How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 4: Face Your Fears

This is the fifth post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.   See the end of this post for previous entries.

When I first started teaching, I was scared.  Terrified, in fact.

I’d taken a job as a Second Language Monitor – a sort of assistant language teacher – in a small elementary school in Ottawa, where I was finishing my bachelor’s degree.  I’d never had any intention of becoming a teacher, but this was a well-paid part-time government position that would look excellent on a CV and that was designed for university students, leaving time for our studies.

I had terrible stage fright.  However, I told myself: It’s just a job.  If it’s terrible, I can quit.

As it turned out, it was not terrible.  Within a few weeks, my fear had turned to delight.  Not only did I not quit, but when my contract ran out in April, I stayed on until June as a volunteer, coming in to the school five days a week when I could.

Since then, the stages of my teaching career have all been touched by fear.

  1. I moved to a small town in Quebec to work full-time as a Language Monitor.  I was afraid I’d be lonely, but my job consumed me and I had no time for loneliness.
  2. While doing my education degree, I took an internship in a school for disadvantaged students.  I went to work every day terrified of the chaos that was bound to happen.  It did happen, but I survived, and at the end of my stage the students gave me a list of pointers on being a better teacher (“Be more strict!”  “Don’t take any crap!”)
  3. I took a job giving private English lessons in offices all over Montreal.  I was nervous about navigating public transit to distant areas of the city.  In the process, I got to see places I might never have traveled to otherwise.
  4. I moved to Japan to teach junior high school; I spent every day worried about some unfamiliar task I would need to accomplish.  I learned more there than at any other time in my life.
  5. Before I began teaching CEGEP, I worked as a substitute public school teacher.  Many days I woke up petrified of what was in store: a school I’d never been to, in a part of the city I’d never visited, with students who believed that giving me hell was their responsibility.  I told myself, “It’s good to do things that scare me.”  And some days were awful, but I always learned something.

When I began teaching CEGEP, I wasn’t scared.  I had a lot of teaching experience.  I was excited about teaching literature after so many years of focusing on ESL.  I found my young adult students interesting, and enjoyed being around them.

However, as the years passed and I became more and more tired and unhappy, I realized that I was becoming afraid of walking into the classroom.

My fear was the result of trauma.  Regardless of how many terrific students I had, I was confused by the students who cheated, spoke to me rudely, or refused to engage.  I’d had difficult students before, but I’d had more time and energy to break through their defenses.  Now, I was taking negative attitudes personally, and I was hurt.  I shut down, put up walls, and held all my students at arm’s length, to avoid feeling victimized.

My fears were threefold:

  1. Fear of being disliked.  In the past, most students had liked me.  I was young; I was good-looking “for a teacher;” I really cared about them and their success.  In most of my teaching jobs, I wasn’t responsible for grading or disciplining students; I’d rarely been obliged to say “no.”  All this had changed.
  2. Fear of confrontation.  In life, as in the classroom, I detest fights.  Aggression and displays of anger upset me deeply.  When I’m angry, I become icy cold.  When faced with inappropriate behavior – whether in a student or a friend – I tend to ignore it, at least outwardly, although I can stew about it for years.  I was afraid of confronting students who behaved inappropriately; I froze them out and ignored them, and this made things worse.
  3. Fear of doing a bad job.  My sense of identity was now tied to being a “good teacher.”  However, my definition of “good teacher” wasn’t accurate.  Until now, I’d rarely considered how much my students were learning – instead, I was concerned about whether they were enjoying themselves, and me.  I was afraid that if my students didn’t all love me, I wasn’t good at my job.  But of course, this isn’t true.  My job is to help them learn, not to win their approval.

Identifying these fears was a major step in recovering from my burnout.  As I unpacked them, I realized that I needed to change my conception of “good teaching,” I needed to confront classroom difficulties head-on, and I needed to let go of the fantasy that I’d one day walk into the classroom with total confidence that everything would go well.

Fear is a part of any important work.  We don’t need to get over it, but we may need to change our approach to it.  In my next post, I’ll discuss one way I tried to deal with my fears: I got more training.

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Have you had to confront particular fears in the course of your job?  How successful have you been in doing so?  I’d love to hear your stories.

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Previous posts in this series:

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The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Scott Liddell

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19 responses

  1. Today’s piece moved me. I am a professional who teaches postgraduate professionals. I was surprised to discover how much I loved teaching despite the anxiety I had before classes, and my fear has followed a somewhat similar trajectory to yours. In the last year, my performance anxiety had been retreating and I was finding myself quite comfortable in front of a group. A mentor encouraged me to spend less time obsessing over preparation and to be more spontaneous in front of the class, so recently, when a guest speaker cancelled at the last minute, instead of cancelling the half-day slot, I presented an impromptu — and less refined and practiced — session. Despite the last-minute nature of the lesson, I requested an evaluation for my own enlightenment, and one of the (anonymous) comments was that the session was “useless” and should have just been cancelled. It was my first poor evaluation. (The other comment was that the session was helpful, but that wasn’t the comment that stayed with me!)

