Managing Teaching Anxiety

The first time I ever taught a class I was given two days to plan a three hour lecture. I had just finished a master’s degree with a focus on Buddhist ethics, so I was tasked with translating my work into a serviceable lecture. I had barely participated in classroom discussions when I was a student, thus the idea of lecturing to a group of sixty students was utterly terrifying. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and my mind raced with all of the potential student questions I couldn’t answer.

When recently given the opportunity to give a workshop on managing teaching anxiety for new TAs and instructors, I jumped at the opportunity. Not only had I suffered from it greatly, but I also overcame it quite thoroughly. The first part of the workshop focused on reframing teaching anxiety before talking about specific strategies to overcome it.

As was my experience, teaching was not an inborn gift, but a skill that needed to be cultivated over time (see slide below). Part of my anxiety was performing a skill I knew I was not particularly good at –  indeed, a sense of competency, even mastery, comes with time and persistence.

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I created a simple handout for my workshop that asked participants to freewrite about their anxieties and then rank them from most to least anxiety inducing. After this exercise (essentially asking folks to identify and name their anxieties), I started by addressing the most general strategies for combatting stress (see below), including the all-too-forgotten “Great Triad” of sleep, diet, and exercise. I was only recently introduced to the excellent research on sleep by Matthew Walker, and mentioned several ideas he recently discussed on a podcast. In addition to this, our university has great resources for both creating a nutrition profile and exercise options, thus I made sure everyone was familiar with them.

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The first grouping of targeted teaching anxiety issues revolved around stage freight (see below). I had read that having people stare at you triggers part of our natural fear of predators and being eaten! In any regard, part of reducing stage freight is minimizing the unknown and creating a classroom “ritual.”

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The second grouping of targeted teaching anxieties focused on imposter syndrome and the fear of “not knowing enough” (see below). In my experience, the most challenging – and most impactful – change was “stepping into” my ignorance (bullet point #3). I do not always have to play a gatekeeper of knowledge, but can side with my students as an explorer of the unknown. By letting my students know the breadth and complexity of a disciplinary field I can also introduce the wonder of doing research and the reality that many issues still need to be explored. Having a student ask a “tough” question does ntm have to be a monent of embarassment, but a moment to model how you would think through the problem and assess possible solutions.

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The third grouping dealt with the fear of creating student interest in the class. To me, this can be alleviated once an instructor acquires a repertoire of teaching strategies that can be deployed when necessary in order to create an engaging classroom culture.

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We finished by talking about strategies for dealing with potentially combative students and anxiety around time management and preparation.

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