Naming something is important.
As I stood in front of the sixth grade math class, my vision began to darken. My heartbeat quickened. My face began to feel numb. I was student teaching, right in the middle of a lesson, and all the signs of an impending anxiety attack were coming on. I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t go sit with my back against the wall, and I didn’t know if I could just stop to get my breathing under control.
I sit here now, seven years later, writing about that moment and I cannot for the life of me tell you why that happened right then. It could’ve been the tough group of kids I had who would ask pointed questions designed to stump my naive, student-teacher self, it could have been that my supervisor was coming the next day for her final evaluation that would determine my future. Or it could have been nothing at all.
That’s the thing about anxiety. Sometimes, your response kicks in and, even though you can’t pinpoint the cause and you know it’s irrational, you just can’t stop it.
I don’t quite remember what I did in that moment. I’d like to think I handled it smoothly, with composure, but I probably didn’t.
My experience managing anxiety has been an interesting one. I was always known as ‘high strung’ by my family members, and it was a source of great amusement that I put so much pressure on myself and would “freak out” about such small things. I thought it was normal, laughable even, that I always felt on edge. Weren’t everyone’s cuticles ripped so badly that they bled sometimes? Didn’t everyone get a B- back on a paper and cry hysterically because their chances at a successful future were now ruined?
I didn’t know how detrimental some of the experiences and practices of the educational world could be. I didn’t realize how difficult it was for me to function in that environment. I didn’t realize that what I was experiencing was definitely not funny.
Mental health is coming to the forefront in today’s world. Thankfully, our society has a much different approach to these things than we did even when I was a kid. It’s not shameful or something to be hidden, but rather something we are actively working to erase the stigma from. In an effort to be a part of that movement, I’d like to talk about my own experience as a teacher with anxiety, but also about how my own anxiety has influenced my approach and my practice.
Teaching is emotionally draining work. It takes a toll on each of us, and it’s usually because we’re so invested in our students and their well-being. I tend to be more easily triggered when I’ve stopped paying attention to my own needs, become overly focused on minute pieces of my instruction or lessons or classroom, and when I’ve neglected to take a few moments for myself. A big piece of being there and showing up for our students has to do with taking care of ourselves, and when I’ve been too busy or entrenched to do that, the effects show. I’m definitely back to being on edge, unable to successfully manage small setbacks, and easily overwhelmed. In those moments, I’ve learned that I need to take a step back, sometimes a day to reflect and decompress, before I’m able to be my best self in the classroom again. It’s hard to admit that, especially in education, but there are times when I need to do it.
A big struggle of mine is collaborative relationships with colleagues. My anxiety is worsened by social situations, and I struggle a lot with building those necessary collaborations because of it. I will overanalyze a conversation or phone call or even a question I asked, sometimes to the point of obsession. I recognize that it is unlikely and even unhealthy at times, but it’s difficult to escape the cycle once I’ve started. Putting myself out there is a big struggle, and one I’m still working on. At the end of the day, I’ve found that what helps me is to maintain true to my purpose, my reason for being there and building those relationships, and focus on that. If I’m collaborating for the good of my kids, it seems a lot less intimidating and I can more easily get out of my own head to participate in the conversation.
My practice has evolved for a lot of reasons over the years, but much of how I interact with students and the motivation for my philosophical changes has been born of my own experiences. Recently, I have joined a team of teachers who are revolutionizing assessment and going gradeless. As an educator, this shift from points to real learning is exciting to me, and it’s something I’m working to implement in my classroom. As a student, it would have frightened the hell out of me. There wouldn’t have been clear boundaries, set rules, or a black and white set of points to earn. I would have been freaking out. With that in mind, when I talk about my assessment and grading practices with students, I approach it in a way that helps them understand the purpose. I help them see how valuable it will be, how it will help them focus on growth and progress rather than earning points. I show them how it won’t penalize them for trying something new, for not understanding something (yet), and how it will ultimately put less pressure on them because it isn’t a punitive system. I approach the conversation in a way that would’ve abated the fear of a student like myself, and help them to see the benefit of this practice.
My experience with anxiety in regards to testing and grades has also shaped the way I approach mandated/standardized testing with my students. This may be unpopular, but I do not spend weeks and months doing test preparation with my students. I teach, they learn, we grow. When the test comes, the extent of my preparation is to have a conversation with my classes that is along these lines.
Tomorrow you are going to take our standardized test. Before you get nervous or scared, think about just how much you’ve learned this year. Consider how much you’ve grown as a reader, a writer, a speaker. Think back to where you started this year and how far you’ve come since then. Reflect on that amazing growth. Get a good night’s sleep and eat breakfast in the morning. If you need breakfast, come see me. And remember. This is one test, one piece of data, from one point it time. It does not define you, your intelligence, or your worth. Try your hardest, do your best, and take your time. You got this.
I wish someone would’ve told me that. I wish I would’ve had that in my mind before something I was already panicked about. My kids are the same. They don’t need additional pressure from me to know that this test is important. I didn’t need the additional pressure from my family or my teachers either. I already knew it was a big deal. Even if no one told me, you could feel it in the air. So I want my students to know that they are more than one day, one number and that the growth they’ve made is what we should focus on. They enter the test with a positive attitude, thinking of all they already know.
Navigating anxiety as a teacher is tough, and I definitely don’t have all the answers. I don’t know the right ways to approach certain aspects of it, and I still don’t really know what to do when I’m standing in front of the class and my breathing gets shallow. I do know that I’ve found ways of managing, like creating boundaries and setting aside time for myself after work to work out and ignore my email for an hour. I’ve learned to step away from situations causing me undue stress, and to stop saying yes to everything. I’ve figured out how to plan ahead without planning the entire school year, and to take a step back to enjoy the beautiful learning happening in front of me. Above all, I’ve learned to be authentic about my experience. Because naming something is important.
I am a teacher, and I have anxiety.
I can handle a legitimate crisis, but if I forgot to make copies I might need to use a breathing technique to reassure myself that I will still be ready for class. I can write a unit that empowers student voice and choice, but I’ll teach most of it while picking at my cuticles until I have Frankenstein fingers.
I am a teacher, and I have anxiety.