Teacher Wellness

9 Tips for Overcoming Classroom Stage Fright

Many teachers have a fight-or-flight response to being up at the front of the room. If that’s you, we can help.

November 19, 2013 Updated September 29, 2017
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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:

  • 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, it’s 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 to crush the danger or race to safety. Mary Fensholt, 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. Breathe slowly and deeply from the belly with your hands on the back of your hips.
  2. “Power pose” for two minutes. After leaping up 72 stairs in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the film Rocky, Sly Stallone raises his fists in what Harvard professor Amy Cuddy calls the power pose. As HuffingtonPost.com explains: “Cuddy’s research... 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 is on students, not you.
  5. Reinforce content. Bring ancillary materials: posters, handouts, advance organizers, or a PowerPoint presentation. 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.”

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