Why We Need to Conquer Fear, Uncertainty, & Doubt as Adults in the Classroom

How Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt Affect Teaching and Learning Outcomes 

Teachers face different types of pressure throughout their careers. As teachers, we want our classrooms to be fun, challenging places full of curious and engaged students. Balancing that desire against the question, ‘how is this going to help every student do well on the upcoming standardized test,’ can cause stress, uncertainty, doubt, and even fear. That fear can affect our decision-making in the classroom. 

Pressure from the expectations of administrators, parents, and from ourselves can impact the decisions we make in our classrooms. It can also impact teachers’ own professional growth. As we take risks to build a culture of learning where every student is challenged, we have to trust that our students are capable of taking the lead in their own learning. Teachers also have to trust in ourselves as life-long learners, that we can try new things, learn new ways to engage our students in critical thinking and hands-on learning, and continue to improve our own teaching skills throughout our careers.

Trusting Students with Responsibility Over Their Own Learning

In an environment where test scores rule, teachers face expectations about what their students are learning and how that will translate into test results. We’re afraid that if students don’t test well, we haven’t done our job. Uncertainty and stress results from the disconnect between the skills we see students building in the classroom daily and how that will translate into their performance on a state test later in the year. Teachers see the growth our students are making throughout the year in our classroom, but we wrestle with the trust we must place in them to transfer that knowledge into test results. 

Facing that uncertainty and taking the risk to release responsibility to our students to think at the center of their own educational journey is an important step in addressing the fear and doubt we feel. It can be hard to trust in the ability of our students to transfer what they’ve learned into standardized test results. But when we don’t release responsibility and allow our students to build their own understanding by making personal connections between classroom learning and how to use those skills in the real world, we’re not setting them up for success. 

In the more traditional knowledge transfer method of teaching, students are required to demonstrate recall of specific information, while teachers look for recall of one right answer. These teachers can feel pressure to cover everything that could possibly be on the test, but that is impossible to accomplish. Instead, we can choose to build a classroom culture that respects and rewards each student’s ability to figure things out on their own and to make connections between what they already know and what they are learning. In these classrooms, students are developing skills to learn independently and trust in their own abilities to figure phenomena out. The critical thinking skills that they are building is what students really need to succeed in testing, educational, and career experiences in the future. 

Talent, Grit, and Skills Development

In ‘Grit: the Power of Passion and Performance,’ pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth shares what she’s learned researching ‘grit,’ – skill is just effort behind talent. As students, professionals, and individuals, people all have varying amounts of talent. For example, some of us are naturally inclined to enjoy math, while others acquire language quickly. When studying science, some students are more naturally inclined to show curiosity about the world around them and what makes it tick. Whatever the level of ‘talent’ people have in areas like these, Duckworth shares that it’s the effort we put behind that talent that produces skill. Turning talent into achievement takes hard work. 

As teachers, we must trust that all students have the talent and the ability to learn, engage, and improve while in our classroom. When we release responsibility and let our students take the lead, we’re showing our trust in them to figure things out on their own with our guidance and support. We’re also giving them the opportunity to experience firsthand how hard work translates into the knowledge and skills they will use throughout their lives to succeed in different situations. Learning to think, to communicate, to ask questions, and to solve problems are 21st century career skills that all students can achieve if the learning environment and tasks we create center on these. But it takes hard work. It takes grit. And it takes trust – from both teacher and student – that all students have the talent and ability to learn when challenged and supported in the classroom. 

Turning Talent into Skill with Hands-On Student Engagement

The data consistently show that this method helps improve test scores across the board. But if we don’t work to create an environment that challenges students to develop their skills, this achievement doesn’t happen. When we let fear, uncertainty, and doubt take the lead, we’re not providing a place where students are becoming curious, seeking out learning, and are willing to overcome challenges and do the hard work to develop as life-long learners. 

By trusting our students and creating a classroom environment that challenges and encourages them to put effort behind any talent they have, teachers can help them turn even the tiniest bit of talent into big skills with a lot of effort. We can help students who are starting with a lot of talent turn it into even more skill. Creating a classroom environment that supports the achievement of all students takes effort. It takes grit. And it takes time. As teachers our instructional practice should mirror this reality. Realizing that success is not singular in terms of its path is an important part of building a culture of learning in our classrooms. Success is a spectrum with many elements and just as every student brings different talents into our classroom, their path to success will be a unique one. 

Investing Time and Effort to Change Student Outcomes

Learning happens at the point of challenge. Providing opportunities that challenge skill is what produces the skills development we are looking for in our students. But, when we are overly anxious, fearful, or doubtful of our students' abilities, teachers can respond by taking away control and challenge in the classroom. Instead, we must take the risk to trust in our students, and give them the opportunity to put effort behind their talents and develop their skills by struggling productively. 

