Mar 12, 2016

Don't Let Stage Fright Interfere with Your Teaching

Ever stand in front of the class and feel shaky, jittery, or out of breath? Break into a sweat? Hear your own heartbeat? You’re not alone if you find it difficult to speak to a crowd. Symptoms like upset stomach, dizziness, and an inability to focus can completely derail your presentation. These feelings are common in new instructors, but even experienced instructors sometimes suffer from stage fright, especially on the first day of class.

As with most things in life, the hardest part about public speaking is beginning. Many instructors feel their anxiety rise just prior to class or while watching students walk into class. Once they begin the lesson the stage fright usually dissipates. What can you do during those stressful few minutes prior to class and at the start of class?

Establish a Pre-Class Ritual 
A ritual, or set of behaviors that you carry out before every class, can direct your energy in a positive way. Stop working 10 to 15 minutes before you must leave for class. Close the door, eliminate distractions. What you do next is up to you.

Some people find it helpful to engage in a physical activity. A set of jumping jacks, push-ups, or other exercises like a few squats or lunges can get your blood flowing and release some of the physical stress that accompanies anxiety. (This is why you close the door!). All it takes is a minute to make a difference.
  • Other people find a short mediation and quiet stillness comfortable. However, if anxiety leaves you with racing thoughts, it might take some practice to clear your mind.
  • In her well-known TED Talk Amy Cuddy suggests that your posture can change how you think and behave. Spread out and let your body take up as much space as possible. If sitting, spread your legs, stretch your arms out. If standing, pull yourself up into a superhero position with your hands on your hips and shoulders spread. Making your body stand tall and take up space can make you feel bigger and stronger and more confident. Regardless, stretching and moving around can’t hurt.
  • Choose a theme song. Athletes often use a song to pump themselves up. Consider yourself an intellectual athlete. What’s your song? What makes you feel upbeat and confident? The theme from Wonder Woman has been known to pop into my head from time to time.

Plan Transitions
How do you begin class? How do you move from one topic or activity to another? Plan your transitions to avoid awkward moments. One way to transition from topic to topic is to make your students do the work. Pose a question and ask students to write for a few minutes, then ask them to discuss their responses. This is an excellent way to begin class as it moves the focus away from you, reminds you that your students are individuals (many of whom also feel anxiety), and gives you time to acclimate.

In the Classroom, Prior to Class 
  • Employ a ritual for setting up your work space. If you’re busy there is little time to build anxiety. You might put your jacket and bag in a specific place, log into the computer, line up markers, pens, and paper, and organize handouts. Pull out your notes and find your place. A simple orderly way of preparing as students enter can acclimate you to the space and the many bodies within. 
  • Establish dominance. Anxiety is literally in your head. Acknowledge it and explain to yourself why it's unfounded. You know your stuff. You have a degree. You’re the expert. You know more about your subject than anyone in the room. Look around at the empty the room and remember that this is your room, your space to carry out your work. Own it. 
  • Greet students. Say hello or make eye contact and smile at students as they enter. Creating connections with individuals helps you remember that you’re speaking to many individuals, not an impenetrable wall. 

During Class 
Sounds like a cheesy commercial, but it works: Just do it. As you talk it gets easier and your nerves will subside.
  • Slow down. You know the material but your students do not. Anxiety makes us talk more quickly. Force yourself to stop. 
  • Pause. Check student comprehension is to pose a question. Ask students to write for a moment or two and follow with a brief discussion. When you feel overwhelmed, make students do the work. It reduces your pressure and is a legitimate way to promote learning. Win-win! 
  • Don't be afraid to rely on your notes. You have notes. If you suddenly feel overwhelmed, review them. Take a moment to gather your thoughts. Students will welcome the brief pause. 
  • Hide shakiness. If your hands tremble, place them on the lectern, desk, or at your sides. Hold one arm behind your back for a professional stance that hides a trembling hand. 
  • Take it one person at a time. Remember the individuals rather than the mass. Speak to one person in the room at a time Make eye contact.
Ultimately getting over stage fright entails changing your thinking. Although college teaching is often described as a performance, a more productive way of thinking about it is as communicating. Your job is to communicate what you know. Explain the field. Your students are looking for information, not a performance. You can reduce stage fright with consistent work.