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:
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.
Lastly, find inspiration in Eleanor Roosevelt's words:
Do you ever get butterflies before teaching? What do you do that helps?