My first class meets tomorrow, and I am nervous once again. Even though I have been teaching for more than 15 years. Even though my Monday course is not a new prep. Even though I am confident that I can maintain control of a classroom. Even though I have won teaching awards and received pretty good/excellent student evaluations for years. So, you ask, why am I nervous?
This situation is a little like waiting to go on stage in theater. As an actor, I have prepared, memorized my lines, practiced with the other actors, and created a character I can inhabit for the course of the production. But there is one thing I do not control in this play: the audience. As you other performers and instructors know, different audiences react differently to the same play. A dead audience can feel like the kiss of death, and it means that the actors have to work that much harder (with none of the energy exchange) than if they had a “live” audience. One good laugher–you know the ones, they laugh with an openness and clarity that encourages laughter in others–can improve the whole tenor of the audience, and their absence is keenly missed. Students are much the same, in that the group of them becomes a force, larger and separate from all of them individually. That force can bode good or ill, and it is hard to know from the first how that happens.
Managing the tenor and energy of the classroom can be done in a variety of ways: humor, formality, friendliness, intelligence, structure, laissez faire, facilitating… Most of us hew to our most comfortable approaches, those that tend to work for us most easily, though good teachers know we have to modify that approach to the needs of the class. I am mostly comfortable with a friendly, humor-invoking stance, backed up by a commitment to preparation and structure. That said, if the students are acting out inappropriately, I can become a regimented bitch for a while. Like an audience, you can lose a class at almost any time, though a skilled instructor can usually win them back.
I view pre-class nervousness and anxiety as a gift that provides me with energy and excitement. I need that energy to be engaged with the students, to provide leadership to the class learning experience, and to get my ass out of bed and over to the classroom. That said, I have reviewed my notes and presentation materials, practiced my opening day presentation out loud, and reconsidered my plans several times. This anxiety doesn’t keep up all semester long, thank goodness, thanks to years of teaching. No, the nervousness is just at the beginning of the semester, as I prepare to face a new audience, a new opportunity to teach. Once I have a feel for the audience, and they for me, we strike an easier balance that usually sees me through. And if, for some reason, the class takes an unexpected turn, my experience tells me that I can handle it and adapt to insure better learning.
So, like any performer (even the King!), I am waiting expectantly in the wings for my time on stage, hoping the performance will turn out good for all of us. And, unlike a play or a one-time performance, I have all semester to perfect the show.