you're reading...
Leadership and Activism

Pedagogy of Fear – Guest Post by Morna M. Mcdermott

At The Learning Network listserv members have been engaging in thoughtful conversations about the current educational policy climate.  But, we haven’t stopped there.  We have also committed ourselves to do whatever it takes to reverse the damage that has been inflicted on teachers, students, and families.  Some examples are: posting on various social media outlets, writing letters to the editor, and participating in the SOS March and National Call to Action in July Recently, Morna M. Mcdermott, posted the following draft essay on the TLN listserv about, what she refers to as the pedagogy of fear.  Morna is an Associate Professor at the College of Education, Towson University.  She can be reached at  She wrote this narrative to demonstrate “the powerful role that fear plays in shaping our current educational policies and practices”.  We welcome your comments to this post.

Pedagogy of fear

I write this narrative as a parent of two small children, a classroom teacher of ten years and a professor of curriculum and instructor of ten years (and running).  I selected this title to juxtapose other respected scholarship with similar titles, namely Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Pedagogy of Hope, and Pedagogy of Freedom. While I agree that oppression still exists and that hope and freedom are necessary to transform schools and society, the purpose of this narrative to offer one scholars opinion on the powerful role that fear plays in shaping our current educational policies and practices. The poet Charles Bukowski once wrote that to do a “dangerous thing with style is what I call art.” Furthering his statement, I argue that creativity in the form of “dangerous style” is one way to transcend and transform this fear.

I believe what we have is not pedagogy grounded in freedom and hope, but a pedagogy driven out of fear. This sadly makes sense since we are living in a society of fear, and as I explain to my students in my School and American Society classes, that society and schools are directly interwoven. “Which comes first?”  in the proverbial chicken and egg quandary has been discussed at length by other scholars, and is beyond the scope of my discussion here but I think we can safely agree that the two are mutually connected. They mirror one another, and the paradigm that is to say the collective worldview that exists in one also exists in the other.

I don’t want to go so far as to say that any decision based on fear is a bad one. For example, I could make a decision not to climb into a shark tank based on the reasonable idea that I will be attacked. To dismiss that fear and leap into the waters would be most unwise. However, it might be considered unreasonable to allow of fear of getting in a car accident to prevent me from ever driving anywhere. The difference is grounded in common sense, and I contend that common sense is what we have lost in our decisions about teaching and learning.  I travel a great deal and as I walk around airport going from gate to gate I am reminded that “the airport security level is at code orange.” I am not sure if that is to invoke a feeling of safety (i.e thank god it’s not at red) or a feeling of fear (“we must always be on alert because something could happen at any minute”), but it is certainly an ever-present reminder that we not take our safety for granted.  And should I ever be at an airport when they announce they are on “code red” should I fall back on our racist assumptions and begin to furtively eyeballing anyone who appears to be of Middle Eastern descent? Do I lose all rational common sense and begin to act irrationally?

Schools and classroom around America as part of our social fabric are also constantly reminded that they are on “code orange.” It’s called high stakes testing and accountability. All schools, like all airports regardless of their testing success are reminded that code orange can mean either “Thank god we’re not on code red” or it could mean, “We could descend into code red at anytime”- either way they are reminded of their precarious balance between safety and danger, creating a perpetual collective fear of falling into the latter.

And schools that are not making AYP are told they are on “code red.” They go into “lockdown mode” where everyone is subject to intense screening, and racist assumptions about blaming students of color, English language learners, and students on free and reduced lunch lead us to a sorting and tracking system that tries to eliminate them from the curriculum that matters (translation-tested). They are subject to our highest scrutiny.

I have travelled extensively over the last years as a professor of Education working with new and seasoned teachers. While the cultures, curriculum, socioeconomic and community needs vary, one thing had held consistently true of every last group of teachers with whom I speak-they are afraid. In their collective unconsciousness they have moved into the pedagogy of fear. Is this fear rational, i.e. afraid they might fall into the metaphorical pool of sharks and be eaten alive? Or, have they descended into irrational fear where they won’t take risks of any sort for fear of the possibility that they might crash? Probably both. But what has resulted is that loss of common sense in classroom teaching. Most teachers I meet are bright, energetic, and hard-working with strong commitments to their students. It is not that they lack common sense. It is that they have been conditioned by a system of fear, to ignore their common sense.

Let me give you a fictional example (but based on real life stories I have witnessed): ”Teacher Suzie” has a classroom of twenty-four third graders. She has a few students with IEP’s. She has one English Language Learner. The racial make-up of her class is 50% white, 30% African-American, %10 Asian and 10% Latino. Some kids are identified as above grade level. About half are “at grade level” and about ¼ are “below grade level.” Suzie has a broad heterogeneous group of learners. Being the observant teacher she notices that several of her students are really visual learners. They love images and pictures. Some of them are constantly doodling on their work books. Her English Language Learning student communicates best through pictures and symbols. Suzie’s professional beliefs and gut feeling tell her that changing the county math curriculum into something that includes visual art and arts-based experiences for her class would increase motivation and make learning more accessible and meaningful for all her kids. But… her principal might come in and observe her. According to the county curriculum guide she must be completed this math unit by next Thursday. If she does not give her students the pre designed worksheet and unit test, she will not be able to document what her students learned in a way to shows her “accountability” for learning. But what real learning has occurred? Some, yes, perhaps. But common sense tells Suzie that half her class won’t respond as well to the standard curriculum and assessments, and that she could best meet the needs of all her learners by making her math unit more arts-integrated. But, understandably she is afraid of being reprimanded, of test scores showing her students didn’t “perform” so she must teach to the test, afraid she will lose her job.

