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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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You're Gonna Hear Me Roar: Overcoming Classroom Stage Fright

On a spring afternoon in the 1990s, I happened upon one of my professors in a campus restroom. The renowned metaphysical sci-fi author caught me eyeing his hands, which trembled as he lathered them with liquid soap. "I get the shakes before every class starts," he explained. "Every class for 30 years."

The Effects of Stage Fright on Teachers

I've encountered many K-12 instructors and preservice teachers since then who share my professor's performance anxiety, a condition that causes them to mumble or forget critical concepts. Recent research on preservice teachers in China notes that teacher anxiety does the following:

  • Negatively impacts effectiveness
  • Causes preservice teachers to seek alternative careers
  • Reduces teachers' warmth and verbal support of students
  • Increases "dogmatism" as a coping strategy (teachers may also become overly strict or lenient)
  • Results in teacher cynicism towards students

Negative coping mechanisms, like over- or under-eating and drug dependency, may also result.

Anxiety intensifies when administrators or university supervisors are present in the room. On top of being evaluated, you have to negotiate role ambiguity. Is your audience the students or the evaluators? At the very least, the experience is unpleasant; at its worst, terrifying. I've been there.

What Causes Stage Fright?

Baked into our brains is the fight or flight response to perceived threats. When confronted by something scary, the body automatically shuts down nonessential functions, like digestion, and amps up blood flow, muscle tension and perspiration to prime you for crushing danger or racing to safety. Mary Fensholt, the author of The Francis Effect: The Real Reason You Hate Public Speaking and How to Get Over It, believes that fear of public speaking is related to the ancient fear of being eaten. Thirty-five thousand years ago in Sub-Saharan Africa, a couple dozen eyes staring your way meant that it was lunchtime for a pack of predators. Here's a trick to reverse that bio-evolutionary reaction while teaching: imagine the students are baby bunnies -- your prey.

9 Tips for Overcoming Classroom Stage Fright

You already know that practicing presentations will relax you, as will arriving early to organize the setting and troubleshoot any technologies that will be used. Here are nine other tips you might not have tried:

  1. Move, laugh and breathe. Before class, release nervous energy by jumping up and down 15 times in the bathroom. It will make you laugh. Shake your limbs to release nervous tension. Breath slowly and deeply from the belly with your hands on the back of your hips.
  2. "Power pose" for 120 seconds. After leaping up 72 stairs in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the film Rocky, Sly Stalone raises his fists in what Harvard professor Amy Cuddy calls the power pose. The Huffington Post explains:
    Cuddy's research, done in collaboration with Dana Carney, has shown that adopting the body language associated with dominance for just 120 seconds is enough to create a 20 percent increase in testosterone and a 25 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. In other words, adopting these postures makes a person feel more powerful.
  3. Deposit Easter eggs into your curriculum. Dreading students' negative response to a lesson that is conceptually confusing? Plant some surprises in the lesson for you and the class to look forward to: a slide featuring Ryan Gosling, popcorn, an energizer, a short video, a Bob Dylan break or a review game. Playfulness is confidence-building and contagious.
  4. Start the class off with a ritual. The first couple minutes of a new class can be the most intimidating. I begin all my classes with 60 seconds of good news. Students report birthdays, new cars, successful surgeries or relatives returning from Afghanistan. Besides marinating everyone in warm connections, the spotlight focuses on students, not you.
  5. Reinforce content. Bring ancillary materials: posters, handouts, advance organizers or PowerPoint. Don't try to be as verbally gifted as Noam Chomsky -- your materials will convey needed content.
  6. Don’t cede your center. Avoid interpreting blank student faces as uninterested or angry (see critical parent syndrome).
  7. Commit to an emotion. Right before class begins, recall the last time you were happy and excited. When class starts, you'll feel more relaxed and animated.
  8. Count chairs. Counting rhythmically will help keep your adrenaline more regulated.
  9. It’s not about you. Remember to concentrate on students learning instead of you performing perfectly.

Lastly, find inspiration in Eleanor Roosevelt's words:

You can gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, "I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along" . . . You must do the thing you cannot do.

Do you ever get butterflies before teaching? What do you do that helps?

Comments (8)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Joe Meyer's picture
Joe Meyer
9th and 10th Grade Global Studies Teacher in Hannibal, NY

I am a brand new teacher and I will be experiencing the dreaded APPR in New York State soon. This was a great list of ideas that will help me overcome the anxiety of being observed by my principal. I don't feel nervous or anxious in the classroom when it is just me and the students anymore, I am used to them and they are used to me now. But whenever there is another adult nearby I start to feel the anxiety, mainly because I just do not want to be a bad teacher. I have noticed that being prepared will help to limit that form of anxiety as well.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Assistant Editor (Contractor) and Blogger
Blogger 2014

Hi Joe,

I felt the same way early in my teaching. It was the worst: wasn't I supposed to be good at this? My problem was that I was performing for two different audiences: students and an adult. Once I blocked them out of my mind, I could just engage with the students; that helped quite a bit. Also, if you know in advance what observers are looking for, the anxiety goes away quickly.

Wanting to be a great teacher is a disposition associated with transformative educators. As long as you are learning and growing every day, trust that you're exactly where you should be.

Keep in touch! - T

Gina's picture

I can attest that adopting a "power pose," as silly as it seems, really works! For me, it was simply folding my arms across my chest, standing up straight, and keeping my chin up (not looking at the ground). Another thing that helps me is positive thinking and visualizing my end goal. If the end goal is to get students to do well on their exit assessment, for example, I start to focus more on what I need to do to get that to happen rather than being self-conscious about my appearance or my delivery.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Assistant Editor (Contractor) and Blogger
Blogger 2014

The power pose has become a ritual with the faculty I work with. Spontaneous power posing breaks out all the time. Cracks me up!

Destamona Rider's picture
Destamona Rider
Future English Langugae Arts 4-8

Hello, I am a pre-service teacher. I really enjoyed your post. Even though I am not in the classroom yet, I always get nervous when I do any type of public speaking. I'm going to have to use your tips for my next public speaking project. Thank you for writing this post.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Assistant Editor (Contractor) and Blogger
Blogger 2014

Hi Destamona, I was a nervous public speaker until about three years ago. It helped me to have all my material/directions visually represented, to rehearse an content-related anecdote in the car, and concentrate on connecting. We get nervous because public speaking matters to us. Let me know how your teaching experiences go! Best, Todd

Jonathan Hunter's picture

Thank you for this. It takes courage to over come stage fright and to have an understanding that we must reach these students in a special way. We can allow fear to deter u away from the goal set at hand.

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