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- Performance Anxiety: Living with the Stage Fright of Being a Language Teacher
Performance Anxiety: Living with the Stage Fright of Being a Language Teacher
Edward Crabtree, MA has been teaching General English, Business English and exam classes to mostly adults for about 15 years and has taught in Nizhnevartovsk, Kazan and now Moscow. He also writes about modern Russian culture and the Unexplained. This article is based on a seminar he delivered to BKC International House Moscow where he currently works. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
`Why are the clock hands stuck? Am I being fun enough? Will they co-operate? Will they be like that other class? What if they all leave en masse and complain? And how come this CD player now doesn’t seem to work?..`
Welcome to the common voice which constitutes the interior monologue of many a Nervous Teacher. Many of us who are by no means new to the profession will be familiar with this self-nagging commentary and know how it can impact on our ability to perform at our best as teachers. What follows is an attempt to pin down the whys and wherefores of stage fright in teaching and to suggest some ways it can be tackled or even harnessed.
We all know the clichés about teaching not being `all fun and games` nor a `walk in the park`. Our job – as much as we may be enjoined to pretend otherwise – is not a leisure activity and those enthusiasts who seek to enjoy each and every class must for sure be heading for burn out at some point.
A teacher lost in the fog of apprehension will signal this in terms of their body posture and movements. Students can all too easily spot the tutor providing a moving target by prowling back and forth in front of them, and their projection of authority may be downgraded as a result.
Not only does running anxiety reduce our class presence it can also impinge on our private lives too: if our contact time with students turns us into a person who snacks but never eats, snaps at colleagues and obsesses over teaching issues in our downtime then is this a price worth paying?
Unhelpful goal models
The role expectations of a TEFL teacher include both being an expert on one’s target language but also – which can be a contrast – an endless provider of `fun`. Then add to that the fact that the culture of many language schools is one in which teachers – in an implicit way –are expected to be forever cheery and not to share their worries.
Little wonder then, that in this environment many teachers feel that they are only as good as their last class. Haunted by the image of the Perfect Teacher – a forever patient linguistic expert who is also a circus clown – they may fall into `awfulising`. Awfulising is a tendency to feel that everyday problems are something catastrophic.
An age difference between the students and teacher, more so if they are older, can create a sense of unease as can the teaching of in-company clients who have different backgrounds than the teacher. The repetitiveness of conveying the basics of our target language (particularly for a native speaker) can lead to a feeling that one must repress any boredom and this can raise one’s blood pressure.
Understood by all in the profession, there exist certain scenarios which try the patience of all most all educators: covering classes at short notice, the first lesson of a new class, those forever awkward classes, being bound to the required material of a course, or being under pressure to take the kind of classes that you would choose not to take, a trial student appearing in your class and an unplanned one-to-one session owing to absences. Then there is the classroom environment itself. Traffic noise or the lack of fresh air can have bigger consequences than we might expect, as can the presence of audiovisual technology that we are not fully sure how to use. All of these can drain the life from your teaching.
A bit of fear is nothing to be afraid of
The gremlin of stress is a bodily one: our stomach muscles may contract, our breathing become shorter and our shoulders may rise. Recognising these signals, and treating them as physical ones, is the first step towards not being bluffed by our own nerves. What we can then do is transform how we choose to interpret these reactions. That tightness in my stomach I get on opening the classroom door – is it apprehension or could it be excitement?
Then we should remind ourselves that this bodily tension is a response to what we are saying to ourselves (as in the nagging inner voice caricatured above). As much as this voice may sound like our own it is in fact our own worse enemy: no friend who spoke like that to us would remain a friend for very long. This voice too can be re-interpreted. We can switch the sound of it to one of a character from – say – South Park for example, thus rendering it ridiculous.
Many of the above issues arise because we place too much onus on ourselves. It has become a cliché in the TEFL world that our pedagogy should not be too `teacher centric` and this is a good time to remind ourselves of the importance of this. We are more than just leaders and instructors but can also be facilitators and councillors. We should try casting ourselves in the role as another participant in the class and remember that it is not `all about us`.
In fact, rather than putting ourselves out there, it can be a good idea to cultivate a `teaching persona`. A teaching persona is a character that we adopt just for the purposes of our craft. Once we walk out of the door this persona is shed like a snakeskin having taken all the classroom issues upon itself on our behalf.
In the same way, it can be useful to remind ourselves that our `class` is not some sort of amorphous blob (ready to devour us!) but just a motley crew of separate individuals, all with different thoughts and concerns, who we might relate to as individuals.
Many teachers report that just having a lesson plan acts as a sort of talisman that ensures that we feel `centred`, even if what ensues deviates from what had been scheduled. Also time appears to drag less if timing is factored into the plan: an hour can be considered to be three twenty-minute subsections, for instance.
Where possible, arriving at the classroom in advance of the students is also crucial. This allows us to be a master of their environment, arranging the layout of the room as best suits ourselves and getting acquainted with all the technologies, for example.
A class can begin with a quiet warmer such as a Wordsearch (where the lexis is related to the theme of the lesson). This provides time for the teacher to relax into the environment, perhaps speak to the students on an individual basis, as well as latecomers to arrive without upsetting the proceedings.
Last but not least the teacher should factor in some room for them to indulge their own peccadilloes – topics and approaches they relish themselves – since an enthused educator is seldom a dull one.
Trying too hard
There exists an axiom in positive psychology that goes `What we resist persists`. (It us for this reason that hypnotic commands to help smokers overcome their habits tend to be along the lines of `I am looking after the health of my body` rather than `I must stop smoking`).
So. what if our we have taken on the above suggestions and learnt to think differently about the tension in our bodies, to take back control of our inner voice, and we no longer see ourselves as the hero of the classroom, have maybe adopted a teaching persona, see our class as a collection of individuals, have mastered our teaching space and brought our own interests into our teaching content…and yet still remain a Nervous Teacher?
Further worry would be self-defeating. Now would be the time to consider the strengths that Nervous Teachers possess. Never complacent, they know that they have to work at their craft and so remain alert lively and flexible. They are also more able to offer sympathy, as the students themselves, fearing difficult questions and insecure as to their progress, may well be nervous too!
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