The Fears Teachers Have: Part 1) Facing Down What Is Real, What Is Perceived and What Makes Teachers Fear For Their Jobs and Careers

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

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This is Part 1 of a three-part series on Teacher Fears, and in it we will explore what's really ruminating in the hearts and minds of the people in this profession. This exploration will consider the things that teachers are often hesitant to discuss or write about for fear of rocking the boat. I guess I should be concerned, too. Instead, I find myself more concerned for my peers and colleagues. I posted a simple question on social media to get some responses about the things that weigh most heavily on the minds of teachers. What I got in return was a much more complicated answer than I'd ever imagined I'd receive….

Mama Knows Best But Maybe Not As Much Now That You're An Adult

My daughter lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

It is a region of vast natural beauty and feels like it's a million miles from anywhere. In this season's icy, snowy weather, the drive can take forEVER. This time, 20 hours.

"Fly," you say? Ch'a. A round trip ticket can range somewhere between a car payment and a mortgage payment. On short notice, it can be a car, house, AND boat payment.

Weather played a role in decision-making between flying and driving.

Who wants to suck up their ticket prices, travel time, and absorb stress when Old Man Winter may make driving a thriftier ticket both time-wise and price-wise?

I'm afraid of delay. It makes me so…late.

Oh, and I was worried that the government would shut down again and no air traffic controllers would be in the towers to safely land my flight on the tarmac of the frozen tundra.

Anyway, it was one of those rare instances that we mothers of adult children crave: my daughter called me and told me she NEEDED me.

She NEEDED me to be at her house to support her during a specific life event.

Are ya kidding me?? Heck yeah I'll be there!!

It isn't often that my kids need me anymore…and so I decided to put aside my fear of driving in snow and ice, load up the SUV, put my husband at the helm, and head North to the frozen forests frosted by weather only a Michigan Yooper can love.

It's not so much a fear as it is an "I've lived in that mess for 49 years and now that I don't live there, I'm pretty much over it."

Sunshine, please. Seventy degree temps, please.

Now I live in Tornado Alley. As the name implies, life here, especially in warmer months, has the ability to elicit true fear in many.

Me? Nah.

I'm a Teacher. There isn't much that scares me anymore.

Well, maybe the thought of a delayed paycheck, but that's really about it.

It means I SHOULD be afraid enough to be mindful of all safety precautions when bad rainstorms and tornadoes are all around me.

It means a healthy sense of fear should reign so that I have preparations made for where to and how to safely ride out a storm; have some stored food, water, and First Aid provisions; have cash on-hand; keep my gas tank above half; chargers for laptops and cell phones; and have clothes.

But Honesty Is the Best Policy

If I'm being honest, what IS a fear for me is that someone else will be going too fast on the snowy, icy roads and cause issues for ME. Kicking up the slushy, ice/snow/rain blend that pelts windows like bullets against metal does nothing to make my soul happy.

But mostly, I don't want to think my kids will stop needing me altogether…even if it is just for the occasional question, recipe, or small piece of wisdom.

For some people, the fear is paralyzing. For others, maddening. For me, it makes me want to curl up and take a nap.

But if I'm going to see and support my daughter, I must keep fear in check.

I must remove the power which disdain and fear of Winter holds for me.

Fear: The Other White Meat


Oddly enough, fear has a place in our lives.

Healthy fear really is A Thing.

I see a bear. Fear causes me to respond.

If one drinks before they drive, fear causes them to call a cab or a rideshare service.

A toddler is too close to a stove top full of boiling pots. Fear causes the parent to respond.

If I see a snake, I run (because I am a big scardy cat).

If my bank account gets below a certain dollar amount, I feel a sense of discomfort and fear that if something goes wrong, I won't be able to cover the expense.

It's hard for me to admit that I really do have a laundry list of fears but it doesn't seem they're so unreasonable nor do I live my life in worry that these things will happen.

Who wants their hot water tank to die or their furnace to be on the fritz?

Who is saying, "Oh, yay!! The whole HVAC unit needs replaced! Goodie! I get to spend $9,000!!" Uh, no one.

Anxious for your car to poop out? Can't wait to need to be rushed by ambulance to the hospital?

