I began writing this a couple of weeks ago, nearly finished, then ran out of time and have been altogether too busy to finish it until now.
This evening I will begin a new job providing additional English tuition to high school students in years nine and ten. I’ve spent the last few days doing a lot of reading and thinking in preparation, and I feel as though I am now ready to enter the classroom and give a good lesson. This doesn’t mean, however, to put it colloquially, that I’m not absolutely shitting myself.
Teaching might seem a strange choice of occupation for an introvert, and I often wonder why on earth I would choose to put myself through something so utterly nerve-wracking. In most jobs there is someone on hand to assist or give advice or to take over in the initial stages if there is some uncertainty about a task or procedure. In an office I could turn to my colleague and ask a question. In a call-centre, I can put my customer on hold, or escalate the call to a manager. Behind a counter, I could say “just a minute” and get some assistance. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that in most jobs there is someone on hand to guide one where necessary until one is fully confident of doing the job correctly. Not so, however, with teaching.
My first real experience of teaching, not including training new staff on a bar or usurping university tutorials, was back in 2006 when my old friend Chris hired me as co-lecturer for his Cambridge summer school on South African literature. Having recently returned to Cambridge after two and a half years back in Australia, I was in dire need of gainful employment – working in a pub and struggling to find a proper job. Chris was in dire need of a reduction in his workload and the solution of him hiring me dawned on us one afternoon when having a beer in Kings College.
I had not taught South African literature before, but I’d read a lot of J. M. Coetzee and had spent years at Cambridge talking with Chris about his work in sub-Saharan African and post-colonial literature. I’d also studied a lot of literature and literary theory both in my undergraduate degree and Masters in creative writing, so I felt confident I’d be able to interpret and present the material, once I’d read it and familiarised myself with it. Herein, I learned early on one of the great lessons of teaching. So long as you are one step ahead of the students, everything will be fine, for you already know more than they do about the subject. Still, I was terrifically nervous and apprehensive, largely because these students were clever kids from California, and I was afraid that they might just possibly be one step ahead of me.
Ultimately, I did just fine, but I was awfully nervous in the classroom and spent the whole time sweating and fretting, fearful of the pauses in discussion and desperately thinking about where to go next. The first time I took the class by myself, I was so on edge that one of the students asked me “Are you always this nervous?” Despite highlighting my predicament, this comment actually helped me to relax, as I could thus get it off my chest that I have a terribly nervous disposition and tend to feel rattled when expected to perform in front of strangers. Once I get comfortable with them, however, I become very gregarious and switched into a far more extroverted, performative mode. I knew this to be the case with me socially, but at the time I didn’t know it to be so when teaching. I hoped then that things would pan out in this fashion, and was thus very pleased when they finally did. By the time the course was finished, I was far more relaxed and confident in my interactions with the students.
A couple of months after returning to Sydney in 2008, I got a job teaching English as a second language with a private college in the city. The school, where I am still teaching as one of three current jobs (!) uses the Callan Method, which, for better or for worse, is a method based almost entirely on speaking, as opposed to study and technical instruction. In a nutshell, the teachers ask students questions, then prompt them through the answers; the philosophy of the method being that the more students speak and make mistakes, they will not only be better at pronouncing words correctly, but will also lose their fear of speaking and making mistakes. That’s all very well, provided they don’t merely switch off and parrot the teacher, without actually thinking about the content of their answers.
Over the last four years, I’ve seen some students really benefit from this style, and others not at all. It’s difficult to pin down whether or not the method or the students’ application is to blame, but I suspect it’s a combination of both. The Callan Method is certainly dated in its approach and techniques, and the books are in desperate need of modernisation, but the rote nature of the speaking seems to suit many of our largely Japanese and Korean students, who want as much speaking practice as possible and who often prefer a more drill-based teaching style.
So it was that, after a week of training, I was sent into the classroom, unsupervised, to teach my first lesson. It’s difficult to describe the intensity of fear and nervousness that I felt upon entering, but the expression “my bowels turned to water”, probably best sums it up. Fortunately, there were no mishaps on that front, but I lost several kilos that week through anxiety, which suppressed my appetite and, quite literally, gave me diarrhoea. The anxiety was largely due to fear of not being able to answer a question authoritatively and explain things adequately. I was also worried that I would stumble and lack the flow that the experienced teachers had, who were more familiar with the material. When I feel compromised in front of a group of people, and am put on the spot, I tend to flush bright red and sweat a lot, and even the smallest error or uncertainty can bring this on.
