Talking Teaching

August 18, 2010

controlling nervousness

Every now & then I cruise through the statistics for this blog – it’s always interesting to see who’s linked here & of course we do like to know how many visitors we’ve got! Anyway, I noticed that someone had used the search term ‘controlling nervousness’ & I thought that might make a good topic for a post. (I have to add that what follows is purely from my own experience; I’ve never done a course on public speaking or anything like that!)

I remember being intensely nervous when I first started demonstrating in labs as a PhD student; when I began my secondary teaching career (remember, at that point I hadn’t been to training college…); when I became a university academic. And in fact I still have bouts of nerves today, before I front up to a class – made worse if it’s a topic I haven’t taught before, or (even worse!!) if the audience is a group of academics. Mind you, I do think that some level of nervousness is a Good Thing as it helps keep me on my toes (& if I ever lose that feeling it’s probably a signal that I should be looking for another job), but the trick is to control it where possible.

Part of the nervousness, as a new, first-time lecturer, is due to the fact that you may have absolutely no idea what it’s going to be like. You’ll have been a student, so you know all too well what goes on on that side of the lectern :) But to stand in front of that sea of faces, none of whom you know or have any sort of rapport with; that’s something else again. (Especially if, like me, you have memories of how poorly students can behave if they are so inclined.) If you can (& if they’re willing), sit in on a couple of lectures by a more experienced colleague; they’ll have a few tricks that they use & you may decide that some of these will work for you. Or spend time over coffee or a cuppa talking about what might work in the classroom. Personally I believe that sort of mentoring should be a given; all too often you hear of new lecturers effectively being thrust in front of classes with no real idea of what to do apart from their memories of how they were taught themselves. The current trend of expecting/encouraging staff to take some form of qualification in tertiary teaching (as Marcus & Fabiana are doing)  is a Very Good Thing.

For me, having done my teacher training was a boon, because it taught me a lot of crowd control skills, & that helps control the nerves. Things like setting the ground rules for behaviour right up front – these need to be fair, but they also need to be adhered to. From my perspective, I’m the one controlling what goes on in the classroom, & I have a right to be heard & to facilitate learning without other people creating a distraction; simple courtesy, in other words. (Respect, I have to earn.) From the students’ side of things, they have the right to expect that they’ll be similarly treated with courtesy, that their learning environment won’t be disrupted, that their questions will be answered clearly & well. That early teaching experience gave me the confidence that I could set that sort of thing up. Now, these aren’t ground rules that I’ve ever spelled out, & maybe I should do that… But for me, anyway, it’s more a matter of what I do in front of the class. For example, you need a signal to the class that you want them to be quiet when it’s time for the lecture to begin. You could just try talking over them but that’s never appealed to me, & certainly not shouting – that’s just undignified :) But try waiting them out. Put your first slide up on the screen, look at them (really look around the class, & make eye contact), stand there… and wait them out. As I said in the previous post, I find that dimming the lights at the same time is a good signal, & I usually only have to do the waiting bit once or twice with that before they’re all nicely conditioned.)

What about if someone starts talking at the same time that you are? Myself, I just stop. And wait. And look at them. It doesn’t take too long for them to realise that not only am I doing that, but a fair number of the rest of the class are as well :) If they persist, or do it again, then I’d suggest simply asking if they’re having trouble with the material that you’re discussing. If they are, deal with it then (see ‘the sea of blank faces’). If they’re just gossiping, maybe they’d like to take their conversation elsewhere? Having times during the lecture when the students know they’re going to have the chance to discuss things, or making sure they know that it’s fine to ask questions if they don’t understand something, probably reduces any tendency to chat anyway. (I must admit to being really nervous the first time I used a pop quiz in a lecture & told the students that they had a couple of minutes to discuss their answer with their neighbours. I mean, what if they didn’t quiet down again when it was My Turn??? But it all went swimmingly, probably because they were already conditioned to my signal for when it was My Turn.)

But the really important thing, I think, is not to let on that you’re nervous :) You need to project confidence, even if inside you’re trembling in your boots. It’ll be easier if you’re well prepared (notes in order, powerpoint sorted); if you remind yourself – just occasionally; you don’t want to get cocky! – that you’re there because you do know more about the subject than your students. And if you’re prepared to admit that you’ve made a mistake, or to say that you simply don’t know. (Make no mistake – you are guaranteed to have someone ask you a question to which you don’t know the answer.) You want to be a good role model for your students, & making this admission – and showing that you’re prepared to go look for the answer, or to work it out there & then – is all part of that, plus it shows that you’re only human. Because something I am absolutely certain of, is that there’s an awful lot of stuff I don’t know. But I’m always happy to learn :)

Other sources of information

If you’re keen for more on this subject (as I said, I’m no expert: all I’m doing here is sharing some of the things that help me!), then you might like to read about improving lecturing skills on the University of Indiana (Bloomington) website. The University of Queensland’s Teaching & Educational Development Unit has a very good resource on teaching anxiety (as in, anxiety about teaching), which begins by making the key point that “[if] you are prepared to acknowledge fear of lecturing as a totally surmountable challenge, it can be used to work to sharpen your performance as a lecturer.” And the Cambridge University Press offers an excerpt from The Art of Lecturing that also offers many tips on overcoming nervousness & turning it to your advantage. (I must check with our Teaching Development staff to see if they’ve got a copy, as it looks really interesting.) Enjoy :)

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