Fear and Anger

The first half of this is a post I wrote for my short-lived cycling blog a couple of years ago, but I thought I would post it here because I think it has a bearing on teaching and learning. 


I was reflecting on riding, as you do, at 15mph down a busy road, and why, at certain times of the day in particular, pretty much all road users seem to abandon Dr Jekyll and allow Mr, or Ms Hyde to take over. In Leeds, like many big cities, this is often between the hours of 7.30 and 9 in the morning, and 4.30 and 7 in the afternoon, when the roads are at their busiest. Roads at this time of day are not, generally, happy places. It occurred to me that the anger and the rage comes not from inherent badness, or from being evil tempered in particular, but stems from fear. I get angry when someone comes past too close, or overtakes me dangerously, without paying attention to the fact that the road is too narrow. Or when someone stops suddenly, or flings their car door open while chatting on their phone, or decides not to notice me at a junction and pull out (sometimes across a clearly marked cycle lane), or when a car desperately overtakes you then pulls across in front of you to turn almost immediately after. Or when a pedestrian steps out into the cycle lane without looking, or doesn’t try to control their dog, or even look at it, when you have been ringing your bell for the last three hundred yards behind them, and the dog ambles into the middle of the shared path at the very last minute, or when people just stand there like rabbits in the spotlight while you ring and ring and ring…. I could go on, and I’m sure every cyclist, wheelchair user, pedestrian, driver, Segwayer and so on could share similar frustrations. 

 Ask anyone about travelling in the UK on the public roads to complete the sentence “It really annoys me when….” and you will get a thousand variations on those themes. There is almost certainly annoyance shared between cyclists: the MAMILs getting irate at casually dressed hipsters on a fixie, that sort of thing. But it struck me that the reason we get angry is because in almost all of the situations I mentioned above, bike tribe jokes aside, someone, and not necessarily me, could get hurt or quite possibly killed. 

This is a very frightening prospect, seeing as I’m rather fond of being able to walk, and being alive into the bargain. I’m also not a big fan of hurting other people, or their dogs. This fear is where the anger comes from. Before I sound too much like I’m about to go off an a bit of a mind trip, I did do a little google search on fear and anger, and there seems a reasonable amount of truth in the idea that anger is the “fight” response to a threat, as opposed to “flight”. Or something. Anyway, my poor research aside, to my folk psychology mind, this seems fairly reasonable and certainly explains a lot.  


I sometimes see the fight or flight anger reaction when I meet teachers who get their lesson observation graded a 3 or a 4. Sometimes it is anger and disappointment with themselves, but more often I suspect this is because they are facing possible capability procedures and thence to the potential of losing their job. Naturally, this would suggest a threat: losing your job affects your basic ability to support yourself and your family, and so the observation is linked to threat: the teacher is the cyclist, the graded observation is the white van driver on a mobile phone driving too close. It may not kill you, but it might. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the reaction for many teachers to a 3 or a 4 is anger, and an element of relief if you don’t. Sadly, for me, this gets in the way of any valuable discussions or reflections. It’s hard to think straight when you are angry, and like the threatened cyclist, a teacher with a 3 or 4 wants to vent that anger.  

Sometimes the fight gives way to flight, of course. This is a sad moment, when the teacher in question decides that the stress and the hassle is simply not worth it for what is sometimes an hourly paid teaching contract. When this happens, discourse sometimes focuses around “teaching not being the job for them” and indeed perhaps it isn’t. Sometimes, when the same things arise again and again in not only graded but also ungraded, developmental and peer observations, and the teacher is really struggling to reflect and put those reflections into practice, then perhaps teaching is not the job they should have. But it shouldn’t be because of an individual’s abIlty to deal with threat: this isn’t a lack of resilience, but this is a reaction to fear. 

 To bring this back to cycling, if I may. One of the reasons many people cite for not cycling to work, or for not cycling generally, is because they are frightened. It’s a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy: the fewer cyclists are on the road, the more the motorist feels they have a monopoly on the space between the pavements, the more aggressively they will approach cyclists, and the more frightening it is for cyclists. Do new and inexperienced teachers feel similarly discouraged when they get their graded observation? If they do, are there people being discouraged from teaching who might otherwise be fantastic at it? How many of our current crop of “outstanding” teachers would now be in that position had they not had time to develop and improve in their profession? I have to be honest and say that I’m not entirely sure that inexperienced me of the early 2000s would have coped, although perhaps that’s not exactly an argument in my favour. 

 Is there an answer here? Of course, the immediate thought is to ditch the graded observation and leave it there. But there are issues around quality assurance, around capacity to improve and about what the students are getting. The graded observation is a blunt-edged weapon for either achieving improvement or for carefully ejecting teachers who are struggling to improve. I still hold that peer observation improves quality all round far more effectively than grading, but I don’t think it can be used to replace quality assurance observations. If you start to make it part of the quality assurance process, the imposition of a power dynamic into the feedback essentially takes away one threat and replaces it with another. But you could easily remove the grade, but keep the observation, and as I think I have argued before, this means that nobody gets the divisive and inaccurate accolade of being an “outstanding” teacher, and everybody gets something to work on. Teacher learning, like all learning is not a straight line, but one which ebbs and flows, and which needs support and encouragement: remove the one lesson grade and teacher learning comes to the forefront. 

Some forward thinking institutions already do this, and with positive results. I hope that this becomes the norm, although ofsted seem to be pretty resistant to abandoning the practice of grading individual lessons in FE. Perhaps  when that happens things will start to change, but my faith in ofsted to innovate is shallow at best. And then we may have systems in place that genuinely improve the skills of teachers, and thus, of course, the learning  of students. 

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