Fear-Based Learning

People that don’t know better sometimes think of me as an athletic person. I have a moderately lean and strong build for a man well into his fifth decade of life. Yet I haven’t competed in a sport since I quit both soccer and basketball in elementary school after a few humiliating seasons. I’m in awe of people that can throw or catch things with ease. I can do things like lifting, jumping, and running only after a lot of practice. Nothing athletic comes naturally to me.

And yet I manage to exercise regularly and am in pretty good shape. My process toward being in shape started when a friend in college let me join him in the weight room and didn’t seem to mind the process of taking lots of weight off the bar when it was my turn to bench press. In my thirties another friend met me at the gym early every weekday morning, even in the worst of our Boston winters. We met to lift weights but he gradually convinced me to add cardio to our workouts. He never laughed at me when, at first, I could only make it for five minutes at a time on the elliptical trainer.

I really wanted to be strong and fit but was deathly afraid to get started in a process that I knew would be slow and humiliating. These friends, both of whom were much bigger and stronger than me, managed to create a safe environment for me to get past that fear, learn new skills, and gradually get to a point where the words “strong” and “fit” aren’t completely ridiculous adjectives to use for me.

Until the beginning of this year I had not worked with an athletic coach since middle school gym class. My own kids had wonderful coaches in middle school. This has helped me dispel my belief that middle school coaching was created as an occupation to provide gainful employment to sociopaths.

The idea of working with a coach gave me flashbacks to that horrible time. And the idea of working out with a group made me even more anxious. I might be told to do things I was no good at while being watched by a group of people I had not come to know and trust. By the end of last year, though, I had become quite bored and unmotivated by my workouts and had heard great things about a gym that had opened a new location near my house. Despite my fears I joined.

The first workout I went to was a strength workout. I thought this would be a little more in my comfort zone than workouts that mixed strength and cardio. I was wrong. Just the stretches we did to warm up baffled me. Some of the lifts we did required compound movements that use the inertia from one movement to help with the next. It was completely different from the slow, careful lifts I was used to like bench press, squats, and deadlifts. But the coach was amazingly patient and encouraging with me, and the other members were supportive and open about the ways they struggled too. As I’ve worked with several other coaches I’ve found them all to be as patient and encouraging as the strength coach. Each looks for different ways to help me past blocks I’m having for complex lifts. They may not realize that they are coaching me like a relay race. As each one has corrected me on part of my form they’ve handed me off to the next coach to correct one more part of my form as I’m ready to move to the next level.

I’ve been going there for the last six months and I’ve slowly but slowly gotten better at some of these complex moves. And sometimes I don’t feel like I’m about to die after a high intensity interval training workout. The coaches notice and comment when I’ve mastered something I used to suck at. We as participants all take our cue from the coaches and maintain and expand on this supportive environment. I’ve come a long way in six months and I credit that to the environment the coaches have created in which I can grow.


This process has given me new eyes and ears to the things my own students go through in the classroom. When I ask my high school students to do something that they’ve never done before or to continue to try when they’ve done poorly in a subject in the past I realize that they are a lot like me going to a group workout with a coach and being asked to do some exercise that is new to me. They are likely experiencing the same kind of fear I felt. They may mask it by acting too cool for it, they may give up quickly, or they may plow forward without asking any questions, hoping no one notices that they didn’t understand anything. These are all just unproductive ways of coping with the fear. They need my empathy for their fear a lot more than they need my judgment of their unproductive coping strategies.

I’m beginning to think that all teachers should be required to learn something new every year, something for which they have no natural aptitude. Being reminded of what it’s like to be in that position is not pleasant at first, but getting past the fears and doing it anyway can be richly rewarding. It’s what we ask of our students every day.

I’ve been teaching geometry in summer school this year. These are students who have all failed this class during the school year. This subject, and even math in general, comes naturally to exactly none of them. And yet I ask them to do things like “solve for x,” “add fractions,” or even “solve a word problem,” things that strike fear in a lot of adults. As I work with each one of them I’m reminded of how I’ve felt at the gym. I recognize the fears they have and try to create the same safe environment my coaches do. I help them move forward on new skills a little bit at a time, hoping they can get past one conceptual block at a time. As they enter Algebra II this fall I want their new teachers to be able to take the baton and run the next leg of the relay with my students.


This morning I participated in a “Strong Person” competition at the gym. It required performing various feats of strength and stamina in front of a lot of people. It pushed every fear button in my introverted non-athletic soul. But I signed up anyway. I managed to get myself out the door and to the gym without either throwing up or turning around and going home.

I didn’t expect to be competitive and I wasn’t. I did ok at some events and not so well at others. The last event involved lifting “atlas stones”, concrete balls larger than bowling balls, onto platforms. There were five of these stones arranged in a row, each larger than the one before it, and we had to lift each in turn from the floor onto a wooden platform. The largest two stones outweighed me.

Many people went before me and all of them got all five stones onto the platform. I thought I would be ok with this one. I did fine through the first four stones but when I went to lift the fifth one nothing happened. As I lifted it did not budge off the floor. I was ready to give up, being satisfied with the four I had done so far. But two coaches were there. One encouraged me to keep going while another, my strength coach, patiently tried multiple ways to explain how I needed to change my form to lift the thing. I failed to lift it three times but the coaches and the whole room kept cheering me on. When I finally lifted the stone and clumsily got it into position on the platform — something everyone else had already done — the whole room exploded in cheers. A video I saw of it afterward showed one coach spinning around 360° in celebration.

Everyone had recognized my struggle and knew that I had overcome something that was a challenge for me. I want to always recognize that in my students and celebrate with them in the same way. Learning the skills at hand may or may not prove useful to them later in life. If, however, they can gradually become the kind of people who push through to do the things they fear, the things that don’t come naturally to them, the things they have failed at before, it will make a tremendous difference in who they become and the role they can play in building up their communities. I am honored that I get to help create a space for my students to learn and grow through their fears, and I’m tremendously grateful for those that have created this space for me.

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  • Jeanne Compeau Keel

    We need more teachers like you! You are a treasure!

    • Kelly

      Thanks so much, Jeanne! I’ve seen quite a few teachers in action that, without much fanfare, create this kind of environment for their students. They’ve given me a lot to model my classroom on.

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