Dear Educators, Let Them Know You’re Scared

Opinion | Social-Emotional Learning

Dear Educators, Let Them Know You’re Scared

By Christina Cipriano     May 9, 2019

Dear Educators, Let Them Know You’re Scared

Editors note, May 26, 2022. This article originally ran three years ago, but we’re featuring it again following the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

For all the teachers who are afraid, you are not alone.

I have felt afraid walking on campus. I have felt afraid entering a school.

Fleeting thoughts. Not here. Not now. Not us.

These intrusive thoughts are neither productive nor personal. We wear them on our faces. They show up in our classrooms. As educators, we need to support our students and ourselves to be safe. How do we create a culture of safety and embrace our common humanity?

Let them know you’re scared.

The images from Denver. The stories from UNC-Charlotte. The recent media coverage of active shooter drills in our children’s schools. The devastating reports of continued trauma in the wake of Parkland. These realities are terrifying.

Our students and colleagues can read our fear. They see it in our mannerisms, manifesting in our tone, our patience and our drive. When scared, threatened or confused, we social reference those around us—we look for assurance from those we trust. Social referencing is intentionally seeking behavioral cues to support our ability to act how we think we should at that given time. All people social reference across the lifespan. We social reference those who are familiar, those who we trust, those who we hold in highest esteem.

We social reference our teachers.

We seek comfort in strange situations. We seek to feel secure when we are out of our comfort zones. Indeed, the classic work from Bowlby and Ainsworth highlight our common and natural need to feel secure. Evidence from neuroscience further demonstrates that in our earliest years of life, there is a neurological necessity to feel safe and secure—when children feel safe, their executive function flourishes.

And when we see signs around us that we should feel uncomfortable, we do. When the structural conditions around us create the expectation that there is something wrong, then we believe there is something wrong. Our synaptic pathways process this insecurity as vulnerability, uncertainty, anxiety and confusion. These perceptions are not ideal conditions for teaching and learning.

Is it any different for students and teachers to go through an active shooter drill? Is it any different if a student walks through a metal detector at the entrance to school? Is it any different if their teacher is carrying a weapon?

What does the drill, a metal detector or a weapon tell us? What does it remind us of? How does it make us feel? Are our teachers scared? What are they scared of? Why would they make us go through this drill if they weren’t scared? Why would they put this metal detector here if they weren’t scared? Why would they be carrying if they weren’t scared? If everyone around us is scared, then we are, too. And when we are fearful and anxious or unsure, we are not available to learn.

Security in the science of teaching and learning is understood as psychological and physical. Physical safety encompasses the structural conditions that protect our physical space to learn. Psychological safety is demonstrated by our ability to participate freely, contribute meaningfully and make mistakes free from judgement. We are most available to teach and learn when we feel safe in our learning environment.

How do we show our students we are safe?

Share in their vulnerability. Attend to their social and emotional health. Co-regulate their emotions. Model how to process these feelings. As educators, we need to talk with our students about how we are feeling during and after these experiences. We need to use organized and meaningful teaching practices to support consistent, warm, kind and inviting learning communities.

How do we show our teachers we are safe? Provide them with direct, immediate and consistent support. Arm them with the social and emotional tools they need to process their feelings and uncertainties with their students.

Educators hiding their fear will confuse their students. Educators reacting from fear will scare them.

The principles of Emotional Intelligence (EI) highlight and reinforce the necessity for teachers to be authentic models of self-regulation—students are not available to learn when their teachers are not available to teach. If you are trying to mask your emotional responses, your unprocessed feelings will show up in unhealthy and unproductive ways. Your students will not be able to read you. At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we teach educators across the country how to be emotionally intelligent, authentic models of self-regulation and self-awareness.

As educators, it is our duty to not only teach these skills; we need to embody them. The science of crisis intervention demonstrates over and over again that intervening once there is a problem is too late. Our social and emotional learning program, the RULER Approach, supports educators in learning the social-emotional skills needed to navigate their own lives and the lives of their students—to promote healthy and productive livelihoods, engagement and achievement before there is a reason to be concerned.

Well-intentioned reactions to reduce the incidence of school violence and increase visibility and accountability, such as zero tolerance and punitive discipline practices, are misguided. Research consistently demonstrates that these measures actually decrease student perceptions of safety and increase their experiences of fear. This lack of safety creates a harsh environment wherein students are distrusting of their school community, reducing their ability to not just connect and bond with school, but learn as well. When our brains are worried, anxious and scared, students are less available to learn—their cognitive resources are diminished in part due to reduced attention and working memory capacity.

These reactions are a distraction. Reactionary practices will never be best practice in education. We do not show our students and teachers they are safe by building a culture of fear around them.

A culture of safety is a culture where we care. We improve the perception that school is a safe place with our words, our actions and our hearts. We increase opportunities for connection—where greater attention to prosocial behaviors and relationships with teachers and peers are valued and healthy and constructive resolution of conflict is promoted. It is in the interest of all our students to arm our teachers to feel safe with skill training and evidence-based practice.

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