Facing Your Fears: Reflections from the 2015-16 Teacher of the Year

By Cathy Whitehead, 2015-16 Tennessee Teacher of the Year

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”  -Zora Neal Hurston

Cathy Whitehead with President ObamaAs I think back over the experiences of my time as the 2016 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, this quote surfaces as especially poignant. This year has certainly asked questions, and the underlying theme of them has been, “Will you do the thing that scares you most?”

I wanted this year to be a year of growth, and I knew that, in order to do that, I’d have to push myself to seize the opportunities that made me feel most uncomfortable. I’ve never been comfortable speaking in front of large groups of adults.  I tend to avoid discussing thorny issues. And I’ve never been exactly sure how to engage high level stakeholders. However, I knew that those were the exact challenges I needed to face if I wanted to grow, as a person and a professional. After all, forward progress always happens just beyond your comfort zone.

Still, we all know that fear is a powerful emotion, and it’s one that I found difficult to manage.

spacecampThen I had the privilege of attending Educator Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama with dozens of Teachers of the Year from across the United States. And it was there that I learned my greatest lessons about overcoming fear.

Now, I need to preface this story by saying that I have a truly pathological fear of heights. I don’t like driving across the Hernando deSoto Bridge that takes you from Memphis to Arkansas. And one particularly hot summer, when my children and I were visiting Dollywood and navigating the vertical obstacle course, I had the distinct urge to simply sit and let someone come rescue me from the beam I was perched on, some 20 feet in the air.

So when I learned that I would be riding a zip line, 40 feet in the air, across a lake, at Space Camp, I really questioned my ability (and my sanity). When the morning arrived, I wiggled into the harness, strapped the helmet onto my head, and began climbing the steps to the launching pad. I teetered on the edge of the platform, saw the gate swing open, and in that moment I conquered my fear. I flew across that lake, smiling the entire time. I could have zip lined all day.  

You see, in that experience, I learned three very important things about how to face and overcome fear.

First, when faced with fear, change your perspective. When we rode the zip line, we rode it backwards, so I didn’t see the height or the distance. I saw the support team, standing on the platforms with their thumbs up and encouraging smiles, and I was able to focus on the experience rather than my fear. This happens all the time in my classroom. If I’m fearful of trying a new strategy or creating a new approach, I’ve learned to change my perspective from “what if it fails” to “what if it flies?”  

Second, you don’t have to take a leap toward what you fear. Since we were riding the zip line backwards, there was no initial jump into the void. The support team said, “Simply sit back as if you’re sitting in a chair, and gravity will take care of the rest.” It was doing something familiar, but in a new setting. This year, when I spoke publicly in front of groups of teachers or students, I simply reminded myself that I was still teaching—just with a different audience.

And third, always surround yourself with those who love you. As I stood on the platform to ride the zip line and looked down, I saw the faces of people I’ve come to think of as family, and I knew that, no matter the outcome, they would be there to support me and cheer me on. Having that emotional safety net below me gave me the confidence I needed to sit back . . . and fly. Over the course of this year, when I’ve faced a fear of public speaking or tackling thorny educational issues, looking to those who know me best and always cheer me on has given me the courage to stretch and grow through that fear.

As I’ve talked with teachers this year, and as I’ve reflected on my own teaching, I’ve come to believe that fear often holds us back in our classrooms. The lessons that I’ve learned, though, have helped me engage with and overcome many of my fears, and I am a changed person and teacher because of it.  

Cathy with her studentsServing as Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year is a rare experience, and I’ll be forever grateful for the people, moments, and memories of this time. But the lessons are what will stay with me long after my year of service has ended, and learning to overcome fear is the one that’s changed me the most. As nice as recognition may be, though, we don’t need it to embrace a mindset of challenge and change. We can—and should—continue to learn to take risks and grow through our fear. Because the thing that scares you most will always teach you the biggest lesson of all. So when you find yourself faced with fear, and you’re tempted to sit down and wait to be rescued, just remember to change our perspective, ease into change, and lean on love.