Learning from teaching in the anxiety zone
I knew I had to do it. For too long I’d sat planted in front of my computer and wallowed in my old-quilt routine: writing, eating, tv-ing, sleeping, client manuscripts, gym, occasional grocery stocking, writing, eating, clients, tv-ing, sleeping. But I couldn’t deny that edge of vague dissatisfaction.
What do the gurus say? Stretch yourself, challenge yourself, get out of your comfort cocoon. It was time to get out and teach a writing workshop.
One day, with a slightly lighter client load and newly washed hair, I forced myself to visit the local library. Showing the director some clips and my books, l described a few possible subjects. He gratefully accepted my offer of a workshop and flattered me into four sessions. We agreed to be in touch about titles.
The title that floated into my mind eerily reflected my mental state: “No More Excuses.” To attract students the subhead promised “Start Writing Now.”
As the days to the first date dwindled, my dread mushroomed. Why had I ever consented?
For two weeks, terrible scenarios woke me at 3:00 a.m.: How will I fill ninety minutes? I’ll stare through paralyzing silences, I’ll freeze, I’ll stutter, I’ll read with my head stuck in my binder. I’ll spray spittle on nearby students’ iPads. Could I request a teleprompter?
The last time I’d stood, or sat, in front of live beings was in the hoary past when I’d taught freshman English. (It didn’t count that since then I’d delivered a webinar, reading the slides safely hidden at my screen.) For that long-ago college course, I was so nervous I had to type out and read my first day’s intro: “Hello, my name is Dr. Sterne. I am teaching this class.”
My workshops had been announced on the library’s website, so I couldn’t bolt. I inched up on the first session and prepared like a fiend. Overprepared, and stuffed my binder with all the topic notes and exercises. Got my clothes ready a week in advance, polished my semi-heels, took my slacks to the cleaner, washed a shirt, and unearthed my iron, which I hadn’t touched in three years. Tried to time myself and read aloud, but I stumbled all over my words. Thought I should visit the library room in advance, but I couldn’t tear myself away from the preparation.
The night before, I packed my briefcase and couldn’t sleep. The day of, couldn’t work or eat. Took my shower and finally, an hour and half early, did a triple swipe of deodorant, pulled on my slacks, buttoned my newly-smooth blouse, wiggled into my semi-heels, and applied my makeup, hands shaking.
When I arrived at the library, the director greeted me and shook my icy hand, pretending not to notice. He led me to a large room with high ceilings. Chairs and tables were arranged in a rectangle, and he motioned me to the head of this table and left. I stared out at the empty room, opened my briefcase, and laid out my materials. Would anyone come?
Miraculously, people straggled in. A few minutes after the appointed hour, I looked around at the faces, faked a smile, and began.
Despite my chattering teeth, as each student smiled back I started talking. To my astonishment, after the first four seconds I warmed to my subjects and, prompted by my binder, forgot all my nightmarish jitters. The students responded: they asked questions about writing, volunteered their own struggles, laughed at my jokes, made their own, and offered advice and opinions to each other.
Afterwards, several students thanked me and said how much they enjoyed the session and learned. I floated home on the roof of the car.
Although I still couldn’t sleep the night before the other three workshops, they went as well. Yes, each time I overprepared, but that was the only way I could corral my anxieties. So what if they saw my binder? They came because they wanted to know what was in it. I discovered a bonus—developed some good material for later use.
The Teacher Learns
These workshops taught me several things. Surprisingly, especially for the first session, a great many people showed up, either attracted by my name or, more likely, because the workshop was free. It took a while to find chairs for everyone and ate into the time. I should have gone to the library beforehand, looked over the designated room, and reviewed backup plans with the director for overflow.
I used only about a third of my materials and should have clocked myself rehearsing the introductory mini-lectures. When a few people shuffled their papers and shifted in their seats, I realized it was time to wrap up. I’d prepared so much that I wanted to “get through” it all.
The atmosphere became friendly and nonjudgmental, comfortable enough that some of the participants launched into their life-writing stories. A couple of times, hot on dramatizing their tribulations, students threatened to take over the sessions. I had to become a firm leader.
The students were eager and enormously inquisitive. Their questions got me off into all kinds of other things, and I waxed eloquent. The more I talked, the more impressed I was with how much I knew and remembered from my writing experience. I finally realized that I wasn’t there to dazzle them but to help them, as the publicity promised, to start writing now, with no more excuses. My ego had to be locked at home in my writing desk.
The “stretch” of leading these workshops and compelling myself out of my cozy routine was extremely gratifying. Venturing into my anxiety zone also increased my confidence in teaching again, giving workshops, and writing itself.
The tremors recurred, but my fears quieted down and became manageable. The teacher learned much from the teaching. After each session, I revised or refined my materials and incorporated a lot of the students’ experiences, observations, questions, answers, perspectives, and contrary opinions.
I must have done something right. The library director invited me back for another three workshops. Uh uh—only four weeks to the first! Gotta go prepare!
© 2018 Noelle Sterne
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com
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