Want to step into a hole and break your ankle? Need a date to join you for signing insurance papers because your house burned down?

Get my drift?

Fear Makes Us Smarter

My very dear friend has a son with significant special needs. Charlie will never live independently. As a non-verbal ‘tween-ager' with Cerebral Palsy and Autistic tendencies, Charlie's parents were smart enough to sit down with an attorney who specializes in Special Needs Trusts.

For Charlie's parents, fear for his future care needs drove them to learn as much as they could. In doing so, they developed an actionable plan which, hopefully, alleviated some of their concerns.

Charlie's mom, a college friend of mine named Samantha, was told she is Diabetic. Cardiac issues, neuropathy, vision issues, and feeling "gross" made Sam afraid she would die very young so preparing for Charlie's future made sense to her.

Samantha shared that after Charlie's birth, his diagnoses, and the realities life helped Sam begin to find comfort in the one thing she believed she could control: food.

In food, there were no disappointments about anything-only the simple, sugary, savory, happy simplicity while she was enjoying her food.

Nothing else mattered. Her world became, for a few minutes, a world of peace, calm, and happiness.

Eventually, however, her blissful reverie would be jolted out from under her and she would be sucked back into a world full of unknowns. The unknowns were too painful.

After a few years of her life with Charlie, things began to find their ebb and flow.

She read, she learned, she inquired, she became informed.

Samantha felt like she was becoming an expert on all things Charlie and in short order, recognized she needed to be around for him for as long as possible.

The fear she felt about NOT being with Charlie caused her to take stock in her life and in her choices. Fear-and determination-- drove her to lose 100 pounds.

Did I mention that Samantha is also a Teacher?

Fears at school. Fears at home.

When You Think You Can Count On Others But You Really Can't

A former colleague used to come ask me if she could do what she liked to call an "idiot check." She would explain a situation, share what her response was, then ask if that seemed reasonable. Generally these "idiot checks" were done to make sure her responses were reasonable and to be sure she wasn't being, well, an idiot.

The proviso in being her Idiot Check Buddy was that the buddy had to agree to not pass judgement if her response/reaction was unreasonable.

My proviso to her was that I would not pass judgment but if her reaction seemed ridiculous, she had to be willing to consider ALL of my feedback before she did anything.

We also agreed that what was said between us would remain between US.

You know…kept in confidence. Everyone has to have a person with whom they can speak and share without worrying they'll hear about it from another party later on.

What was said in our offices remained in our offices.

For us, it always worked well.

Application Of a Strategy: Sometimes It Works and Sometimes It Burns

In the years after we both moved on from our shared work environment, I continued to use her strategy.

It would take me time to suss out just the RIGHT person to be my partner in this effort. It takes time to get to know new colleagues and their personalities.

But then one day, I got hauled into the Principal's office. He'd "heard" that I was discussing a particular topic and it was his opinion that I had no business doing so.

While he was talking, in my brain, all I could think of was, "Oh, great! Now do I not only know that I'll be thrown under the bus by someone I thought I could trust, but now I also have nowhere to really discuss/vet/vent. FANTASTIC!! I feel the wheels of the bus rolling over me because I've been thrown under it!"

The Principal went on and on sharing his viewpoint about why I was wrong for, essentially, even having an opinion in the first place.

He went on about how it wasn't my responsibility as a classroom Teacher to worry about the Math program being purchased for our building.

Uh, okay. But I was, at the time, the Intervention Team Leader. I felt like my opinion did matter, but because it hadn't been solicited, I was going to simply share it with a colleague-who was also on the team.

I wanted to get it out of my system and it felt good to say the words to someone I thought I could trust.

When I shared my thoughts with her, she had indicated her agreement with my position-and that would be the end of that.

Sold out.

I'd been SOLD OUT by a confidante.

All I'd wanted to do was vent my opinion and drop the matter.


My Principal was right; clearly my opinion did not matter.

It wasn't going to stop me from having opinions. It was also not going to stop me from wanting to find like-minded colleagues in my midst whose true goal and passion were to better educate the children in our care.

What I learned from that unintentional Idiot Check session with my Administrator was that I would ONLY offer my opinion if it was asked for.

If it was solicited, I was going to wrap it up in Eduspeak.

