The Fear of God

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The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7

An interesting piece in the TES Why teachers should embrace the idea of instilling fear in their students took me back to my school days in the sixties and seventies. The article states that: ‘Teachers no longer throw board rubbers at poorly behaved students…’ and though this might be due to the ubiquity of the Interactive White Board, it was hardly ever the teachers who instilled ‘fear’ in us that carried out this kind of trench warfare. I have been in classrooms as a kid where chalk was regularly thrown by the teacher, where a board rubber was aimed and launched, I even recall a chair being hurled by a teacher at a recalcitrant teenager and a teacher exchanging blows with a third year student. Yet these weren’t the teachers we were in ‘fear’ of, the one we truly feared was a woman who never shouted, never threw anything, but managed to chill us with her steely presence. When she click clicked her storm troop stilettoed way down the corridors of the school all the no good boyos and girlos would shout ‘watch out it’s Sylvie’ and desist from whatever no goodness they were indulging in (probably torturing a first year). I joined in shouting the warnings too – none of us ‘liked’ her, she was the enemy – but I was lucky to have her as my history teacher for the one year before we chose our O level options and I can only wish she had continued to teach me. Her classroom was a sea of calm in the chaos that surrounded her. For all the efforts of the lazy violence of the other teachers hers was an altogether different method. Had Margaret Thatcher reached her zenith at this time rather than just snatched a bit of milk I think we would have compared her to the lady who was not for turning. Maybe some of my ex colleagues at school saw her differently but whilst I was slippered, hit with a ruler, shouted at and humiliated, she never resorted to these punishments. She didn’t have to and, I expect, neither did they but the school was like the wild west.

High expectations, what the article in the TES is really about, would have sufficed. Instead of breeding simmering resentment, strictness is an important part of a school. If you want other words, if the word ‘strict’ is too confrontational nowadays, how about: ‘having routines and rituals that are expected to be followed by all and if they aren’t then consequences lie ahead, and if they are followed classes run smoothly’? Kids appreciate it when things are calm, where no-one is losing their head trying to instil the fear of God.

Funnily enough I bumped into an ex-pupil the other day, let’s call him Terry, for that is his name. He said I had taught him a lesson that has stayed with him throughout his life and that was ‘Not to lie in order to try and get away with not doing something.’ It seems he was due to hand in an essay but he said he had left it at home, to which I replied, ‘Not to worry, let me drive you to your house so that you can pick it up.’ I am sure that these days you wouldn’t be allowed to do this but I contacted my line manager and was given the go ahead; we got into my car and I proceeded to drive to Terry’s house. As we got closer Terry asked that I stop the car, “Sir,” he said, “I haven’t done my essay, sorry.” I drove him back to school and told him I wanted it first thing the next day. Sure enough, it was handed in and from that time he made a point of ensuring his work was always in on time and so did the others.

Perhaps if I’d just relied on a detention it would have had the same effect, I don’t know, but as I was a new teacher I had to establish my expectations. I knew I was being lied to and I wanted to break through that – I think I thought Terry would have admitted his lie sooner. I felt the need to be a teacher with high expectations of behaviour and this meant ensuring all in the class had the same expectation as their teacher; the trick is to try to ensure this expectation isn’t tested too often and your reputation proceeds you, rather than it being a constant struggle to impose. ‘Sylvie’ had this, but it’s an act, and it’s hard work to keep it up but you have to, you have to believe in your own myth making.

This is not the same as: Fear ye not me? saith the Lord: will ye not tremble at my presence? (Jeremiah 5:22) No teacher can carry on like the old testament God because they do not have seven plagues to inflict on their class. In ‘classroom war’ they are many, ye are few, which always means they can win. Have high expectations, good routines and a steely determination to see things through. But schools need systems and routines on which all can rely or else we are left with teachers trying to play God in their classrooms and, while it works for some, most of us are merely human and therefore rely on the institution to provide, if not seven plagues, then at least some good routines and support, especially in times of need.

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