Classroom as Microcosm

Siobhan Curious on Open Salon
FEBRUARY 27, 2012 10:11AM

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

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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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