You think you know fear?
I was only knee-deep in icy seawater, but that was enough. Beside me, a half-dozen anxious Moms formed a loose human chain. We were trying to cordon off a horde of 6-year-olds, cheerfully running amok at the water’s edge. My eyes flicked around the shoreline, trying to keep track of each and every child. I’d been teaching for less than a year and the safety of these happy, heedless kids was my responsibility.
You think you know fear? Try taking a class of 1st graders to the beach.
It’s hardly charging into a burning building, or wrestling a gunman to the ground, but teaching elementary school requires you to manage fear every day.
Fear of the kids getting lost or injured on trips like our outing to the beach.
Fear of losing control when it’s recess, it’s raining outside, and the sports hall is full of hyperactive students, bawling and brawling.
Fear of letting down young learners at a critical phase in their education.
I became a schoolteacher almost by accident, stumbling into the job through community work for university and non-profit schemes. It surprised me that I had an elementary educator’s knack for responsive, nurturing care.
Teacher training seemed to flash by. Suddenly I found myself in the classroom, a 6-foot-tall guy with a Ph.D. surrounded by 5-year-olds. I worked in the British equivalent of the projects: an urban neighborhood where 80% of the kids didn’t speak English at home. I thrived on the challenge, but it took supreme commitment.
Teaching infants has long been seen as women’s work. Very few men ever take on these roles. In my first school the only other male staff member was the janitor. In my second, there was just one other guy who was a teacher. Buddies in IT, or finance, or even university departments would often ask, “How do you cope with such a…feminine workplace?” I was under no illusions about the macho nature of my work.
Last month, I was in Manhattan’s Midtown Comics with Professor Mark White, a relationships writer, scholar, and comic book aficionado. I thought I’d grown out of superhero comics some time ago, but Mark insisted I check out the latest edition of a series called Daredevil. I was expecting the usual square-jawed heroic posturing, but instead I found a story that subtly criticized comic-book bravado.
The hero of Daredevil is Matt Murdock, a blind New Yorker who uses his “radar sense” and martial skills to fight crime as a vigilante. (They made a movie of it with Ben Affleck, but the less said about that the better).
In the comic Mark showed me, a bus crash leaves Daredevil stranded in a snowy wilderness with eight blind schoolkids. There’s no real antagonist—except for the elements and the hero’s own character flaws.
Writer Mark Waid uses the crash, and the challenge of leading the kids, to remind us just how heroic the everyday business of childcare is. The costumed crimefighter quickly realizes there’s no bad guys for him to trounce—just a group of frightened students gradually freezing to death. Our hero loses his cool, scares the children, and then fails to rally them with a pep talk pitched over their heads.
Anyone who has ever stood in front of a class of 6-year-olds, dealing with tears and turmoil, will understand the challenges our hero is being put through—challenges that are faced every morning by countless educators around the world, most of them women.
But, just as teachers can create a passion for learning in their students, Daredevil’s abortive struggle to save his young charges inspires the children’s own courage and ingenuity.
It is they who save the injured hero from the winter storm. As they do, one of the students innocently tells “the Man without Fear”: “Don’t be afraid, Mr. Murdock.”
The comic is a subtle reminder of just how hard it is to work with kids, but it also shows us the rewards of successfully inspiring young learners—and dares to do so in a “boys’ own” comic book better known for urban vigilantism.
Elementary education demands caring, creativity, and inspiration. It’s one of the most exciting challenges in schools today. Those schools need a diverse teaching body that provides good role models, reflecting society’s entire range of ethnicity, social background, and gender. That means, among other things, more guys in the elementary classroom.
Can men be without fear, and step up to the challenge?
Dr. Matt Finch is a writer and international educational consultant. Find out more at www.matthewfinch.me/about.