Fear or love

If you are one of the 100 million people in the world who have already seen the  penultimate episode of the final season of Game of Thrones, you will know that the dragon queen does a pretty good job of crudely summarising human motivation theory. To galvanise the people, she says, there are really only two options: fear or love.

[Spoiler alert!]

She chooses: fear.

Whilst, unlike the dragon queen, educators don’t have fire-breathing dragons, we do have other powerful tools available including: tests, exams, competition, ranking systems, humiliation, shame, punishments, failure, calls home, exclusion, detention, judgment.

Importantly, not all of these are inherently fear-inducing or, even, necessarily unpleasant. There are potential positive benefits from formal assessment, for example. But they can, and often do, leverage fear.

When we use these tools as a form of coercion, to generate compliance or obedience, we weaponise their potential to produce: ‘consequences’. And the mechanism underpinning the use of ‘consequences’ as a motivator, threat or deterrent is: fear.

For an educator, like it was for the dragon queen, fear is a choice.

The other alternative is love. That can be a harder choice – often requiring much greater levels of skill, patience, acceptance, nuance, time, respect, relationship, support, and care.

[Spoiler alert!]

But when we choose love instead, we choose a completely different form of education – one with a very different ending than an education fuelled by fear.

A hand on my shoulder

At one of the most pivotal points in my schooling, when I was a 14 year old boy struggling through a low point in my life, there was a teacher who knew me and knew the challenges I was facing. At one point, about half way through a lesson, when the whole class was working busily, he must have sensed that I wasn’t at my best. He walked over, put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said to me: “It’s going to be okay.”

It was a tiny gesture of support, empathy, compassion, understanding, and connection. It was layered with wisdom, kindness and hope. It renewed my confidence, made me smile, and became etched in my memory.

This was not an ‘intervention’. It wasn’t a tool or a strategy or a ‘coaching’ technique. It’s just part of what great teachers do day in and day out as they lift up their students.

Teaching is a horrible job…

As a teacher you have to spend a big chunk of your life looking after other people’s children for them. It’s mind-numbing talking to immature 8-year olds and surly teenagers all day. Ugh!

And you’re constantly having to switch between different tasks all the time – in 45 minute blocks. And you have to try to convince kids who don’t really want to be there that your subject has some relevance – even though their world is so different to the one you grew up in.

And it’s hardly real work – a lot of the time it’s just entertaining and playing with children – unlike the serious work that other people do like finance and law.

And even if you have a good year, the students leave anyway and you have nothing to show for your work.

Teaching is a horrible job.

…if you don’t love it.

But if you do love it…

You get to spend your day surrounded by a youthful, hopeful energy that only children, with their whole life ahead of them, can bring. This energy is contagious and is a constant reminder of the unaffected beauty that sits at the heart of all humans. Wow.

And there’s an amazing variety in the work – from high-level strategic planning, to working out how to connect with and support traumatised young people. Each day, each lesson is unique because each child has unique needs and each class beings unique challenges.

And it pushes you to your limits. There is no other profession that requires the sustaining of 25 real-time, simultaneous relationships for an hour at a time. Every child matters and every interaction with every child matters. No wonder it’s one of the most challenging professions on the planet. And it’s unbelievably fun – being paid to inspire kids!

And, at the end of the day, teachers are stewarding the lives of other humans – our next generation of leaders and parents and lawyers and teachers. Even when things aren’t going great, you are making a positive difference to the lives of children and the future.

Teaching is the most wonderful job in the world…if you love it.