But I was FOR SURE going to offer my opinion.

It would go a little something like this: "Okay Mary, we've heard all the information about topic x. What do you think?"

"Are you asking for my opinion?"

"Well, yes."

"Okay, my perspective is that we have done _______. We have seen _________ results. Will doing it the way being presented create improvement or will it cause us to remain status quo? Or, maybe even make the situation be worse?"

That formula works. It works EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

As an added bonus, here's another formula I've developed over time for when I need something and can't seem to get through all the proverbial red tape for which Education is so famous…ready? It's a real mind-bender:

"Hello, ___________. I have a problem and I need your help to solve it."

No lie. It also works every time. EVERY. TIME.

It doesn't matter what the situation may be. People want to help. Well, most people.

But what I have also come to learn is that people are so fearful of getting invested in the business of supporting others, they are either too afraid to help or they are so scarred from the injuries they've sustained while helping others in our profession that they will either sell you out or maybe…MAYBE…they will support you but you're so skittish from all the burn marks you've accrued that you're too hesitant to trust again.

Why Fear?

After posing that very simple question on a Teacher forum on social media, there were over 60 responses within the first 20 minutes. By day's end, several hundred.

Teachers have a metric crap ton of fears and I had definitely asked the right question at the right time.

It was also clear in the responses that not only do they have fears but they are fearful about sharing their fears with workmates for reasons too many to enumerate.

Another fascinating fact: in reading through the screen names, it appeared as though all respondents were females.

As I read through the comments, tears filled my eyes. We are a profession laden with reasonable, rational, recognizable realities which elicit concerns so deep in our gut that we are SHAKING IN OUR SHOES.

We're concerned for our safety. For the safety of our students. We worry about our finances, our futures, our abilities. We are good people who want to do our best but can't seem to isolate the one barrier which if removed would allow us to simply TEACH.

We also struggle to find a confidante.

We live in a world of the Mean Girl.

What are we all to do with these burdens?

Here's some of the responses I got when I posted the question:

  • Fear of job loss.
  • Abuse/harassment from staff/bullying/lying.
  • Abuse/harassment by administration.
  • Fear of peers harming students.
  • Abuse from kids.
  • Verbal abuse/physical abuse from parents.
  • Fear of failure.
  • Fear of personal life attack/being outed for sexuality.
  • Fear of not being able to recover from illness/surgery appropriately.
  • Fear of a medical episode.
  • Fear of a school attack/assault.
  • Fear of not being to pay off student loans.
  • Fear of parents/society losing respect for the field.
  • Fear of no contract renewal.
  • Fear of administration taking parents' side to avoid legal ramifications.
  • Fear of low assessment scores.
  • Fear of physical implications of the job stress.
  • Fear of not doing paperwork correctly and losing job.
  • Fear of not meeting IEP goals/objectives because of lack of resources/time.
  • Fear of screwing up record keeping.
  • Fear of missing something relevant and required.
  • Fear of missing out on my own child's events and activities because of my work's expectations.
  • Fear of quality of life in retirement years due to cuts in pay/retirement benefits.
  • Fear of kidney/bladder disease because of limited/no breaks.
  • Fear of not being able to meet the financial needs of their own family.
  • Fear of theft of classroom supplies purchased from their own money.
  • Fear of no support from administration.
  • Fear of sharing relevant information with administration then being treated like a trouble-maker.
  • Fear of not having friends at work.
  • Fear of the fact I shut my door and do my job to avoid the drama and then paying the price for that decision in my evaluation.

I promise you, there were so many more…


Bookmark this page and check back in a few days for the second part of this three-part series.

Mary McLaughlin

Mary has always loved learning, but was a struggling learner who couldn’t read until one day, the right teacher came along with the right methodology, and everything clicked for Mary. Understanding the struggles of children who just “don’t get it,” Mary has spent her career supporting children with learning difficulties and finding ways to excite them about education. Over her career, Mary has taught Second Grade, Third Grade, and served as a Middle School Administrator in Michigan, most often in the urban setting. In 2015, Mary relocated to Arkansas in search of new opportunities and is excited at all that has been placed before her. She currently teaches Special Education in a self-contained setting for children in grades 2-4.
Mary McLaughlin