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Op-Ed: Fear and Learning in America

Children need to feel emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically safe in order to realize their full potential

NEW Ross Danis
Ross Danis

A high school student once told me that he needed his school to be safe enough for him to tell his teachers that he could not read. That's the kind of safe that is far beyond what security guards, metal detectors, and gun-packing teachers could ever provide and nobody is talking about that. The mind makes no distinction between real and imagined fear. Fear is fear and when we experience it our brains downshift and we can't learn. We can be trained but we have little capacity to be educated. Go no further than Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs to understand that every level of human consciousness is built upon feeling safe and loved. Soldiers can be educated about military tactics, but they are trained to kill. There is a difference.

Having spent most of my life in them, schools, and in particular, classrooms, have served as a halcyon refuge from bill collectors and ex-girlfriends; a sanctuary for a life of the mind; and a refreshing tonic for the vacuous banality of everyday life. The beach will always be my happy place, but the classroom will forever be my sacred place. If we want our children to be educated, they too need their schools and classrooms to be sacred places where they can learn without fear.

Maintaining an environment that supports teaching and learning is an educator's job. And while parents may have different expectations about the role of school and the job of the teacher, they all expect their kids to come home at the end of the day. That someone can walk into a school and execute their children is the ultimate fear generator. It only has to happen once for all of us to wonder if and when it will happen again.

Transcending fear, taking risks

When children feel intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and physically safe, they can transcend fear and take the risks necessary to fully realize their own genius. The trauma associated with living in fear of what might happen may be a new experience for the young people in Parkland, FL, but it is a chronic condition for those who attend schools in America's most violent cities. In just under five years in Newark, 39 children were killed by gun violence. One 13-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet while talking out the garbage on Christmas Eve, and a 17-year-old boy was executed on the steps of his high school in front of his classmates at three o'clock in the afternoon. If we are serious about raising test scores, we are going to have to get serious about raising children — all of them — in "no fear zones."

Beyond the soul-crushing, heart-wrenching images of parents waiting for children who are no more, the cold truth is that there are no survivors. Fear metastasizes like cancer. The imagination of every child in America, as well as their parents, and every teacher and principal, has been hijacked. It is only a matter of time before our collective consciousness begins to whisper, "Be afraid. Be very afraid." How long after we arm teachers and refer to schools as targets that need to be "hardened" do we begin to spread the very fears that such measures were meant to extinguish? If we want our children to be educated, our schools and classrooms will need to be hardened on the outside and softened through love, kindness, and forgiveness, on the inside.

Let's review. Imminent or not; probable or not; real or imagined: fear is fear. We can't learn if we are afraid. Fear metastasizes like cancer. Schools and classrooms are sacred. Children need to feel emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically safe in order to realize their full potential. More guns and heightened security may increase safety, but they also increase fear. Schools should be hard on the outside and soft on the inside. Serving as a "no fear zone" is just about the last thing school has going for it. Everything else we can get online.

Ross Danis is the president of MeckEd, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based nonprofit dedicated to ensuring access to educational opportunity. Prior to joining MeckEd, Danis served for over 35 years in New Jersey as a teacher, school principal, and program director for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

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