The teacher learns from teaching in the anxiety zone
For too long I’d wallowed in my routine: first planted at my computer writing, then client manuscripts, eating, gym, tv-ing, sleeping, occasional grocery-getting, and back again. But I couldn’t deny an itch, a subtle pervasive sense of dissatisfaction.
It was time to leave my comfort cocoon.
The idea had been lurking for several months. Having published many writing how-to articles, I knew I had to teach a writing workshop.
So, reluctant warrior to battle, I girded up. On a fresh weekday, with newly washed hair, I packed up my convincibles and forced myself to visit the local library.
The director greeted me cordially and invited me to his office. I pulled out some clips and my books and described possible subjects for a workshop. He seemed duly impressed—and, to my surprise, flattered me into four sessions.
Later, the umbrella 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 dwindled to the first date, my dread mushroomed. Why had I ever consented?
For two weeks, I kept waking at 3:00 a.m.: How to fill ninety minutes? I’ll freeze, I’ll stutter, I’ll read with my head in my binder and spray spittle on nearby students’ iPads.
The last time I’d been in front of live beings was the hoary past when I’d taught freshman English. Uncontrollably nervous, I had to type out my opening sentences: “Hello, my name is Dr. Sterne. I am teaching this class.”
I prepared for the workshop like a madwoman, scribbling notes because I couldn’t fall asleep, inventing exercises (all take up the lagging minutes), typing and retyping scripts, and stuffing my binder with it all. 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 the final script aloud, but I stumbled over my words. Thought I should visit the library conference room in advance, but I couldn’t tear myself away from preparing. Crammed my briefcase with my books, a few magazines I’d published in (establishing credibility, of course), a leather envelope of too many pens and pencils and Post-its, and the bulging binder.
The day of, I couldn’t work or eat. Took my shower and finally, an hour and half early, did a triple swipe of deodorant, got dressed, applied my makeup with hands shaking, and grabbed my briefcase.
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 chairs around a long rectangular table, thanked me, and left. I walked to one end of the table, 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, and prompted by my binder, my jitters vanished. The students asked questions about writing, volunteered their struggles, laughed at my jokes, made their own, and offered advice and opinions.
Afterwards, several students told me how much they enjoyed the session and learned. I floated home.
Although I still couldn’t sleep the night before the other three workshops, they went as well. And I saw what I’d learned.
The Teacher Learns
Surprisingly, especially for the first session, many people showed up, either attracted by my name or, more likely, because the workshop was free. I should have gone to the library beforehand (as I resisted) to look over the room and make backup plans with the director for overflow.
The atmosphere became so friendly that a few people launched into their life-writing stories. Hot on dramatizing their tribulations, they threatened to usurp the sessions. I had to become the assertive leader, gently and firmly interrupting.
I used only about a third of my materials and should have timed myself, as I’d started to. When a few people shuffled their papers, I got the hint. Time to wrap up. I’d wanted to “get through” it all—not necessary.
The students were enormously inquisitive. Their questions got me off into many tangents, and I waxed eloquent. The more I talked, the more impressed I became with myself. I finally realized I wasn’t there to dazzle them but help them, as the publicity promised, to start writing now. My ego had to be locked at home in my writing desk.
After each session, I revised or refined the scripts, incorporating many of the students’ questions, experiences, observations, perspectives, and contrary opinions. These added greater depth and wider application.
When I finally compelled myself out of my cozy routine and took the leap to deliver these workshops, the experience was extremely gratifying. After venturing into my anxiety zone (and vanquishing it), my confidence increased in teaching again, giving more workshops, and writing itself. And I had meat for other how-to pieces!
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!
© 2023 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 Sterne has published over 700 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. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com