Feature

In 2001, employees at the Serbian Ministry of Education were facing tough transitional times. The country had endured nearly a decade of civil wars and the rise and fall of communist dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

"In that period, along with the dramatic political changes, we began education reform as well," says Natalija Panic, a former adviser in the ministry of education.

Although many people welcomed the transition to a more democratic form of government, the change--like all changes--was frightening for many others, says psychologist Ivan Kos, PhD.

Kos, a private practitioner in New York who studies fear and fear reduction, wanted to help out. He was born in Istria--a peninsula in the Adriatic Sea that is now split between Croatia, Slovenia and Italy--and so speaks fluent Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian.

For the past four years he has worked with the governments of Serbia and Croatia, developing programs and conducting workshops to teach school system employees--and eventually other government employees as well--how to cope with change and the fear of change. He teaches students in his workshops to recognize their fears and to learn the difference between useful fears--which allow them to respond to dangerous or threatening situations--and the exaggerated and imaginary fears that interfere with daily life.

"After Dr. Kos's intervention, the level of stress [in the Ministry of Education]--which previously was extremely high--was reduced," Panic says.

Fear stage theory

Since the late 1990s, teachers and education officials in Serbia have faced serious changes. The education reform that accompanied the political reform there meant that some teachers, principals and education ministry employees who had been at their jobs for years were suddenly required to learn new curricula.

"For example, there were some courses that had been taught under the old regime that were antidemocratic, and those were eliminated," says Paul Denig, the U.S. State Department officer who originally approved departmental funding for Kos's work in Serbia. "And there was a heavy emphasis on teaching Russian, which was replaced with French and English."

The change in regime also sowed organizational confusion in the school system for several years, says Kos: "The system had less support financially and there was corruption in some of the schools."

Some teachers and principals also were not used to the new level of decision-making autonomy that they were beginning to have, says Panic. All of these changes made many people nervous, adds Denig.

"The new democratic government that had taken over from Milosovic was trying to reform the old system that had existed under the communists, and as they did that they realized there was a lot of resistance on the part of both teachers and administrators," he says.

The State Department has a grants program that brings American experts in to work with local organizations, Denig explains, and the deputy minister of education in Serbia specifically asked for Kos's assistance.

So between September 2001 and May 2003, Kos held 24 training workshops for Serbian school psychologists, principals and other educators, with the goal that they would then pass on the knowledge to their colleagues--a "train the trainers" model.

Kos based the workshops on his theory that there are four stages of fear: real fear, based on a real situation like a bear on the path in front of you; realistic or possible fear, such as waiting to cross a busy road because you're afraid a car might hit you; exaggerated or emotional fear, such as exaggerating the threat a situation poses; and imaginary fear, or experiencing fears that are only in your mind as real fears. Real and realistic fears can be useful, Kos says, and the key to fear management is learning to recognize the difference between realistic fears based on cognition and exaggerated ones rooted in emotion.

In Serbia, for example, many of the teachers and principals had exaggerated fears that they would lose their jobs or would be unable to learn the new material, Kos says. "I introduced them to the positive and the negative aspects of fear," he explains, "along with the impact of fear on professional performance and how to recognize fears."

Expanding the program

Workshops based on Kos's original program--called Professional Empowerment of Schools--still continue today, says Panic, and are accredited through the Serbian Ministry of Education and Sport as part of teacher training programs in Serbia. In fact, the program was so successful that other government agencies--including the Ministry of International Economic Relations, the Ministry for Labor, Employment and Social Policy and the Serbia and Montenegro European Integration Office--asked Kos to develop a similar program, called Professional Empowerment of Organizations, to meet their needs.

Recently, he has also begun working with private companies in the region, including Hauska and Partners, an Austrian public relations firm with offices in Serbia and Croatia. There, he is conducting workshops--similar to his Professional Empowerment of Organizations workshops--on how to conquer fears of working in a new economic environment.

Overall, Panic says, Kos's workshops and seminars helped teachers learn to appreciate and work with, rather than fear, their new situation. "You have to be prepared for freedom," she says.