How Schools Can Cultivate Courage in the Face of Fear

Teachers can help students confront their fears

By: Tyler S. Thigpen

Audrey felt the blood draining from her face.

As a tenth-grader studying American literature, she’d experienced this sensation many times before. She’d read the book. Of course she’d read the book. And when her teacher asked the class a question about the conclusion, she looked straight at Audrey.

Then the dreaded moment came. “Audrey,” said the teacher. “Why do you think Hester returns to America? Why does she keep sewing the letter A on her dress?”

It’s not that Audrey doesn’t have a theory. She just can’t get the words out. Being in the spotlight, with all eyes in the room trained on her, she is terrified. She struggles and stammers, choking out a few words before her teacher grows impatient and calls on someone else.

As educators, parents, and researchers, we try to create learning environments where joy, curiosity, courage, and trust are at the forefront of the learner’s experience. Fear is a helpful primary emotion that protects us; but massive or unkempt fear can turn into a paralyzing anxiety that blocks deep learning.

What if by understanding where fears stem from, educators could design the learning environment for optimal courage? What if Audrey’s teacher had held her in that moment, walking her through the fear to get to the words Audrey was searching for?

Courage is not about avoiding fear. It’s about understanding it and moving forward in its presence.

In 2012, researcher and consultant Dr. Karl Albrecht put forth a hierarchy of fear, in pyramid form, claiming “there are only five basic fears, out of which almost all of our other so-called fears are manufactured.” They are, in order of most fundamental to most evolved:

  • Fear of extinction
  • Fear of mutilation
  • Fear of loss of autonomy
  • Fear of separation, and
  • Fear of ego death

If you look at Albrecht’s pyramid in the same way you might look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, fears of extinction and mutilation are the most fundamental. Put simply, these are, respectively, a fear of death and a fear of harm. The national conversation has returned—thanks in large part to students’ own voices—to ensuring that students can come to a place where they feel safe enough to learn without being physically attacked.

But that is just the beginning. Schools play a major role in clearing the path for students to become fearless in life.

The fear of loss of autonomy is that of being restricted, overwhelmed, or controlled by an outside force. In our standard education system, students have little choice in what they learn, how they learn, how quickly they learn, or why they learn, which can provoke this fear. As we acknowledge this fear, how can we address it in a way that allows students to tap into their courage?

Schools give kids autonomy by giving them agency and authority over their education, by giving them as much choice as possible. (With guardrails, of course. Without them, you’ll end up with a Lord of the Flies situation.)

In schools that have pioneered this idea by putting students in charge of their learning, they see that kids sustain their motivation to learn. It’s a really powerful thing. While it can be scary for adults and teachers because we don’t want to give up control, it can change a student’s entire learning experience (for the better). For students who are starting further behind, this can be a really crucial concept to implement as well.

As a teacher and parent, it’s tempting to hover and fix things when you see your student or child failing and struggling. But that process is one of the most important parts of a student’s education that prepares them for the future. Students who have agency over their education develop a healthy sense of autonomy and become better learners. But when we give up this control, we enable students to tap into their courage and figure this out themselves.

A fear of separation refers to an emotional and psychological fear of rejection and abandonment, of not being wanted. In schools, in addition to social pressures and anxieties, this fear can worsen when teachers, friends, and classes change annually. How might we thread caring relationships throughout the learning experience in a way that helps ease this fear?

One idea being implemented at Achievement First Greenfield is the concept of Dream Teams, where students are surrounded by a dedicated team of supportive peers and adults throughout their schooling and development. Partnerships with mentoring agencies, running buddies, and peer-to-peer collaboration are also ideas to provide social continuity for students.

Creating longer-term commitments with teachers and mentors also helps ease this fear. “Looping” is a term in the education industry for the practice of teachers staying with the same group of students for longer than one year. There’s positive research (and of course, concerns) on looping, and how and why the length of the commitment between the youth and an adult matters a lot.

While there are hundreds of ideas on how we can help students understand and choose courage instead, the important thing we need to continue to do is to ask the question and organize to surround youth with multiple caring adults.

Lastly, bringing us back to Audrey, fear of ego death is the fear of humiliation, shame, and of losing yourself. How does a school make sure that every learner knows that at a fundamental level they have value?

Since deeper learning includes not just core academics but also social and emotional factors and mindsets, we need to continue to design educational experiences that draw out the emotions, thoughts, plans, and goals of young people whose brains are sorting out their identities through the lens of their lived experiences. Keeping these conversations (and cultures) out in the open is a key factor in teaching students the importance of dialogue and relationship-building on this path—and diverts students from choosing a path of drawing weapons against fellow humans.

It’s rare that a school integrates the thoughts and ideas of kids into the actual design of the learning environment—we don’t see K-12 schools as incubators of innovation and ideas. But we could. How do we change that culture so that students believe in their ideas and concepts and exist in a safe space to share them?

In Audrey’s case, her teacher unfortunately only contributed to her agoraphobia. She reinforced the fear by assuming Audrey wasn’t prepared for class and giving up on her. Had she understood that something else was going on, she might have changed the path for Audrey forever in that moment by teaching her how to push past her fears.

It’s not enough to create a school environment where kids are ‘not afraid.’ Kids deserve the opportunity to thrive and flourish in an education system that encourages and emboldens them to believe in themselves and take risks. This cultivates courageous, unafraid students.

It’s not too late for Audrey, though. Recognizing the symptoms of fear in students is the first step toward dismantling them before they become paralyzing. Because Audrey needs more than just knowledge as she moves into adulthood; she needs bravery to face a world of numerous challenges she will inherit.

Now is the moment to discuss the safety of all children. As we do so, let’s make sure we address the whole child—that we attend to all fears. Let’s work toward designing deeper learning environments so that kids feel safe enough to grow, courageous enough to take risks, and fearless enough to learn.

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Tyler S. Thigpen is partner at Transcend, cofounder of The Forest School, and instructor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

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