Miss Trunchbull (image: Quentin Blake)

Roald Dahl’s Matilda sets out two classic teacher stereotypes: Miss Trunchbull, the fearsome punisher; and Miss Honey, the sweet friend who takes your side. I’ve found myself increasingly interested in recent weeks in the extent to which the ability to conjour fear is part of a teacher’s job.

Students can fear their teachers for so many reasons. Some teachers are just scary people, but for the most part the fear is created through the role they play. As part of their job, they have to assess you (judge your ability) and manage your behaviour (implicitly judging your character). If the system’s working right, these judgements should carry some weight. Isn’t it natural to fear judgement? It occurs to me that we have some religious overtones going on here.

As part of an essay I wrote recently, I mentioned the fact that the word “assess” comes from a Latin word meaning “to sit beside”. This is surprising the first time you hear it, as we generally associate assessment as a judgement coming from above. Standing above… power… authority. Is it natural to fear power and authority? We normally talk about respecting authority.

But we fear power. Even if a teacher doesn’t have a scary personality, students might hold some fear towards them simply because the teacher is part of a system which goes to considerable lengths to maintain and exercise power. I heard a teacher recounting once: “So I said to him [a lippy student], “You don’t have to be scared of me, but I can still put you in detention and I can still refer you to pastoral”.

This sounds alright to me: We can carry on being Miss Honey if we follow school policy and let the fear come from the system, not ourselves. I think this happens a lot, and it extends out to the way we use exams as a way to evoke fear. Fear makes us (students, teachers, humans) work and fear makes us behave. And that’s what you want a good student to do: work and behave.

(Disclaimer: I’m writing in a punchy style mainly for the kicks, throwing caution to the wind and gratuitously oversimplifying.)

But doesn’t motivation through fear also make us submissive and dependent on others? That seems like a problem.

Also, what we find is that a person embodies the system they represent, just like a politician embodies the party they belong to, or a policeman embodies the law*. So it’s disingenuous to claim that you’re “just following” and therefore apart from the system. No matter how much it feels like that, it doesn’t look like it on the outside.

* More religious themes? Embodiment, incarnation; the inclination towards using people to represent abstract ideas


3 thoughts on “Fear

  1. […] even when she sang about the glories of heaven. There were the two third grade teachers who made Matilda’s Miss Trunchbowl look like Miss Congeniality contestants as they stomped around in scary black shoes and thumped […]

  2. I seriously think Miss Honey is Matilda’s real mother, who simply left her daughter with her own dangerous aunt and the grotty Wormwood’s, just to get attention for herself. Sorry for being harsh, it’s just hard not to think of it that way.

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