Building a classroom where students feel comfortable taking the lead and can work together to solve tough problems doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, grit, and patience. If we try something new and don’t see the skills developing immediately,  we can feel fear and uncertainty about our students’ ability to achieve. This is a cycle of fear that takes time and effort to break. But, when we allow our students to take the lead, we have more time to walk around and engage with them one-on-one and in small teams. We can see the skills developing in real time. We can see real understanding going on and real connections being made. We can see their perspectives changing as they learn from one another to solve real challenges. We just have to be willing to trust in them and give them the time and space to do so. 

Recognizing That Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt are Real 

To accomplish student-centered achievement like this in the classroom, teachers have to take the leap. We have to invest in ourselves and make the effort to learn new teaching methods and implement changes in our own practices that allow for that release of responsibility. Creating the type of learning opportunities where students take the lead can be uncomfortable to try. This can trigger new fear, uncertainty, and doubt. To reduce that uncertainty, we can decide that it’s not going to be perfect at first, but that the investment in time and energy is worth it to challenge our students to develop the 21st century skills they need to succeed.

Recognizing that fear, uncertainty, and doubt is real is a good way to start. When we take the leap to try something new and give up a little control, we understand that our students may not achieve the outcomes we are looking for immediately. But, the research shows that taking the risk is well justified. In fact, our anxiety about test scores may actually be driving teachers toward things that are negative for student learning and our own professional growth. Instead, when teachers create an environment where our students can practice the skills that scientists and engineers use every day, they're producing high levels of achievement and making a real connection to the subject matter. The data show this learning transfers to improved success on performance-based tests. 

Professional Collaboration that Jumpstarts Student Performance 

An important support teachers have to help conquer fear, uncertainty, and doubt are other teachers. When teachers are feeling stress and pressure about student performance, a ‘bunker mentality’ can make it harder to reach out for help and support. Progress doesn’t happen in a vacuum. But, when teachers worry less about end of the year testing and more about building a culture of learning, engaging conversations, collaboration with our peers helps jumpstart our own professional development. 

Collaborating with our peers, including teachers from other grade levels and with different levels of experience, helps to reduce anxiety and spark joy. For example, when you realize that students will tackle subjects like the water cycle throughout their education, in different grade levels and with different teachers, it can help reduce the anxiety that comes with thinking we have to teach our students everything about the topic that they might be tested on. Instead, we’re all working together to spark curiosity in our students and deepen understanding about the world around them, including about the water cycle. Students will enter our classroom with different levels of knowledge about the water cycle, and that’s okay. They will also have different experiences and perspectives to share sparking ideas with others. 

The Importance of Professional Development

Another result of the anxiety that can come from the push towards end of year testing is teachers feeling like we don’t have time to get out of our classrooms and learn from other teachers and situations. In contrast, professional development is often a requirement and something that is promoted and supported in other careers outside of education. In the teaching profession, connecting and learning from our peers is just as important a part of our continuous development

One benefit of meeting and working alongside our peers is learning how helpful peer feedback can be. It’s a powerful tool when teachers get together to support and learn from each other. Seeing learning happening in other classrooms, and experiencing different types of classroom environments is key to continuously improving our own. The best collaborative learning with our peers occurs not just by creating time to do so, but by making that time focused on thinking about why we’re doing what we’re doing in our profession – what we value most about being a teacher, and how that aligns with our peers.

Those values represent the fabric of an instructional vision within our classrooms, our schools, and our districts. It fundamentally shapes the definition of the work we do every day as teachers. To build and maintain it, we have to work together, because when we’re isolated and alone in our classrooms we may have a different idea of what our job is and what success looks like. That’s when fear, uncertainty, and doubt can crop up. But when we’re connected within a larger, shared instructional vision, we can combat our fear, uncertainty, and doubt together.

Sparking the Joy in Teaching

Together, we can recognize that fear, uncertainty, and doubt is real. It exists among teachers and even administrators. While what happens in the classroom is up to the individual teacher, together as colleagues we can create the space and structure to build a shared vision and language around developing students as thinkers. We can look for ways to reflect those shared values in our classrooms every day, by giving students the agency and independence to lead, develop, and grow. 

One of the benefits of shared discussions like these between administrators and teachers is that when we know what we’re doing and we clearly understand the vision for why we’re doing it– fear, uncertainty, and doubt goes away. When we feel like we have permission to take those potentially unsettling risks in the classroom, it helps to take away some of the anxiety we feel. And when you release responsibility and step back to watch your students working respectfully together, seeing that learning in action sparks so much joy. It takes hard work from teachers and students to get there – but it is worth it. It’s wonderful to be able to focus on impacting students in the long term, to nurture and cultivate them as learners within a culture of shared values, and an understanding of what success looks like.