There’s a strange irony in my asking my nervy Year 10s to stand up in front of the class and deliver a 10-minute speech, since there’s nothing I dreaded more in school myself.
I told them this, describing how I would quiver in fear when the teacher asked me to read even a small passage.
And now, as an English teacher, that’s pretty much what I do for a living.
A fear of public speaking
Public speaking is a life skill, something we all have to face in interviews and work, and yet it is still the main thing that keeps me awake at night.
In my training year, my confidence was still very much a work in progress, and the anxiety of public speaking really took its toll. I tried whale music, sleeping apps and even herbal tablets. One Sunday evening, my boyfriend hurriedly drove to our local Asda store at 11pm closing time, after I ordered him to get me some herbal tablets. Needless to say, he was interrogated at the checkout. But when he explained that “My girlfriend’s a teacher”, they understood.
My love of English from school to university blossomed from a love of reading and writing: two intrinsically solitary past times. I adore words, vocabulary, the way that they can be mixed and reordered to create new meanings and melt into literature.
But the thought of having to say them aloud – now, that was a ballgame I hadn’t considered. Like many of my colleagues, I’d aced my way through academic studies. But teaching isn’t just about knowing iambic from trochaic meter. It’s classroom management; it’s reacting to a child crying about their unfortunate home life. And – whether I like it or not – it’s public speaking.
Facing a hall full of parents
Having progressed in my career, I have gained pastoral and whole-school literacy responsibilities which, in turn, have caused a new influx of sleepless nights.
My audiences have escalated from a classroom of pupils to a whole hall of students in assembly, to a whole staffroom of teachers in briefings and then, the most horrific of all, a hall of parents at a Year 7 curriculum evening.
Not only have I had to control the involuntary croaking of my voice, like a pubescent schoolboy, but I also had to plan the content of my presentations. The worst was a grammar session for staff: teaching senior leadership where to put their apostrophes without being patronising was quite a task.
This step-up in my worst fear began last year. It was a humid August day, and my clammy hands were shaking as I handed out information booklets to a room of new staff – people I’d never even met before – due to start with us in September.
Having spent a lot of my summer interacting with considerably fewer humans than the hundred or so whom teachers are used to speaking to on an average school day, it was completely terrifying.
My presentation was scantily organised: my role was unofficial at the time and I was just about figuring it out myself, let alone explaining it to others. I’d also been given the whole summer to prepare…and overthink, modify, amend, tweak and worry.
I’d rehearsed over and over to my mother (with plenty of constructive criticism), rewritten memo cards complete with colour coding and emboldened cues. And then, upon delivery, managed to refer to the school facilities as Felicities. Yes, a girl’s name.
But, you know what? I did it, and it was actually quite all right.
Constant high-pitched scream
Now entering my fifth year of teaching, I’ve publicly spoken at numerous events, and it does get easier. And when a parent turns around to thank you for the advice about how to support their dyslexic child’s spelling, or another member of staff successfully tries a strategy you suggested in briefing, the sleepless nights become worthwhile.
While my head seems to be a constant high-pitched scream as I stand in front a sea of critical faces, thankfully what comes out of my mouth is a lot more coherent, and I have even finally grown to like the sound of my own voice.
The best piece of advice that I was given: fake confidence. And, much to my boyfriend’s relief, I can confirm that the whale music, sleeping apps and herbal remedies are all long gone.
The author is a secondary English teacher and literacy coordinator