    Statistics show that about 50% of these trainees have some degree of burnout. I understand that this person likely wanted sleep more than (s)he wanted to learn about communication skills. Yet the comment has stayed with me. I teach part-time because I like it and think it is important work, not because I need the money. However occasionally now, especially when there is other stress at work, I think about quitting.

    • This phenomenon is true for everyone, I think: we can get 40 stellar evaluations and one poor one, and it’s the poor one that haunts us, sometimes for years. I have found that, as the years of experience accumulate, I’m better at filtering out the unnecessarily negative comments and focusing only on those that might have a helpful kernel of truth. Even the most random of criticisms can still sting, though.

  2. Thank you so much for this information. It all sounds so familiar. After being a teacher for more than 40 years I still am afraid of starting a new teaching job! It really sounds like me you are describing.

  3. I am always scared and nervous on the first day of school each year. I want to make a good impression as a strict but fun teacher and I worry about how I am coming across. Inevitably, the first day is always fine and I bounce back to my regular self, but that fear is very intense and very real.

    • Being afraid is one thing but showing it is another. Not letting student’s see your fear is crucial in order to maintain your standing as the teacher and the one in control of the classroom:)

      • H: there are students who will definitely take advantage of a lack of confidence, but I don’t know if that’s the same thing as seeing your fear. Is there such a thing as fearlessly expressing one’s fear? I often find myself saying to students “I almost afraid to try this” or “Stop doing that; you’re making me nervous.”

        • H and Siobhan:
          I remember being taught in my teaching classes that on the days I felt worst, I needed to show it least because the students tend to react badly to the teacher’s not feeling well. Basically, there is no such thing as “you all had better be good because I don’t feel well today.”

          In my own teaching experience, I understand what they meant–first of all, as a teacher I should not base my classroom management on my feeling well or feeling badly; secondly, when conditions change, the students have the automatic reaction of testing the boundaries again to see if they are still there (especially in elementary school). But this is in terms of classroom management. I have found that sometimes it is helpful for my students for me to acknowledge my own fear or my own lack of feeling well so that they know what is going on and can know how to respond to it. However, I’ve found that it’s best if I do it in a way that does not undermine my classroom management–like if I have a really bad headache, I might warn them that I’m going to be frowning more but it does not mean that I am mad at them. Or I might ask them to be kind to me by working very quietly and not talking (note: depending on the class, I’ve found the second type of request to be more risky than the first because then I have to figure out how I will respond if they choose not to be kind).

          When it comes to acknowledging fears, it can definitely be helpful to let them see that we have fears we have to work through as well . . . or that their actions affect us, too =)

  4. Dear Ms Curious,
    I have a young colleague who posts her “We love you, LOVE you” cards from students on a bulletin board at her desk. She is a wonderful, inventive, teacher. I think back to the cards I’ve received over the years froms students, and they say something very different. Mostly they say how much they’ve learned and how grateful they are for what I’ve taught them, often they come a semester or even a year or years after I have taught them. They seem to be remembering and appreciating for the first time as older learners, the hard earned learning they did, sometimes in a long ago grade 9 English class. There aren’t many, and none of the cards says how much they love me. Have to say this has never bothered me. What scares me in teaching? Repeating myself to no purpose. Losing concentration mid-sentence. Not being fresh. Not being techno cool enough.

    • TOT: When I was younger, I got a lot of “WE LOVE YOU!” messages. Now, not so much. Instead, I get “I still remember this thing you taught me” or “You have made me so much more confident” or “I never thought I could like reading until I took your class.” These messages are so much more valuable to me. I don’t need my students to love me – after all, they don’t know me. I DO need to feel that I’m doing my job: teaching them something.

  5. Thank you for your insightful posts. I am about to start teaching after I finish college, and your blog provides real perspective on what may lie ahead. I appreciate your candor in describing what your experiences. I feel reassured that it’s okay to have these apprehensions. Sometimes, trying to be prepared can get in the way of the experience. Thanks again!

  6. This post has identified everything I am struggling with in my teaching. I have the three fears you’ve just mentioned, and I’m currently dealing with them, though in some cases, not yet successfully. Thanks for your blog, it’s come at such a crucial moment for me.

  7. OMG! I relate to this so much! Ive been teaching English as a Second Language for two years, and my lack of confidence, nervousness or feelings of inferiority in class have already cost me 2 fairly good jobs! When I started, I also used to get “love you” notes from my ss, but not anymore. Ever since I started letting my fears, and other traumas control me, I have been unable to give good classes and now I only have frustrated or angry ss. I dont know what to do. I only want to change careers now.

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