“They all just…stared at me.”
I was so glad to hear someone else say it. I had just started teaching my first college class and had highly underestimated the ability of 25 eighteen-year-olds to burn a hole straight through my forehead with their collective gaze.
I thought maybe it was my bad jokes or sweaty armpits. (The joke referenced Vanilla Ice. The sweaty armpits appeared after I realized they didn’t get it because I was THIRTEEN YEARS older than them.)
Maybe they were just having a bad day. All of them.
So when the words of my classmate, who was also teaching for the first time that semester, bolstered my tiny hope that maybe this was just normal college freshman behavior, I wanted to do a little happy dance.
That is, until the next time I had to face them.
Being in front of a live audience is scary. Being in front of a live audience when you are a textbook introvert, is terrifying.
But I stood at the front of that room, class after class, week after week, and I spoke while they stared.
The only way to break their unyielding eye contact was to ask for class participation, when every last one of them would suddenly develop an intense itch on their ankle or a desperate need to jot down some notes.
Now in my third year of teaching, I still get butterflies in my stomach when I walk in to greet my first class of the day. The nerves generally subside almost immediately, but there is always that initial flutter, that one deep breath as I prepare to step outside my shell.
And while there are plenty of times when I am teaching and feel completely in my element, I still have moments where I feel scattered and forget the point I was trying to make. I talk too fast, and cling to the word “um” while I wait for my brain to catch up with my mouth.
The silver lining (you knew I would get there eventually) is that experiencing so much discomfort has taught me a great deal about how to prevent it. If you are a teacher or do any kind of public speaking, I hope you find some of this more useful than the age old tip of picturing everyone in their skivvies.
Here are seven things I’ve discovered are crucial to keeping my nerves at bay, and that make me a more effective teacher.
1.) Plan but Don’t Overplan
One thing I struggle with in job interviews, speaking engagements, and conversations with those I don’t know very well is filling empty air. I’m not good at small talk or ad-libbing, and would much prefer to sit back and listen until I have something of value to contribute.
In my experience the best teachers, and the most interesting people to listen to in general, are those who are both knowledgeable and invested in what they are saying.
That first semester of teaching I wasted a lot of time trying to completely script everything I was going to say, just to avoid the awkward pauses.
That turned out to be completely self-defeating.
Since I didn’t feel I could veer from the script, I was basically reading to the class from my notes or PowerPoints, saving all the awkward empty space for “work time” at the end of class, when I would stop engaging with them completely.
In subsequent semesters, a better investment of my time has been to review and think about the material a day or two beforehand so it is fresh on my mind, create a rough outline or highlight the chapter to keep me on track, but leave the discussion of the material to flow naturally.
Though this made me uneasy at first, it is easier than I thought it would be, and the things I have to say end up being much more insightful.
2.) Get Enough Rest
If you struggle with anxiety, depression, addiction, anything really, you can probably attest to the fact that being tired weakens your mental state, and increases the hold those things have on you.
When I’m tired, I am lazy. When I’m lazy, I am selfish, and I just want to lecture to my students rather than engage with them.
When I get adequate rest I am happier, friendlier, more talkative, and undoubtedly more pleasant to listen to for an hour and 15 minutes.
I try to remind myself of this at night when I’m considering stapling my eyelids open so I can make it through one more episode of Blacklist with my husband.
3.) Dress to Impress
The more confident you feel, the more comfortable you are in your own skin. The less your mental energy is depleted by the weight of feeling sloppy or thrown together, the freer your mind is to roam as you speak.
Dress like a professional, even if your institution has a flexible dress code.
I can get away with wearing jeans and boots to work, but am a much better teacher in slacks and heels. It might sound crazy, but for me it’s true.
Select your clothes the night before. Spot clean, iron, lint roll, and hang them up.
Don’t forgo washing your hair for a few minutes of extra sleep. Even if you look the same, you will feel the effects of cutting corners on your appearance, and the insecurity will show in your teaching.
Dress for your profession and not your couch.
4.) Build on What Interests You
There is a professor on campus who loves Socratic method and applies it to everything he teaches. If just reading the words Socratic method has you fighting to stay awake we are on the same page.
