On stage fright in the classroom

At the beginning of the year, I usually help out with a seminar for new instructors on campus…faculty, sessional lecturers, term appointments, etc. As part of the session a group of us entertain questions about teaching, and it’s always entertaining. This year I got a question that struck home with me, as it hit on something I regularly wrestle with in my own teaching. I’m by nature quite shy, despite my outgoing public personality. I’ve heard it isn’t uncommon for people in public life to deal with this dichotomy. Anyway, in case there are any others who are closet scaredy cats, I’ll offer up my reply.

Q. How do I handle stage fright?

Oh my, some questions jump up and hit me square in the forehead, and this question did just that! Thank you for the excellent, direct question that I think will resonate with dozens of other teachers on campus. I think we all feel some natural anxiety and self-doubt when we are given the responsibility to teach.

Teaching can be frightening, especially at first, but even later in your career. I want to share with you a journal entry that I recently posted to my transforming teaching blog over the weekend:

The evening before my first teaching day this year
I held my first class of the year on Saturday — a graduate seminar that met all morning, followed by an orientation for new graduate students in the afternoon. As seems to be my custom, I didn’t sleep very well the night before class. After 30+ years of teaching, I am still anxious enough to disrupt sleep patterns before I begin. Is that a good thing? I’ve tried to convince myself that it is, because it is a reminder of how much I care about teaching. But is it possible that it is also an indication that I might be too focused on myself instead of on the students? Could it be performance anxiety? I don’t really know for sure, but I do know it is an annoying habit — one I wish I could change.

So, what I hope this conveys to you is that I also suffer from a bit of stage fright and a lack of confidence, and I hope it is a natural artifact of how much I care about teaching and my students. I’m a bit shy by nature, so I need to acknowledge that part of my personality, but I still want to project my self as a confident, competent professional in the classroom.

But what do I do about it? Well, here are a few tips I use to handle anxiety that I’ve drawn from http://www.anxietycoach.com/social1.htm and http://www.antion.com/articles/stagefright.htm, run through the filter of my own experience. These are from the popular media, so I’m not sure how well they will work for you, but I’ve done every one of these things at some time during my career. If you’re interested, I recommend you check out the original sources.

• Prepare. Prepare thoroughly. Prepare in a way that will not only give you enough comfort with your material for the day, but that will give you opportunities to deviate from your original plan if your comfort and the opportunity presents itself.
• Take a few minutes before class and sit quietly in your office and visualize yourself teaching well. Just as important, I think, is to visualize your students being receptive. I do this, particularly when I have a difficult speaking engagement, and it seems to help.
• Do breathing exercises. Teaching includes talking, and talking requires you to be in control of your breathing. Our colleagues in drama and music know a lot about breathing from our diaphragms, and if you have trouble controlling your breathing, it might be worth contacting a colleague in one of those departments and asking for a lesson or two. I found this demonstration with video online (http://www.anxietycoach.com/breathing.htm), but I don’t claim to be an expert, so I can’t tell you whether it is good.
• Remind yourself that the audience isn’t usually there to see you. They are in your class to see the person who’s teaching this class, and today that happens to be you.
• Accept that you will feel anxious, especially at first, and don’t think of it as unnatural. Is there a way to use your anxiety to inject some energy into the class and group? Can you start a class with an activity that requires students to move around (and allows you to move around too)?
• I find that it helps me to get some fresh air and exercise before any public event that makes me nervous. What I do depends on the amount of time I have and where I am at the moment, but at the very least I will get out of my office or lab and go for a walk around the building.
• Try to keep your attention on the material and the audience reaction to it. You therefore want to be aware of how they are responding, so that you can connect with them in various ways.
• Establish eye contact and talking directly to the group. This may be difficult at first, but avoiding eye contact (or looking over the heads of your audience as some advise) causes you to lose contact with the group. If you have trouble doing this, practice on one student at a time. Look up and at that student, and then look down to recover, and look up and connect with the next student. Sometimes, communicating with one student at a time is easier than speaking to a group.
• Ask students questions that invite them to become involved in your class (e.g., Can you tell me a story about when this kind of thing has happened to you…?) Pick someone you think will speak up, and direct the question to that specific student by name. Then, be patient and wait for her to respond. Your natural instinct will probably be to avoid the group as much as possible, but you will actually reduce or eliminate your anxiety once you get the students involved and verbally engaged in the class.
• Where you don’t want your focus to be is on yourself and your anxiety. This is why it’s so useful to develop an accepting attitude toward the anxiety, to take a few steps to calm yourself a little, and then shift your focus to the task at hand. There comes a time in your classroom when you disappear, when you are so immersed in the moment that you forget that you are “performing.” That is a wonderful, exciting and warm place for a teacher.

2 thoughts on “On stage fright in the classroom

  1. Excellent advice Rick. All things that I do regularly with success.
    I deal with (suffer from?) the same feelings before every class or presentation.
    I agree it is partly based on wanting to do the best possible job.

  2. Thanks, Jay. I can’t imagine you being the least bit nervous about a class! We really should talk more, given that our offices are right next to each other and we play tennis every day. Must be a guy thing! 🙂

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