Three statements I read recently from a talk of J Krishnamurti with students struck me as most significant as I was thinking about fear in schools for this conference.

  • When the mind is afraid there is no sympathy, there is no affection. Fear produces hatred, jealousy, envy . . .

  • This fear that pushes you during life like a shadow is a terrible thing. Do you know what a shadow is?

  • It is difficult to be rid of fear; it requires a great deal of inner search. And I think it is a thing which you should talk over every day. As you talk over mathematics, geography, so this also should be gone into.

I write these statements because it is this exploration that we are committed to in the KFI schools that question the role of fear. These statements acknowledge the all-pervasive nature of fear and the difficulty of being rid of it, and assert that affection and sensitivity cannot be where there is fear.

Is it true that fear pushes you through life like a shadow? Fear, like a shadow, is intangible, irrational, all-encompassing. We know of fear as anxiety, sorrow, anger, envy. Yet, we rarely see these as manifestations of fear. ‘Shadow’ is a remarkable word.

We are a school that is committed to this exploration and, yet, I want to underline how incredibly difficult it is to be rid of fear. I will take five situations from daily life and attempt to understand a little about this thing called fear in schools.


Once, during the athletic events of the senior school, I passed by a small group of middle school students who were meant to be watching the events. They were sitting apart, engrossed in making mud sculptures. I paused out of curiosity to watch them, quite fascinated, and asked what they were making. They looked up in what appeared to me as some sort of guilt and said, “No, akka (older sister), we just took a break. We are going back.” An innocuous enough incident, but I was shocked at the discrepancy between my thoughts and theirs.

This small and innocuous situation raised a significant question for me. Have we, in our anxiety that younger students do not wander off unsupervised during the senior school athletic events, become prescriptive, giving too many instructions? Being prescriptive arises in the teacher from anxiety, not wanting to lose control. Being mistrustful of children’s abilities and sense of responsibility, we, as teachers, order the lives around us, sure that when we are in control, things can go as planned. We inform and instruct. This has a multiple impact on children. They learn that they have to follow what is said and are frightened that they will be censured if they do not. This diminishes the student’s sense of responsibility rather that strengthening it. Then there is resistance to the control. The student remains uninvolved and not accountable. Significantly, being prescriptive makes students dependent and resourceless in the long term, while the teacher feels efficient in the short term.

Is it possible for the teacher and the students to plan together the requirements for an event, for the teacher to watch over the students and intervene at aberrations alone, and then too with questions rather admonishments? A student of Class XII did not attend a chemistry class. He assured me that he was studying the subject sitting just outside the classroom. Sufficiently puzzled, I asked him why. He said that he knew the examination answer papers would be given out that day and discussed, and he knew that he had not done well at all. This student has been at school for fourteen years. He knows the insects on campus, the mongoose and cat, and where snakes are likely to be. He is the student who, in junior school, noticed the somewhat large stomach of his teacher and advised her to go to the doctor, because when the same thing happened to his mother, his baby sister was born. He is concerned that the staff member who fumigates the classroom as a preventive for mosquitoes does not wear a mask. So what has gone wrong? Or has anything gone wrong? Why was he not responsible for his own work?

Facing consequences of action or inaction can be frightening, and avoidance through rationalization or, in this case, escape, appears to solve the problem. Regret over what could have been done is an awful feeling. What is that mettle or state of mind that can allow one to accept oneself, reflect and take help, and see the outcomes as learning opportunities? What allows for the low sense of self-worth that gets reinforced by peers, parents and perhaps the teacher? How do we strengthen students to be realistic in their assessments of themselves, to face things as they really are and accept the consequences? And what comes in the way—fear of facing the teacher and friends, the parents, of oneself and the awful task of getting back to study for the next exam?

In a similar vein but to push a different point, a student, when asked how the exams were (she was taking exams for the first time in school in Class 8), replied, “Tests and exams are never a problem. It is fun to study and write the exam. It is the results that are the problem!” What makes the result the problem? The excitement and anticipation that make your marks never what you expected, the teacher’s non-approval, thoughts of parents’ responses, and most important, your peers? Often the student feels he or she does not know why the mark given is the way it is and feels frustrated about the effort and fearful of the next set of exams.

This incomprehension is key. The student feels judged and found wanting. Caught in this feeling, the student decides he or she no longer has the agency over effort and the power is handed over to the teacher, to superstition, to an unnatural sense of regret and inadequacy. This incomprehension is what I have found most detrimental. This is further exemplified by the following. I have noticed that with the move from qualitative evaluation to the quantitative, the student tends to give up power over his effort and work. Often, in the younger classes, we would hear a student tell a teacher that she has done her work but is not happy with it and would like to redo it. We rarely hear this in senior classes, perhaps because there is too little time to redo work; but mostly because he or she simply feels she does not know. Often the response of such a student would be, “I don’t know. You must tell me, anna (older brother). Only you will know.” I feel this is at the root of student fear—judgement by another. If one only looks at the vocabulary in this context—to give in an assignment, to submit work—the giving in and the submission involved is built in.