But recently, during one of our professional development sessions, I had the opportunity to hear this professor lecture. I walked away at the end of it wondering how we still have him at our modest little college, when he should clearly be teaching at a university.
Did he make me more passionate about Socratic method? Not necessarily, but the light in his eyes and excitement he had as he brought the whole thing full circle was gripping to witness, simply because of his fervor for what he was teaching.
Listen to me carefully: If you are bored, so are they.
Take a break from the textbook and build a lesson around a book or a film that you love. Talk about current events. Incorporate social media. Whatever keeps you interested in your work, will keep your students interested in your class.
5.) Assign Group Work (even though you hated it as a student)
It is every bit as important that students are comfortable with each other as it is that they are comfortable with you. This will lessen their fear to speak up, which takes some of the pressure off of you as the instructor, and turns you into more of a discussion moderator.
This might not sound very professional, but actually learning from the activities is secondary to the social growth they foster. I do a couple of fairly juvenile activities with my students each semester that allow them to interact, debate, and have some fun. Without fail, the climate within the class becomes more positive, and a handful of friendships are formed.
Personally, I don’t even mind a little talking/laughing among classmates while I’m lecturing, as long as it doesn’t become disruptive. If you run your class like a boot camp, all you will get in return is “Sir, yes sir.” I would much rather my students be comfortable enough to participate in class discussions and get creative in their writing.
6.) Talk About Yourself
My favorite professor, Dr. Brooks, used to bring his dog to class. I’m not talking about a miniature Yorkie in a crate. This was a huge English Sheepdog named Briscuit that would lie at the front of the lecture hall for the duration of the class. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find Dr. Brooks anywhere on campus that Briscuit wasn’t by his side.
Dr. Brooks talked about his band, his wife, his previous life in New York. He talked about his struggles with insomnia and spirituality, and how he wished there were more black people in his neighborhood (he was white). He was a fascinatingly quirky individual, and I never would have had the pleasure of knowing him (or understanding Shakespeare for that matter), if he hadn’t shared his life with his students, and not just the material.
The more comfortable I am doing this, the more comfortable my students are with me. I’ve had students rush up at the end of class to tell me our daughters are the same age, or that they also enjoy poetry.
Tell them you got a speeding ticket on your way in, or that you were up all night with a teething baby. There is something about showing your students that you are a real life person that allows them to let their guard down and trust you a little more.
7.) Invest in Individuals
In the same respect, show interest in who they are. Walk around casually at the beginning of class asking how their other classes are going or what they did over the weekend. Open your lecture by asking if anyone watched the Superbowl and which was their favorite commercial. Take an interest, not just in their progress in the class, but in them as individuals.
When your students show vast improvement, tell them verbally, not just in red ink. Recognize when they need extra help and ask if you can schedule an appointment with them.
Go to their basketball games when they invite you. Ask your cheerleaders how they did at competition. Ask the student who missed class for his grandmother’s funeral if he needs a little extra time to catch up.
Because he was such an open book, I felt comfortable stopping by Dr. Brooks’ office for advice about a future career. I emailed him before a trip to New York for a list of “must-sees,” and he responded enthusiastically with all his favorite sights. I shared my poetry with him, which he remembered and mentioned in a recommendation letter he wrote me three years after graduation.
What I didn’t realize my first semester teaching is that I may have been nervous, but my students were more nervous. College is a different beast than high school (I still laugh when they raise their hands to go to the bathroom), and if you can break down the walls of insecurity between you and your students, everyone will benefit.
Sometimes the problem with being an introvert is that we get stuck inside our own heads. We develop an inflated sense of importance and a hyper-awareness of how we are coming across to others.
What I do as an educator is important, but not so that at the end of the day I can bask in my flawless PowerPoint presentations and swell with pride at my freshly minted grading rubric.
I have a unique opportunity to plant a seed that could benefit someone’s future. After 10 years working various jobs where it felt like my labor produced very little tangible fruit, I don’t ever want to take that for granted.
As with most things in life, turning the focus away from yourself, and onto others will make all the difference.
How are some ways you employ this in your day to day life?