Embrace Your Fears (Or, Why Facing Your Fears Isn't Enough)

Earlier this week, I was driven to Cunningham Park, Queens to the DMV road test site. Weather conditions were not ideal. Parked deep in the woods, the fog was not coming "on little cat feet," as Carl Sandburg once wrote. Instead, that fog was crashing down like Godzilla mounting a full-scale invasion of Tokyo, tiny pedestrians crushed underneath his massive precipitation-spiked tail. The raindrops spattered on the side mirrors (the ones that are essential for parallel parking) lodged my image of the outdoors somewhere between pointillism and impressionism. And the poncho-clad inspectors weren't too pleased to be running from car-to-car, their umbrellas blown inside out by the high winds.

(My road test experience in a nutshell.)

Normally, I would be having a full-scale panic attack. But on that blustery Tuesday, I simply leaned back against the headrest and waited for my turn.

I've spent my whole life slamming into my fears like a bulldozer. Whenever someone says that a project "can't be done," I attack it like an angry bull and, sure as shooting, get 'er done. I eat the impossible for breakfast and then spit out the nay-sayers like burned grits. But I've since learned that it's not enough to face your fears; you need to go one step beyond and embrace your fears. Someone who feels 100% comfortable tackling impossible problems in an effort to change the world might not be able to deal with the paralyzing anxieties that pop up in her everyday life.

During my teaching career, I've encountered a lot of students with testing anxiety. Of course, the fact that we've turned state tests into high-stakes "do-or-die" missions where we evaluate an entire year of learning based on one written exam might not exactly lend itself to calm. (Kind of like how ONE ROAD TEST does NOT tell you if I know how to drive, DMV.) I do commend the New York State Education Department for their decision to make this year's tests untimed. However, I would make the case that taking away the stressors isn't enough; we need to be actively teaching our students how to handle those unpleasant stressful feelings in a productive way. Because if you're really challenging yourself to become a better and stronger person on a daily basis, those feelings aren't going away. Chances are you're going to be struggling with them for the rest of your life.

I would love to see less of a focus on "test prep strategies" in our classrooms and more of a focus on mindfulness. (We already have our students plugged into online instructional platforms like Khan Academy; let's get them registered on Headspace and Buddhify as well! Also: Am I the only one who wants to scream out "KHAAAAAAAAAN!" whenever students log in to complete a math lesson?) I know that it's tough to get a classroom full of middle school students to sit still for more than three minutes at a time, nevertheless to concentrate on deep breathing and relaxing each muscle individually. But I think that if we made it part of our classroom routine, instead of just an one-off yoga lesson in PE class, we could start teaching our students how to tackle anxiety and stress (and enhance focus) instead of immediately going to the 504 for extra time.

And in case you're wondering how I did on my road test, I passed. Barely. New York City Drivers, beware. Lock your doors; bolt your windows. All your streets are belong to me now.

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