Like many people in academe, I suffer from anxiety. My anxiety-management routine has evolved over the years and is now multipronged: I go to therapy, I run, I journal, I read romance novels. I have been in and out of therapy for years, and it has genuinely changed my life for the better. In fact, “Get a good therapist” is the No. 1 piece of advice I give to new graduate students.
As anyone who has been to therapy knows, growth is hard and painful. It has taken me years to get to a healthier mental place, and there is still so much more to do. Indeed, other people have noted that dealing with anxiety sometimes feels like a full-time job, especially in academe.
Teaching is one part of my job that has presented particularly sticky challenges for me. While research, publishing and presenting all have their own anxiety-inducing obstacles, teaching taps into my warped anxiety-brain version of reality and feeds its lies: I am not good enough, everyone sees that I am a bad person, and I am doing more harm than good.
In an attempt to silence such thoughts, I tried to control every aspect of the classroom -- including my wardrobe, my demeanor and my students. Obsessing about whether I should wear glasses or not, if I was smiling too much and whether that student was paying attention made me absolutely miserable.
While my anxiety shaped all my classes, it especially fueled my dread and disdain of teaching large sections. Anyone who has ever taught a large section knows that behavioral issues happen. Not everyone is paying attention. Students may be distracted by laptops, cellphones or their classmates. I, unfortunately, was hyperfocused on those transgressions, personalizing them and wanting to squash them. If everyone wasn’t paying attention, I must not be teaching perfectly -- ergo, I must be doing it terribly. In reality, 85 percent of my students were engaged. But I fixated on the small minority who didn’t seem to care that there was someone at the front of the room trying their hardest to connect with them.
I overprepared, deluding myself that, with enough preparation, I would be able to anticipate any classroom issues and prevent them. I started to resent my students who seemed not to appreciate my hard work. I even dreaded going to class. I received very good evaluations and positive student feedback, but it didn’t matter. My anxiety was in control, and I started to hate teaching. Something had to change -- and the obvious answer was me.
Even though I knew I had anxiety, I wasn’t clear until last year the extent to which it was fueling some of my classroom behaviors and perceptions. My therapist helped me see how my overpreparation, fixation on fleeting classroom moments and misguided desire for perfection did not have to be my reality. In truth, I was a good teacher, and I needed to trust and be kinder to myself.
Bringing Compassion Into the Classroom
Last fall, I was assigned another large section course and decided that I was going to have a different classroom approach. I didn’t want to resent my students. I didn’t want to overwork myself needlessly preparing for classes I have taught multiple times. I wanted students to engage and feel valued.
So on the first day, before going over the syllabus, I told students compassion would be our keyword and ethos during the semester. It would drive my approach to them, and it would also drive what I asked of them. I asked that they not just have compassion for each other but also for themselves and for the instructor team, which included two teaching assistants and me.
By compassion, I mean two things. First, it means that I approach my students from the assumption that they are doing the best they can. Assuming the best in my students positions me to see them as full people with complex needs rather than rivals who I need to discipline. Second, compassion means setting good boundaries by making what is and isn’t OK clear. And I needed to relax. I was doing a good job, my students were connecting and I did not need to spend hours preparing for the next class.
Focusing on compassion isn’t just about my anxiety; it is pedagogically fruitful. I found returning to the theme of compassion throughout the semester helpful in reminding students that we are not enemies on the battlefield but working toward the same goals: their academic success and deeper sociological knowledge. Compassion also isn’t about letting students get away with bad behavior. It means holding students accountable for their missteps while allowing them opportunities to course correct. It means having high standards and helping students achieve them, even when they are not sure they can. Compassion means creating a classroom environment where students feel comfortable sharing with their peers, even when they are not sure they have the right answer.
My students and I still had our missteps and the occasional disciplinary issue, of course, but I would say the semester was a success. Albeit a flawed and biased measure of teaching effectiveness, I received the highest quantitative evaluations of my career.
The biggest difference, however, was how I felt in the classroom and how I approached my students. Focusing on compassion helped me stay in the right mind-set. I didn’t need to yell, overprepare or grow resentful, and I didn’t need to analyze every moment. I needed to do my best every day, but I didn’t need to be perfect. What a relief.