There are some things that are too important to us for anxiety to stop us.
Even when that anxiety is telling us it’s impossible, or when our knees and hands are shaking.
For a whole year before I began teaching, I was afraid that my anxiety would kick in hard during those first few weeks. I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to eat before class, and that I would be forcing my way through each day while trying not to let the students see my hands shake.
At first, I didn’t even want this. I was in an MFA program that required teaching assignments, and this was a big stressor for me. But as I took classes on teaching and planned my courses, I found that it wasn’t the idea of teaching that stalled me, but the fear of teaching. I was not ready to accept that I wanted this until I was made to do it. Even then, I questioned.
But then something magical happened.
I taught my first class–and I survived.
Perhaps the most exciting and terrifying moment was walking down the hallway and seeing my classroom, door open, with students inside waiting for me to take control. To them, it was an ordinary day. For me, this was my first time stepping into a classroom without sitting with the students, instead crossing the floor to the computer stand to log in while I saw student faces registering that I was not a student. Then I had to cross to the middle of the room, write my name in chalk (which I hate), and then face them and say, “Hello! Welcome to First Year Composition!”
Not only did I survive that first day, but I had fun.
I have learned over time that worry is the worst form of fear. Once you are in the moment that you were afraid of, it doesn’t seem impossible anymore. You are doing it, and just being in that moment gives you a new energy.
Not all days were like that. Sometimes I was anxious, or upset about something that had happened before class, or stressed about the classes where I was a student, or tired from driving, or even late because of car troubles.
But once I entered the classroom, I was able to let those things go and just do it. Not always well, and never perfectly, but I did it.
In the classroom, you can be anyone. When I walk through the door and give my students a smile, I am not the same person whose shoulders are weighed down by anxieties. I stand tall. I am there for them, and my thoughts are on the lesson.
I have now taught four classes, and I will begin teaching four more this week, with four new classrooms full of unknown faces, all with names I need to learn.
I still have nerves, but they are quieter this year, like whispers, because I know something I didn’t know before.
I can do anything for an hour.
I don’t want this to sound too easy because I know that I had things pretty light last year, especially compared to many of my elementary teacher friends. I did have some troubling times with students, but I had a mentor who helped me through (more on that below). I also never had extreme anxiety at the same time that I taught, and I’m hoping not to this year.
But I do trust that my anxieties won’t come from those single hours when I am in the classroom anymore, just like they no longer come from driving or riding buses or going to the eye doctor.
Anxieties about something that you genuinely want to do can be overcome, but it usually won’t happen if you are not doing that thing.
That’s what I learned about teaching. Once I was doing it, it was no longer a source of anxiety. Instead, it actually became a respite, a place where I could feel strong, confident, and secure. Yes, sometimes I slipped over my words, or even tripped, and sometimes I was so stressed I wanted to scream, but those were the not-so-good days, and those will always happen.
Doing hard things makes us stronger. The more I have been stretched, the bigger I can dream. I used to confine my dreams to my backyard, but now there is possibility. Because I know I can do anything for an hour.
What can you do? What fears hold you back? Why not try it, if only for an hour?
If you are going to be teaching this year, here are some things I have learned specifically about teaching anxiety.
If other teachers I have talked to are correct, the nerves of starting a new class never quite go away. But it gets easier when you realize that, over time, the nerves do go away, and soon class days become routine.
First, knowing where the sources of anxiety come from can be helpful in preparing for them.
In Teaching Literature, long-time teacher Elaine Showalter describes seven types of teaching anxieties (4-20).
- Lack of training – The “awareness that we are making it up as we go along”
- Isolation – Feeling alone in the process yet obligated to create our own methods and materials
- Teaching versus research – The pressure to publish
- Coverage – Overwhelmed by the amount that could be covered vs. what you have time for
- Performance – Stage fright
- Grading – Fear of not being fair
- Evaluation – Being judged by your students
I have experienced all of these, save #3, though I think being a student and teacher may equate to the same kinds of anxieties.
Showalter offers some advice for each type of anxiety, but, in her conclusion, she brings it back to one major and essential point: “…you can avoid the occasional bout of anxiety by overcoming the isolation of teaching” (20).
That is the very thing that helped me through my first year of teaching.
First, I had a mentor, whom I chose, who walked me through lesson planning and, when I began teaching, through any struggles or questions that I had. While it was required that I have a mentor, anyone can and should find someone they can talk to about teaching. There were many days when I was ready to cry from frustration or confusion, and having a mentor helped me voice my concerns and take a confident step towards resolving the issue.
Beyond having a mentor, you can talk to other teachers about what’s bothering you, what went well, what’s working, what’s not working, etc.
Here are some things I learned from my mentors that I’m trying to put into practice. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but these simple things truly helped:
- You can’t teach everything, and that’s okay. You won’t be able to cover an entire subject, which is why the focus should be on helping students learn how to learn. If they can do that, then they can leave your classroom capable of learning the rest.
- Find your own teaching style. This takes time, and I still haven’t fully discovered mine, but it was freeing for me to realize that I don’t have to be exactly like my mentor or my favorite college professors. I have to do what is comfortable for me.
- Plan for everything to go wrong. I don’t mean worrying about it. I mean planning ahead by putting everything that could go wrong into your course policies. Then, if they do, you have an answer in your syllabus about what to do, rather than coming up with it on the spot.
- Remember that you know more than your students. Because I am a young teacher teaching college students, I often felt insecure about sharing my knowledge. Remembering that I did know more gave me the confidence I needed.
- Admit when you don’t know an answer. I always tell my students early on that I am bad at spelling. I sometimes have to ask them to help me finish a word on the board. This helps me relax when I don’t know something, and it shows the students that I, like them, am always learning. I often use this as a way to demonstrate how I learn something.
- Remember that they are scared, too. Teaching is not you vs. them. Show them that you are together in this. I even admitted to them that I had anxiety. I think this made me more relatable to them, especially to those who had anxiety themselves.
- Pray for your students. Remember why you are doing this. There may be a student who needs something that you can offer. When I focus on who I can help, my anxiety tends to lose its foothold.
Finally, if you have anxiety, I want you to know that teaching healed my anxiety in many ways. Of course I still have anxiety, but something magical happens when I stand in front of the classroom with a plan to carry out. I forget everything bothering me, and I just go.
The more you do this, the more comfortable you get, and soon you won’t even think about it.
That’s when you know you can do anything. That’s when you celebrate, because you did what once seemed impossible.
If we are to teach without being isolated, we need to be more intentional about sharing our experiences. I want to know your story!
In the comments, I would love for you to share your struggles, concerns, and victories. What have you learned? What are you still learning?
If I get enough comments, I would love to share these in an upcoming newsletter for subscribers. Simply write “anonymous” if you want your name hidden.
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