Tonight is the first session of a new class I’m teaching. At this stage in my career, I’ve been in this situation over 100 times. Here’s a confession: I am still nervous.
I’m not afraid anymore. I am confident things will go well enough. But I am nervous about making sure I do my job well, that the students find my class engaging and rigorous, and that I set the tone well for the rest of the semester. I want to learn all my students names as quickly as possible, and I want them to leave the class inspired to learn as much as they can and to perform in this course to the utmost of their ability. This is
no easy feat, and the fact that I’ve been able to do it in the past doesn’t actually make it easier. Maybe I’ve lost it since then. Tonight could go very badly and make the rest of the semester difficult. Maybe I’m getting too complacent about all this. Maybe I’m out of energy. Maybe my patience is gone. Maybe I’m bored. Maybe the students won’t think I’m credible anymore.
But guess what? The fact that I’m still nervous about the first class is a good sign that I’m as engaged and energized as ever. Right now, my nervousness is my friend.
Making Nervousness Your Ally
I’m talking about positive nervousness: the kind that keeps you on your toes, keeps you caring. I’m not talking about anxiety, which can be paralyzing, defeating. That’s different, and needs a post of its own. But nervousness is an important tool for teachers. Learning to use nervousness–to channel the energy into improving your performance–is energizing.
Feel your nervousness. It gives you strength. It makes you powerful. (Yes, I’m paraphrasing the evil Emperor from Stars Wars.) As long as you embrace your nerves, rather than run from them, you’ll do well.
Here are some tips for making nervousness your friend:
- Don’t ignore or run from your nerves.
- Don’t tamp nervousness down by retreating into your latest binge-watch.
- Don’t use nervousness to eat more–or worse, drink more.
- Don’t expend all of your nervousness by talking about it to other people.
- Don’t simply complete other projects and jobs to distract yourself from your nervousness. (Many teachers’ houses are never cleaner than the day before a new class starts!)
- Do feel your nerves. Admit you’re nervous. You care. Accept it. It’s a good thing.
- Write a list of the things you are most nervous about. Let your fantasies run wild. Be emotional. Are you scared of a whole-class mutiny? Yawning students? Looking disorganized? Let yourself feel that nervousness as you think about it.
- Then let your logical side take over. Much of what you’ve written may be completely unlikely or out of your control. But, add to your list a second column in which you list the things you can do to prevent the realistic fears from becoming a reality.
- Then use your energy to complete one, fairly simple thing on your second list. You’ll feel so good about accomplishing that, you’l begin to feel your nerves slowly change to enthusiasm.
- Then work on more of the things on your second list. Accomplishing them will feel great and will reduce any true reason you have for being nervous.
Remember: You Have a Nervous System
There’s a reason why you should remember that you have a “nervous system.” It’s not going away. Nerves will always be a part of you and of your success. Without nerves–if we couldn’t feel pain–we’d all be long dead. So instead of pushing your nerves away, embrace them.
Good teachers all feel at least some nervousness. They expect it, like an old friend, and they use it to energize their teaching and to get their students excited about learning. When we stop feeling opening-day nerves, perhaps that’s the time to retire. Till then, rock on!