Confidence tricks

3rd October 2014 at 01:00

A sure sign that all of us care about our work and our students is the twinge of anxiety, the slight stab of cold, the butterflies that well up prior to class.

For me these feelings don't arise from worry about preparation or about being challenged by my students, whether they have done the reading or if I will connect with them. I learned long ago that there is no such thing as a bad class - only less easy ones.

No, my nervousness seems to stem from two simple questions: first, can I fulfil the students' and my own shared hopes by building on the previous lesson's experience? Second, can I live up to the expectations of my colleagues and the mission of my college?

Over the years I have discovered strategies for channelling my nerves into constructive performance energy. Each night before going to sleep I visualise the classes in my mind to get myself "in the moment". I try to anticipate questions and carefully plan the direction our discussion may take. Although the classroom always has the potential to surprise, having a sense of the general parameters of the day's lesson is a great advantage.

I am also aware that I'm doing what I love every day, that the students are there to learn and that a combination of such positive attitudes makes for an almost inevitably successful partnership.

Furthermore, I remind myself that I am not in the class just for me but for the students, who are real human beings with their own individual talents, personalities and problems. Every class will have shining stars but also those who are hurting, suffering or lost. Part of my reason for being there is to lift their spirits.

Another coping strategy is to walk to class each morning with one or more colleagues. This has a double purpose. I enjoy their company and our talks, and it's a way of relaxing by emptying my mind of minor anxieties, breathing deeply and trusting that the words will be there when I need them.

Finally, I take heart from an example set by my father. Many years ago as a university president, he accompanied me to my campus to meet the leadership team. As we approached the office, I suddenly felt a wave of confidence coming from him.

Afterwards I asked him about it, and he explained that it was his way of buoying himself up for the meeting. "I just thought about some of the things I'd done in life," he said. And it was that solidarity I had sensed. I still do, and I try to follow his example by tapping into confidence-bolstering feelings and memories as I approach my own classroom.

I used to think I would naturally outgrow my pre-lesson anxiety. I now realise that it is, in the words of the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, our "best teacher" because it goads us into action and clear thinking. Usually, 30 seconds after I have entered the classroom, greeted the students and "felt" their presence, I settle down with confidence.

"It's all right to have butterflies in your stomach," Dr Rob Gilbert, a professor at Montclair State University, once wrote. "Just get them to fly in formation."

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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