It took a long time for me to adjust to teaching in this new job. I was nervous for weeks, indeed, months, largely because the job continually presented new challenges. Trying to explain what an auxiliary verb is to a person with next to no English is a difficult task. Try explaining the idea of a “cause worth dying for” to someone with a very limited vocabulary, and you might see what I mean. There were, quite literally, thousands of such brain-bending moments, and even after I’d mastered the art of explaining a particular concept, grammar rule or idiom, there would always be slow students who never actually got it at all. It took months to get used to exactly what words I could deploy in explaining things, according to their level of vocabulary, and some words are not easy to explain. Take “happen” for example. It seems innocuous enough, but its best synonym is either “to occur,” or the phrasal verb “to take place”, and really, it’s not worth going there at a beginner level. Of course, the best resort is demonstration, as is the case with most words and situations, but this then requires the correct performance, an act of theatre, and a responsive audience with a good faculty for interpreting such a performance.
It took me at least six months, possibly as long as a year, before I lost all fear of entering the classroom. Only then did I feel completely and utterly confident that I could explain, via language, dance, theatre, diagram, graph or sheer fluke, everything I needed to explain. For the last few years I’ve had no qualms whatsoever about teaching any of the material, with the exception of a few real mongrel words like “abstract”, “justice”, “even”, “despite” and the like. Thank the mother of invention for electronic dictionaries.
And so, just last week, I had a successful interview and got another teaching job. This was a great score in that they pay four times more than my other school and the material is far more interesting – poetry, narrative theory etc. I must say, I’m very impressed by the difficulty of the material with which these year nine and year ten students are presented. It’s so long ago since I was in high school, that I find it almost impossible to remember the nature of the curriculum at that age, but I don’t recall it being quite so academic in its language, nor pitched so high.
My nerves don’t come from fear of not being able to handle the material, though that is a small component, but more from a fear of the technicalities of classroom procedure: the timing of the delivery of the material in our textbooks, the use of the projectors and various databases of resources, and the method of teaching itself. Much of my anxiety also derives from the fact that I will be teaching teenagers, whereas I’m used to teaching young adults, mostly in their twenties. I suspect it will take some time to adapt to their level of vocabulary and contextual understanding of the world, history, and literature. Also, I am used to students who have chosen to be there, whereas most of my students will be there because they are struggling with English and their parents have sent them. Having said that, from my class observations so far, the students seem generally to be a good bunch of kids who respond well to kindness and attention.
Ultimately, however, my biggest fear is that I will look nervous and lack confidence in both my delivery and my handling of the students. I know from four years of teaching experience that I will be absolutely fine once I’ve done this a couple of times. I doubt I will suffer for as long as I did when I started teaching The Callan Method, and it is really the first lesson that I fear the most. Indeed, on Saturday night, I became so overwhelmed with fear of the moment when I first enter the classroom that I felt short of breath and got a raging headache from the cold that gripped my body as the blood drained away. I have, for the last few days, been fluctuating between this cold fear and hot flushes. The worst case scenario is to enter the room and either faint or completely seize up and not know what to say or do. It would be a terrible way to begin a new job and my relationship with the students, whom I will have all term, would suffer.
There are, of course, many ways I can try to reassure myself. I have a lot of teaching experience now, I’m an adult, and school children generally expect authority and professionalism from teachers. They will likely be more afraid of me! It’s also true that I have not only prepared extensively for these particular lessons, but I have, in effect, been preparing for them for almost twenty years. I know, and I say this not in a boastful way, that I generally do things well when I really apply myself to the task, so I ought to be confident that I will also nail this job. Yet, the thing about fear and anxiety is that it is not rational, and no amount of reassurance will stop the heart and mind from quivering with fear of failure. Were it any other job or situation where I could ask for assistance, then I might be less fearful, yet the thing with teaching is that one does it alone and is expected to have complete command of the situation.
Either way, whilst I’m sure it will all go well, I suspect I’ll be shedding a few more kilos on the job. I hope I can summon the confidence with which I now stride around the classroom in my other teaching role, where no one would suspect that I was nervous in the slightest. I do very much enjoy teaching, yet it is, perhaps, an odd choice of profession for someone whose worst fear is to stand in front of a group of strangers and perform.
By way of a post-script, I’m pleased to report that not only did I not faint, but my first two classes went off perfectly well, and sure enough, the confidence I have from my previous teaching experience, came flooding back as soon as I’d gotten through the first, slightly awkward five minutes. After my second week, I now have no fear of teaching these classes at all and am both enjoying the job and looking forward to presenting the material in the courses. Woot!