For a teacher, too, questions prompted by fear arise, and not just in the initial years. Have I made the right decision to teach? Will I be able to support myself and my family on the income? Will I be a good teacher? It quickly moves into deeper areas: my colleague’s classes seem better than mine. Students hand in work on time to my colleague but not to me. My colleague’s classes are quieter than mine. This translates into diffidence, rigid positions, complaints and difficulties in working with colleagues. It could translate into heavy-handed responses with students, expressions of frustration and tension in the classroom. A teacher needs to be a learner, be interested in understanding the human condition and experience the discontent that allows for humility and the affection that allows for care of oneself and of the other.

Once, at a meeting with parents, there was a poignant statement that has remained with me, “I want my child to be honest but I also want him to lie when he needs to.” One of the greatest challenges that a parent has is the need for conformity. We live in a world of ambiguities and it is our task to find sane responses. Whether to buy a child a smart phone or send her for tuitions or allow him to go out with friends unsupervised are vexing situations for parents. Informing all these is the fear that the child may see the parent as bad in comparison with other parents.

There is the other question that parents grapple with—“Have I done the right thing in seeking admission for my child in an alternative school?” The parents feel they want the intention of the school, they are struck by the pedagogical methods and they feel the programmes are significant to their child’s growth. Yet there is the fear of what they see as this ‘right’ kind of education. There is the feeling that society will not change, human beings can never change. So children are encouraged to fit into society as we know it today. Despite all that we see and feel and think, we, as parents, want the child to conform to the present systems with the hope that the best will happen.


While learning must be grounded in affection, seriousness and an appreciation of the right kind of demands on the student and teacher, fear may yet permeate through the cracks. It is important to experiment with structures that diminish fear in the classroom.

The mixed-age classroom affords an interesting learning context. There is no arbitrary pre-fixed standard that the teacher has to teach to as the students are of different ages. In the engagement with the students therefore, the teacher is not teaching a class, but students at multiple levels. Multiple levels exist in groups of same-age students as well, but given a set standard it is convenient to ignore that students do not learn at the same pace, to same level and to the same efficacy in spite of being of the same age.

Such a learning context demands that the students learn individually and from each other in addition to learning from the teacher. The teacher then becomes the guide and facilitator of the learning process and not the dictator of it. This allows the student to recognize and begin from where he is, minimizes the outside expectation to conform to an expected level and thereby minimizes the fear of not doing well and being judged.

Narrow confined spaces—built up and monotonous spaces—encourage fear. In a similar manner, minds can grow narrow and monotonous. Schools need to enable students to pursue their interests through projects that are based on student research through books, the internet, conversations with people and through observation. There is freedom in such learning. Trips that challenge physical fears and that allow for risk-taking, exposure to geographically different places, meeting with people who challenge current paradigms, and being involved in work with the land—these open and stir the mind to unknown realities, significant possibilities and a freedom to think for oneself. This loosens fear in a fundamental sense. Young people often think of what they want to do in the future and the school is where adult fears are often learnt.

Exclusion created by homogeneous ways of learning, passive acceptance and, therefore, conformity, and a focus on and celebration of individual achievement at school—all these can contribute to a culture of fear in the school. Here are a few questions that educators need to ask:

  • All of us learn in very different ways. Why do we believe that there is only one way in which students learn? How many ways of learning can we encourage in the classroom?

  • How do students become active in and responsible for their own learning? How do we help them to be creators of their knowledge, in other words, learn how to learn?

  • Do games and sports at school necessarily have to be about winning and losing and individual achievement? This notion very quickly excludes from the playground all except those skilled at the particular games the school chooses. Could Sports Day be a celebration of sports for all?

Inherent in a culture of fear are expectations of others, notions of failure and success, comparison, a lack of well-being and trust. In open conversations among teachers, and among teachers and students, there is the potential of examining assumptions and beliefs we have of each other. It is only in speaking with a student, without labelling her, that the teacher can understand the problem. It may be even possible to listen, ponder and stay with a situation rather than attempt to find an immediate solution or consequence. It may be in the refusal to escape into a solution that the problem is actually understood. Relating with each other needs to be at the centre of every action. Among teachers, too, there are mannerisms and personalities, just as there are with students. How do we create a culture of working together? Only such a culture has the possibility of eliminating fear.

We need to tread lightly on this earth, in our schools and with each other and to bring to our daily lives, in the words of Krishnamurti, “a quiet meditation”.

*This article is adapted from a talk given by the author at Centre for Learning, Bengaluru, at the 2015 conference ‘Worlds of Fear: School Cultures’.