Powerful beyond measure

This is to the teachers I am working with on our current CELTA course.

We have come a long way since the beginning, two weeks ago.  Through your journals I have had the privilege of following your developmental and emotional journey.

Of all the ideas, thoughts, questions and wishes that keep recurring, one of the most frequent is that of fear.

This has been expressed by each of you, each in your own way, at some point up to now in the course. Here are two comments that caught my attention:

I’m scared to take risks because I’m being assessed.

I didn’t feel confident enough to do something new.

I can understand where you are coming from, but I would like to tell you now that the time for fear is over.

I’m scared to take risks because I’m being assessed

I know that I can seem like a very dark cloud on your horizon when I am sitting in your classroom, watching you at work, scrutinising every action you take. Many people feel frightened by the simple fact of observation.  It is easy to be paralysed by this fear.  However, if you are to grow and develop, you need to see this fear for what it is: just your reaction to a circumstance – no more, no less.

What is it that you are afraid of? If you are anything like me, it is the fear of failure, however that is defined.

I have spent years wrestling with this fear: every time I work with you, every time you watch me at work wth other students, every time I post something on this blog, every time I give a conference talk.  I am scared of the judgement of others, scared that I will be found wanting.

Such fear may always be with you, and I suspect it will always be with me, but these days I have found ways to put this fear in its place, move it aside and enable myself to take those new steps forward into unknown territory.  One thing that has helped me is a question.  Perhaps you have even heard this question before.

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

Spencer Johnson

As Ken Robinson has said, you will never create anything of value if you are not prepared to be wrong; and teaching – above all else – is the business of creating something of value.  So as teachers (and you and I aspire to be such), we cannot afford to be limited in the choices we make for our learners or for ourselves by fear of someone else’s opinion.

I didn’t feel confident enough to do something new.

On the other hand, you may not feel intimidated by forces from the outside; instead, you may be stopped from development by your own sense of inadequacy.  You may have felt doubt in your own capacity, your own competence – and for this reason, when faced with an opportunity to take a new path in your professional practice, you baulked and shied away.

This leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, one that I also know well.  I have shied away from certain things in the classroom (not to mention in life) because I doubted my ability to measure up to them.  The terrible thing is not that I was “cowardly” or any such thing; the terrible thing is that, in not trying to take the hurdle, I will never know if I would have made it or not.

The worst failures are the ones that we deny ourselves the chance to make.

I told some of you, and I will repeat it now, that I have an unshakable confidence in your capacity for greatness, in your potential for professional mastery.  I may well have more confidence in this than you do yourselves.  I would ask you to meet me half-way.  The next time you are planning a lesson or are in the middle of one, and you are faced with an opportunity to take a risk, move beyond your limits, and enter the arena of potential failure, recall this following statement, and afterwards, make your move:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”

Marianne Williamson



Johnson, S (1998) Who Moved My Cheese?, London, Vermilion

Robinson, K. (2006) Are Schools Killing Creativity?”, TED Talk retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html on Sunday 13 November 2011 at 16:18hrs GMT

Williamson, M. (1992) A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”, Harper Collins


  • Anthony you’re so right.

    CELTA – I’m afraid of the assessor in the room.

    POST-CELTA – I’m afraid of X observation/a number of things to do with my teaching

    DELTA – I’m even MORE afraid of the assessor in the room

    Conferences – I’m terrified of all these people watching me

    Does it stop? No. The important thing is you jump in the deep-end. From what I’ve learned so far, it’s not that decision which defines you, it’s how you deal with the ones that come after.


    • Thanks for calling by Dale – I think your taxonomy of fear will ring true for many a seasoned teacher. It’s about going beyond ourselves, as Samuel Becket said “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

      (Of course, the issue of assessment is the elephant in the room here. Something I shall have to do some more thinking about.)

      Really grateful that you have blogged your full talk and follow up on reflection, too. Glad I felt the fear and journalled anyway. You really gave me the impetus and the positive vision (not to mention courage?) to do it.

  • Isn’t there some sort of saying, being brave doesn’t mean you don’t feel scared, it just means you did it anyway?!
    So true, Anthony!
    I recommended your post on our Israeli forum – I hope people check it out!

    • True, Naomi. Just read this one from someone called Tom Krause: “Courage is the discovery that you may not win, and trying when you know you can lose”.

      I fail all the time, in all kinds of big and small ways. When I consider that, I find it inexplicable that there are times when I deny myself the chance to potentially grow under conditions that are objectively no less promising. There’s an elementary school in my town with this simple motto engraved in the glass above the main entry:

      “TU ES” (Trans: “DO IT”)

      I can’t help wondering what kind of person I’d be now (in relation to risk and fear) if I had seen that every day on the way in to school.

      Thanks for sharing the post with your colleagues, too – it’ll be interesting to exchange thoughts if any show up!

  • Great post Anthony. Your trainees are very lucky to have such a passionate trainer. I have an observation coming up soon, and in one way I’m dreading it because it means that I will more than likely revert to a robotic like teacher so that I can get the ticks in all the right boxes. The reason I’m looking forward to it is because I want to dismantle that robot, forget my DOS is in the room and be more human with my students like I normally am when I teach.

    My favourite quote about fear is this;

    ‘There is nothing to fear, but fear itself’ (FDR)

    Good to see that the diary idea is working out for you.


    • Thanks, Adam: though they might feel luckier to have a trainer with a more reliable memory (I wanted to email this link to them all but left their addresses at the office!)

      They probably don’t believe me when I tell them that I am afraid each time they watch me teaching but it’s true. Over time, though, the space in me (if you will) that this fear occupies has got smaller. Maybe that’s progress 😉

  • What can I say? They are all very very lucky.

    My only advice is that it’s best to turn it on its head. They have one of the best in the business for 4 weeks so should use that time to get the most FB from him possible. Think of it as a series of private coaching lessons.

    You’re also not there to complain and criticise but to help them improve.

    What we’d all give to have you as a trainer eh?

    They should also realise that they’re getting gems or seeds of tips and advice now which will help guide them for years to come. When certain things happen in their classes they will go “ah, that’s what Anthony meant”.

    For me it was only in my last observation that I grasp on things and started being myself and the FB was the best I ever got. If I’d have been myself more from the beginning they would have assessed me more and rather the TEFL teacher persona I was trying to create.

    Anyhow, assessment and observations are part of EFL. As Dale says CELTA, DELTA, your first job, job interview test classes, school promo videos, peer observation, you name it. If you become an examiner you’ll get seriously graded. I was marked down for speaking 2 seconds too long once.

    What I’ve found useful is that I now ask observers what to focus on and give them tasks to do for me. After all, it’s about you and how you can improve.

    Stick with it, enjoy it, be yourself, ask questions and most of all listen to everything your tutors say and ask them questions.

    • I love this part of what you wrote in particular, Phil:

      “Stick with it, enjoy it, be yourself, ask questions and most of all listen to everything your tutors say and ask them questions.”

      Boils down to:

    • Perseverence
    • Passion
    • Authenticity
    • Curiosity
    • Attentiveness
    • Enquiry
    • Great list, thanks!

  • Hi,
    I don’t believe there would ever be room for fear if a humane rapport is established between the assessor and the teacher being observed. I think the only reason that might make a teacher or trainee teacher dread observation is abusive behaviour from the part of the observer. Trust is key here.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    • Thanks for posting, Gikar. I’d like to agree with you wholeheartedly but it is also the case that circumstances can often be merely catalysts for responses, not actually the cause.

      Or perhaps I am simply not establishing a sufficiently “humane rapport”? Unpleasant thought though that is, if it were so, how could I find out, and what could I do about it?

  • Great post. I really like your definition of the greatest failure: the failure to take a risk.

    A catalan clown, Leandre, said something beautiful.
    “When you take a risk… you always win.”
    While it was said for performances, it applies for teachers.
    What you learn from successes (and non-successes) is something you carry on to future students.

    Rakesh also said something else I really liked: if you teach exactly the same thing for 20 years, you only really have a year of teaching experience.

    If you are supposed to be a lever to enable better learning conditions, it could be irresponsible not to take risks. Thanks for encouraging this in your powerful beyond measure trainees and readers…

  • Anthony, this is such an incredible post, I can’t wait for you to send it to the trainees. You are such an inspiration and they will gain so much from this post, along with everything they already get from you on the course.

    The poem you quote is one of my favourites. It’s turned up in my life a few times recently, Once was at the end of a yoga lesson when the teacher sat at the front and read it to us (she’s German and she faced the fear I know she has of speaking English and read it in English). I almost cried. In fact, I did a bit. Just as I did just then reading your post.

    Fear is something I have learned to face. Challenge is what makes me do better. As you know, Anthony, I am not one to shy away from a challenge, but this doesn’t mean I don’t feel fear. You’ve seen me through many of my most fearful moments in the last couple of years, when I’ve been scared stiff of doing what I’m about to do. You’re right, this never goes away. But it’s what makes us good at what we do (hopefully), because we care. I have often been asked by trainees if I get nervous still, or “when does it all become easy?”. I tell then that it doesn’t. Aspects of it become easier, but the fear of doing a good job never leaves, and I wouldn’t want it to. One thing I love about this profession is that there is never a perfect teacher (I say this to the trainees a lot too), and so there’s always something to improve upon. Yes, this would break some people, the thought of never achieving perfection, but with me – I thrive on it. I wouldn’t be doing what I am today if it weren’t for my fear of a) not being as good as I can be, b) of not trying to be as good as I can be and therefore being less than my potential and c) of finding myself in years to come regretting how much effort I put in.

    I look forward to their responses.
    Bis Morgen.

    • Thanks Jem. I felt absolutely terrified teaching in front of my group this evening as I felt the weight of the past week on my shoulders: after holding them to high expectations and to account so long, with all the incisive and occasionally provocative feedback I had given them, would I “measure up” to their expectations and standards? Would I fall short of the standards that I would set myself if I were them, or even the standards I set for them? Would I betray any shred of hypocrisy in acting in the classroom in a way not in line with my espoused principles?

      So I set this as an observation task: to evaluate my work in the light of what they believe to be my espoused principles, and to hold me to account tomorrow during feedback. I am terrified of what they might have to say, but I know whatever they say, it will do me good.

  • Your post to the trainees reflects passion and empathy. In light of the excellent list below, a list of the key attributes of a teacher (and human) from a previous post, I wonder if your approach to this problem, I wonder if inquiry is really being encouraged here in relation to the problem; if we define fear for the trainees are we really probing for an authentic response to the problem. Should we be encouraging them to find out what fear is? What is fear? Is it what the teacher tells you it is? Can it be reduced to what others have written about it, or is it something much more fundamental to who you are and to this whole thing called life and living? To explore this problem very deeply, to find out what this thing called fear is seems to be the real problem, no? Could the journals not be used to probe this and the other problems you have identified from ss writings? What difference would this make? Perhaps you are doing this already. I would be interested to see the responses.


    Let the dialogue continue


    • Very true, Derek: by verbalising what I saw in those statements, I am putting words into my teaching colleagues’ mouths – something which I do not want to do. Hopefully, they might take my comments here more as an impetus to explore their own emotional journey a bit further (along with whatever feelings may come up, be they fear, anger, contrariness, joy, satisfaction or whatever).

      I won’t be sharing any of the contents of my teachers’ journals, certainly not without their permission, though. Not my place to do this.

  • I love the fact that you welcome FB from your trainees. That sets a VERY good example for continuous FB. I think as Confucius said “everyone is my teacher” so we can always learn from new and older teachers.I may be wrong but I got a real feeling that TESOL France was a good example of how newer teachers are equally if not more capable and positive about contributing to the EFL industry. Just because you only have the CELTA or even if you’re studying for it doesn’t mean that you don’t have good ideas.

    • Hear, hear! I agree there are a lot of fresh young voices with good things to say – let your voice be heard!

    • Thanks, Brad: one disadvantage of getting so engrossed in what I am doing locally is that I miss seeing the bigger picture, such as your guest post, which I will enjoy reading at leisure over the weekend! Thanks for stopping by!

  • Hello Anthony,

    I’m a Brazilian English Teacher who has just started teaching (last August). I look forward to improving my teaching skills by reading ELT blogs, academic books, observing some coworkers’ lessons, attending to Conferences in TEFL etc. As a beginner, fear is something that is really present in my ELT life. The fear of failure is always present when being assessed. As you mentioned in the post “as teachers (and you and I aspire to be such), we cannot afford to be limited in the choices we make for our learners or for ourselves by fear of someone else’s opinion”. It’s encouraging for me to know that having butterflies in the stomach is a common feeling in this field. Fear is ever present when dealing with someone else’s opinion. It doesn’t matter if it is into the classroom or if it is a post or a comment you write on a blog. As soon as you make your ideas public, you are freed from the chains and you are thrown into the arena to face the lions. So we must face them!

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Thank you!

    Best Wishes,
    Iury Paz – @iury_ELT

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