Fear me or love me?

As I see it, there are two primary forces of motivation: fear and encouragement. Throughout history, both forms have been used extensively as a means of coercing people to believe, to agree, and to act. Consider the two types of God: the fearful and the loving. If the goal is servitude and strict adherence, the fearful God usually does the trick. This is the God that “may cast wicked men into Hell at any moment.” This God is scary. He does not demand self-improvement or self-actualization. He seeks to restrict rather than empower. After all, it is quite blatantly stated in the good book, or at least, blatantly articulated what one should not do to avoid eternal hellfire. In any event, this God is responsible for the most adamantly religious periods in history.

On the other hand, we have the loving God. This version says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” He sings a pretty different tune. He is the forgiver, the one that always holds out hope that even the most fragrant violators of his word are not doomed. Every man can be revived and reborn anew through His love. One God rules by terrorizing his devotees in submission. One God rules by inspiring his followers. Which God has a greater effect? Well that depends on your personal definition of effective.

            The fear vs. encouragement and love paradigm is played out constantly over time. Think of world leaders, the Gods of Earth. Many (most) have motivated through fear. Fear is always the infallible ace in the hole for action. For thousands of years leaders have employed fear and subsequent vulnerability as a catalyst for getting shit done. But, like I said, fear is only part of the equation. Governments and wealthy citizens spend billions of dollars every year giving out grants and benefits to start-ups, innovative young people, and general forward thinkers. Fear and encouragement, or to simplify, fear and love, exist in a semi-symbiosis. Pure fear is accompanied by unconditional obedience. But, because fear already exists elsewhere, pure love, or pure encouragement will be met with resistance or disobedience. Complete obedience is dangerous and incredibly limiting. We need some resistance to progress, but complete resistance has proven counterproductive. In that sense, to lead, we need to strike a perfect balance between fear and love.

            Yesterday, my principal was mad. Everyday, we have a lineup at 9:50 am. The students line up with their class. The principal or a high-up administrator gives a speech about making your bed properly or something. I stand there and stare at him, nodding and pressing my lips together to express a deeply false sense of comprehension. I understand nothing. The local teachers this fact. It usually lasts 10 to 15 minutes. This time, however, someone must have done a really shitty job making his or her bed. The entire school from 1st to 6th grade was compelled to march around the courtyard in meticulously choreographed procedures.

            Coincidentally, a bamboo tree had just been trimmed in the courtyard. The teachers broke off branches, shed the leaves, and peeled away the ends to form more ergonomic handles. Bamboo branches are used mainly as yardsticks for referencing material on the chalkboard. Obviously, they have alternative uses as well.

            The first graders just started school here about two weeks ago. They are very bad a standing still for any amount of time, let alone standing still while simultaneously following marching orders. Needless to say, these little kids got whacked a great deal yesterday morning. It was the first time I had witnessed corporal punishment. My parents never hit me, my teachers never hit me. Aside from a few indescretionary incidents with the opposite sex, my actions never resulted in bodily harm.

            It was hard to watch little kids, whose only real ambition in school is to do right, get hit over and over and over again. Meanwhile, there are older students who have genuine intentions of disrespect and insubordination, but know exactly when to tow the line to avoid getting smacked in the side with a bamboo branch. Unlike a wrathful God, an angry teacher is not all knowing and omnipresent. Fear only works when that which is feared has the ability to act on impropriety. The procession lasted about an hour and cut into the following period’s class by twenty minutes.

            Coincidentally, I had a pretty bad cold. I was sneezing and sniffling throughout the morning. A few of the teachers caught sight of me and chuckled. They definitely thought I was crying. I wasn’t, but I was at least a little moved.

            I was scheduled to watch the school’s other English teacher’s class during the period that got cut in half. She is a small, 26-year-old Chinese woman whose classes achieve some of the best test scores in the county. After the meeting I sat down in the back of here classroom and watched her go to work. She wielded a bamboo stick. Her lesson plan was essentially exclusive repetition of the five vocabulary words, “library,” “cinema,” “bookstore,” “science museum,” and “post office.” Each word was repeated what seemed like forty (4-0) times. There was not a hint of idle chatter in her class. It was a revelation. If I had attempted the same lesson, my students would have asked me to smack them with a bamboo stick out of epic levels of boredom. In the class I watched, the expectations were clear and you could feel the awareness of consequence in the air.  

            To put this in perspective, I had a sixth grader hit me in the ass a couple days ago. I turned around and immediately took him outside. This is how the conversation went (in Chinese):


“What did you just do?”

“I hit the teacher in the ‘pee goo’” (hilarious Chinese word for butt).


“I don’t know why.”

“Would you hit the principal in the ‘pee goo’?”


“Would you hit your homeroom teacher in the ‘pee goo’?”


“So, why did you hit me in the ‘pee goo’?”

“I don’t know.”

“We do not touch our classmate’s ‘pee goos’ in this class, and you definitely do not touch your teacher’s ‘pee goo.’”

“I understand.”

“Will you ever touch my ‘pee goo’ again?

“No, teacher.”

“Will you ever touch your classmate’s ‘pee goo’ again?”

“No, teacher.”

“Will you ever touch your own ‘pee goo’ in my class again?”

“Ohh yes!” he said as he rubbed his own “pee goo” with delight.

“Go sit down.”


The intriguing aspect of all this is that each and every teacher cares truly and deeply about the success and wellbeing of their students. I’ve had teachers that clearly did not care. They’d yell and scream and point at students more out of personal frustration or anger than for our own benefit. Here are some of the most invested, caring teachers I have ever seen. Their methods may appear archaic or even shocking to the outside observer. In reality, it is the only way they know. I can guarantee they had it significantly worse when they were in school.

Would I ever employ corporal punishment? Of course not. At the outset, does this fact cause my students to respect my rules less? Absolutely. The risk-reward for hitting a local teacher in the “pee goo” is unfavorably stacked against any student. I’d put the over under at 15 bamboo whacks and probably a few slaps to the face. To institute an environment of motivation devoid of negativity is hard, especially given the fact that other teachers can and do hit students. In a system where memorization reigns and high-stakes regional tests have incredible power, getting students on task certainly takes on a different form. Everyone is motivated by different things, but no one likes to get smacked in the face.

The fact of the matter is, first graders, second graders, third graders and up, have a much more concrete view on consequence.  You can ask them, “What happens if you get bad grades or don’t listen in school?” Some may give you a stock answer like, “I won’t be able to go to high school or college and I won’t be successful.” This means nothing to them. This fact holds even more weight in communities where most parents didn’t go to college themselves, and yet even more weight in communities where most parents didn’t finish high school. In reality, their parents may beat them and their teachers may hit them with bamboo sticks. They want to do well to avoid what they fear. In our context, the answer is more along the lines of, “My parents won’t buy me a new bike.” These students want to do well to gain what they like. Obviously, all cultures have proponents of both methods. So, which method is right? I suppose that really depends on your definition of right.