So, common sense is put aside, at the cost to her students real learning. Loss of an authentic and meaningful and democratic education is the price our students are paying for our fears and our need to live a society where schools are perpetually on “code orange.” As for me, I have always been the perennial risk taker. I am the frequent flyer who is always trying to smuggle a 10 oz bottle of liquid in my carry-on bag instead of the required 3.5 oz. bottle. And in my own K-12 teaching I took risks, daring trouble to come and find me, which it did occasionally but I confess that all of this occurred before NCLB and the post 9/11 culture of fear was in full swing, back when teachers had more freedom.

But in the last ten years I have spent countless hours in K-12 teachers’ classrooms evaluating curriculum, recommending instructional strategies, and advising teachers on various matters. When I speak with teachers to “think outside the box” in an effort to help them, the individual responses vary but the collective themes are: “That sounds great but…. I am afraid I will get in trouble. That my class won’t succeed on The Test. That my principal will find out. That….” You can fill in the blanks. In essence they have become disempowered from exercising their own judgment based on the kids that they know best, certainly better than some group of policy makers in some office building somewhere determining how and what every child needs to learn. This culture of fear began with A Nation at Risk (1983) and is most currently embodied in the film Waiting for Superman (2010), where the fearful message is sent that there are so many “bad” teachers out there that we must hold and all teachers, even the good ones, to then same exact curriculum, thus relegating what could have been great classroom teaching into the spectrum of mediocrity for the sake of public scrutiny and accountability. All travelers at the airport are subject to the same rigorous screening process.

Common sense is losing ground everywhere. I have teachers tell me how so many of their students don’t get the material of a particular subject, and while common sense would dictate that they circle back and re-teach (or better yet, teach differently) that material until the students “get it” that they “must” move on in their curriculum because the calendar in the guide tells them they must. Is this really leaving no child behind?…. Really?

Or another example: Volumes of research for more than two decades have “scientifically proven” that students who engage with the arts in the forms of dance, music, drama and visual art perform better in their core classes. But yet, for the sake of teaching to the test, and the needs to allocate funding to the newest and shiniest curriculum materials which are “aligned” with (aka: cater to) the test, (with test makers and textbook publishers laughing all the way to the bank), the arts are the first thing to get cut from schools. We have become a curriculum of the absurd, and Waiting for Superman ought better be named after the Theater of the Absurd play entitled Waiting for Godot. What are WE waiting for???? The time is now for this call to action.

About Elisa Waingort

I am currently a grade 5 teacher in the Spanish bilingual program in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I have been teaching for more than 30 years in South and North America. I love working with kids and adults. I am a teacher who reads voraciously. I love adult, YA, MG and picture books equally. I am a proud teacher writer. Every day I look forward to the challenge of learning to be a better teacher and a better human. Join me.


6 thoughts on “Pedagogy of Fear – Guest Post by Morna M. Mcdermott

  1. I really like this post a lot. Sue Hemberger wrote about this phenomenon in DC:

    “Often, the attempt to idiot-proof a process involves imposing a formula designed to produce a consistent result. When this approach is successful, that result is reliably better than incompetence but generally far short of excellence. And the task has become sufficiently de-skilled that no one who aspires to excellence wants any part of it.”

    Fear, career opportunists hijacking education administration and debate, monied interests, a gullible public – none of these things help us much as teachers, parents, and students.

    Posted by The Reflective Educator | April 3, 2011, 11:10 am
  2. Dear Morna,
    As an educator of some 30 years, now retired, I very much agree with your asessment that fear drives instruction nowadays. In the years just prior to my retirement, which was fairly recent, I too began to feel more and more fearful of using the sound pedagogical practices I had learned in my college days to teach learning disabled students. Gone were the days when we educators were given say over the learning materials, publishing companies, textbooks etc. that we could use in the classroom. The one size fits all, test driven instruction ignored learning styles and functional levels of the students. How can one be accountable for something one has very little control over? ..If you haven’t seen this movie already, I highly recommend, ” Race to Nowhere”, If enough of us see it, it just might spark that call to action you wrote about!

    Posted by Lucia Meyerson | April 3, 2011, 3:38 pm
  3. I totally agree that fear drives the education process but it does not start or stop at the State Level. I believe it springs forth from a fear of being sued by irate parents whose child failed to perform to standards. Or maybe the students that didn’t do well enough to keep their scholorships. How about the Teachers even, in those low performing schools?
    This is not new. I remember it happening in the mid to late 60s when the question changed from why did this student fail to perform? to why did you fail to teach….? The military experienced something very similar in the 60s and called the response “CYA”. (cover your a##). Another legacy of Viet Nam. I believe that lesson plans began so that when Little Johnny failed one could prove that certain information was presented on certain dates and little Johnny just wasn’t paying attention.
    So now we have “Teachers” that are highly qualified mearly “Presenting Information”. We are told what to teach, when to teach it and even given classes on how to present it. Old age has some benefits….I will retire very soon.

    Posted by Jim Trott | April 13, 2011, 8:13 am
  4. Applause Applause. I am so glad to read that I’m not the only one that is seeing this happening. You are right, focusing solely on the test has left many students behind.

    It doesn’t have to be that way. I worked at a school where the arts were integrated into the core curriculum. Text books were used as reference materials and teachers were allowed to be creative. This school had been on “the needs improvement list” prior to switching and within one year test scores were up and the school was off the list. Was easy making the switch? No. Was it worth it? YES! Behavior improved and true learning was taking place.

    It is possible with the right leadership and teachers willing to take a risk.

    Posted by Michele Brown | April 25, 2011, 2:27 pm


  1. Pingback: » Pedagogy of Fear James Boutin's Blog - July 16, 2014

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,103 other followers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: