they can make a difference in the lives of their students. Just one student is sometimes all it takes for a dedicated educator to feel that it’s all worthwhile. Just one. A pebble in the pond. So tirelessly they work on that illusive student’s behalf. They spend after hours, our own money, time, etc. to find a way to reach ‘that’ student. They pull in every new trick, methodology, resource, technology to get to ‘that’ student. They speak up! They advocate! They are determined to push against ‘the system’ and advocate for change in an attempt to reach ‘that’ student. They are passionate. Hear them roar!

Until now. Fear has winged them. They are afraid to fly. They carry baggage full of roaches, snakes, and spiders – all ready to get them if they let their guards down.

When the economy of the U.S. tanked, pink slips became the new educational norm. Waves of teachers were suddenly out of work. The nightly news made sure to broadcast this: 3,400 pink slips were handed out today in the xyz school district, and everyone panicked. Retirement accounts were lost in the marketplace and those that kept their jobs could not retire. It became a perfect breeding ground for fear, inaction, and more fear. Everybody held their breath.

Nobody. Dared. To. Move. A. Single. Muscle. Nobody twitched. Their bags wiggled.

Still the technology companies continued to churn out the latest and greatest and some teachers dared to implement them. But not a lot of public and open conversation was happening about what works and why. Too much fear of being targeted and there were mortgages and bills to be paid.

Now we’re a few years down the road and I assumed (I know, I know) that the climate of fear was changing. I am not beholden to any organization or group so I am free to speak openly and freely about what I see, witness, and do without fear of reprisal. I can be transparent. Sometimes I forget that others can’t. In my ongoing quest for solutions, innovation, research based methodology implementation, etc. I speak plainly. A voice in a field armed with my passion of conviction. And data.

I share my field with some. I am not alone (or I’d doubt myself) but let’s just say there is plenty of space for others to set up camp. Sometimes we get visitors. Hope is still alive and free in the field. However, we also see in the carry-on baggage of the visitor’s roaches, snakes, and spiders. These things sneak out and take us by surprise when really; we should be used to them. We are all good with the bug-zapper now. The problem really comes when some visitors, after running free in the field for awhile, choose to pick up their roaches, snakes, and spiders and carry them back home. It happens more often than you may realize (think professional conference participants – all full of enthusiasm on Saturday morning but then Monday morning reality comes).

Now, before anyone gets defensive and thinks I’m coming at the teachers, let me re-state that I understand how and why this happened! I get it. Fear is a powerful de-motivator. There is not a huge gap, in today’s educational realm, between sticking your neck out and getting it chopped off. I understand. Really.

Here are some of the Fear Factor comments I received in my inbox following my latest article (all details removed). Sound familiar? You be the judge:

“Yes, you can use the comments without my name. Typically I don’t say anything online I would not attach my name to, but I don’t want  to throw rocks at my employer.

Online education is only seen as cost cutting tool at my campus. The students and faculty both hate it because no money is put into doing it right. But I have bills to pay so I stay quiet and do what I’m told.

I tried to talk to my superiors about ways to implement technology but since this became a closed topic a year ago I was written up for insubordination. Why bother?

We just lost 12 more faculty and 8 administrators. If you think I’m going to say something publicly, you’re out of your mind. But I’m glad YOU are… somebody needs to say something!”

Seems there are a lot of critters in people’s bags. Sometimes one tries to get in mine. I quickly zap it. This is me. Love me or hate me, I shine the light on issues! I lead by blasting tunnels through the mountain and creating paths through the field. It’s what I do. When I ran this article by my inner sanctum, several of them advised me not to publish this. Said it was too much. Said I might face ‘them’. I said (as I often do), “If I don’t, who will?” So I pushed on.

When I started writing this article several hours ago, I put the following ‘call’ out to my social and professional networks:

Input requested: Sparked by my latest article (and the numerous “fear of termination if honest” emails I received privately) I’m writing up a new article covering that Fear Factor re: Educators, Fear, Job Security, etc. Now, I’m not asking anyone to post publicly here, nor will I use anyone’s name/job/etc. in the article – BUT – I am asking you to think about your experience(s) in that context. Message me here if you have something you’d like to add to the conversation. Again, NO NAMES/INFO will be shared. I am interested in honest content. Thank you!”

So far, I’ve had one “like”.

While that may be the norm for some people, and really not indicative of a greater problem, my network people usually jump on my requests like hungry roaches. They’re always willing to help and speak up. But today, they remain eerily silent. I won’t draw conclusions about ‘why’ just yet, but it is worth a side nod and I’ll keep track as the next few hours unfold.

It’s been 24 hours since I wrote that last sentence.

I have received the one “Like” and one, “I have some doozies. But I’m at work. I’ll get back to you tonight.” That’s it. See the problem? I sure do! On my normally very active media places (where we go at it over types of tortillas, crunchy vs. creamy, etc.) where my posts have been known to gather 50+ replies there is nary a nibble. Seems the critters are alive and well and bullying my people into silence. Whoa!

From the test and re-test category, I posted the following on my networks: “Crunchy vs. Creamy?” I had 37 responses (with many drawn out explanations) within 12 hours. I’ll put this out there for one more day. (pause)

Ok, next day. Still nothing.

What possible conclusions do I draw from this? Many:

1)      My initial feedback suggests that there is a great deal of fear around the idea of open discussion. This conclusion was drawn based on the numerous emails I received in response to Bullet Points Are Comforting But They Are Just Snacks  from people wanting to give me input but afraid to do so publicly for fear of reprisal.

2)      When I asked the individuals if I could anonymously copy their replies to the original article’s comment site, only one said yes. The others were too worried about losing their jobs.

3)      When I posted the “Input Request” (above) to four of my networking feeds, I received very limited feedback. When I tested my activity by posting a random feed, I received great feedback. I left the initial request up for an additional 24 hours and nothing more came in on it. This suggests two things: People are hesitant to discuss issues openly for fear of reprisal and people love peanut butter (except for Scott who prefers Sunflower butter, which, btw, does not come in crunchy).

Final big conclusion! (As in, what could this all mean?)

We are killing innovation in education by limiting the freedom of progress made by the discussions on topic by infusing the entire process with a very real climate of fear.

Phew. That’s a huge concept. I won’t break it down because, if you’ve gotten this far you can read. I won’t give you my emotional reaction to this statement because I’m pretty sure you have your own. I won’t say that this is the case in every single situation, as there are always exceptions to everything (see my article Champions vs. Resistors: Coaxing The Dragon Over The Wall). I’m not going to insult you by claiming to know what you’re thinking right now. I’m simply going to ask you to think.

Think about the following:

1)      What would happen if people stood up to the fear and had these conversations again? Collectively and en masse?

2)      What would happen if people lived their conference experiences after the conference?

3)      What would happen if they listened to the student’s perspectives and implemented their realities into our classrooms? (see The Student Whisperer…Why Not Ask The Kids?)

4)      What would happen if, after they went to conferences, the conference experiences were implemented and enacted in the classrooms in a deliberate and organized manner? (see All You Need Is Love! Really?)

5)      What would happen if more people who came as Visitors to the field became residents, dumped their baggage (including their critters) and spoke freely, openly, and with full transparency of the changes that needed to be made, the roadblocks to those ends, and the way they could help.

Could you? Would you? Will you?

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