by Chris Mares
In teaching, as in life, one of the best ways to develop and grow is to address one’s fears.
Beginning teachers are often beset with fears: fear of not being in control of a class, fear of running out of teaching materials, fear of feeling embarrassed in front of a class, fear of not being able to answer a question, fear of being observed, to name but a few.
These fears are natural and understandable and the best way to overcome them it to tackle them head on with honesty and pragmatism. Fear is an emotional reaction hard-wired into our biological system and its purpose, simply speaking, is to protect us. It is understandable that one might be afraid of a noise in the dark; one’s reaction will trigger a flight-or-fight response. However, the fears mentioned in the first paragraph are not of the same order. They can be tackled and overcome.
First, document any areas in which you have fears or anxieties as a teacher. Try and take a step back from yourself. Move away from your emotions and closer to your truth. For example, you might say you have a fear of trying new activities in class. If you have observed this, see if you can get to the core of what it is that you are afraid of. Is it that you are uncertain that the activity will work? Or, is it that you’re not sure what you will do if it doesn’t work? Do you feel that you don’t have a strategy in place for repairing an activity you perceive as having failed, or that you would be uncomfortable abandoning it and moving on to something else?
In my teacher training I emphasize the importance of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. To begin this process, start by operating at the edge of your comfort zone, rather than in the middle of it. Ask yourself, “What is the worst that could happen?” The answer is probably a temporary silence in which you might feel awkward or embarrassed. It is precisely these moments that we need to take ownership of and deal with proactively. After all, we all make mistakes. It can be encouraging for our students if they see us get back on track with dignity and humor, rather than struggling to hide something that everyone is aware of.
A clear example of this would be when a student asks a grammar question and the teacher is unable to immediately answer it. We all understand the urge to provide the answer immediately and many of us have probably experienced the process of attempting to provide one before realizing that it either isn’t an answer or that it may be inaccurate or wrong. The better response would be to say that you are not sure what the answer is or that you don’t know the answer but you know where you can find it and you will come back with the answer by a specific time. The key is to follow through, find the answer, and bring it to class, reminding the class of the question and providing the answer. This strategy will earn the trust and respect of students and provide the teacher with more confidence.
Most of the fears a teacher experiences can be overcome provided they are dealt with seriously and calmly. The first step is to articulate what the the fear is. This can be done effectively through writing. Here it is important to dig deep and to ask the powerful questions in a systematic way. For example, if you are afraid of being observed, ask yourself, “What is it that I’m afraid of?”, “Do I think I’m not good enough?”, “Do I worry about being judged?” etc. Articulating one’s fears is the first step towards overcoming them. The next step is to provide the counter argument. In this case, the reasons why you are good enough and how being observed can be a positive experience leading to growth and improvement.
One of the pleasures of teaching is that of continuing to find ways to be better. Naturally, one way of doing this is to try new things, and take risks. Over time, what we originally experienced as fears may become opportunities.