Overcoming the First Fears: Tips for New Teachers

Every so often a new teacher reaches out to me and asks for advice.  Am I in a position to give it?

Although my own teaching career began many years ago, I by no means feel that I am at the top of my game and have little left to learn. Actually, as the years pass, I grow more amazed at the truth in the saying the more you learn, the less you know. And while I may never feel at the top of my game, I’ve acquired enough confidence to know I can handle almost any situation as a language teacher. That kind of confidence comes from overcoming a set of fears. They include the following.

1. What do I do if I don’t know the answer?

Relax. Don’t panic. Can you think it through and arrive at the answer?  You can enlist the students’ help and try to form a conclusion through discussion. Are any resources readily accessible, such as a learner’s dictionary or a grammar reference book? If you can’t manage to answer the question in class, promise the students to research the question and get back to to them. Consult with colleagues to confirm your knowledge about particularly tricky language points.

2. What do I do if I make a mistake?

Admit it and fix it. If it’s a small mistake, you can smile your thanks and turn it into a game. Give a lucky penny to any student who catches your typos. If you discover you’ve given wrong information, offer students an updated explanation. Explain that you’ve had more time to think and you’d like to present information to make their understanding more accurate. It’s more important to provide quality instruction than to save face.  Learn from any mistakes you make and be sure to study a topic in more detail if you have doubts when you’re teaching it.

3. What do I do if my instruction doesn’t go as planned?

You’ll learn from experience. First, pay attention to your students’ needs. You might have to adjust your learning objectives for the day if students are having difficulty with the material.  Second, pay attention to the time. If you never finish your lesson plan, you’re planning too much, spending too much time on certain tasks, or digressing too often. If you have too much time to kill at the end of every lesson, you might not be maximizing the potential of your materials. Have some short activities ready to go for when you have a little extra time. You might keep a collection of jokes or poems that can be read quickly and easily, so you can send students out the door with a lasting thought in English. In the back of your mind, store a few quick games that can help students review vocabulary and grammar recently learned.

4. What if students don’t like me?

Hopefully, if your desire to teach is genuine and you do your best to establish a supportive atmosphere, students will respond positively to you. However, no teacher is going to be everyone’s favorite. Accept this. Our role is that of a teacher, not a rock star. I encourage new teachers to read about the likability factor and remember my words: “Teach from your heart as much as from your brain. Competent teaching combined with genuine passion is powerful. At the very least, students will respect you if not like you.” (From Part Two of “The Likability Factor”)

5. Is this the right profession for me?

Only you can answer this, but don’t throw in the towel just because you had one bad day.  Remember what it was that originally drew you to the profession. Find an analogy for teaching (like my comparison of teaching to dancing) and explore it.  Any professional should be able to form a clear picture of what the job is all about. That vision should excite you and motivate you.

If any of you would like to add to the list of fears or to my advice for dealing with the teaching jitters, feel free to post a comment!

17 Comments Add yours

  1. Isabel says:

    🙂 than you very much Jennifer…

    1. Thank you for reading the post.🙂

  2. This is Day 2. No one earned a lucky penny on Day 1! I had two small typos that I didn’t notice until today. All fixed now. (I hope.)

  3. sultan23c says:

    Very very Important and interesting Tips! You’re so great Jennifer!
    These are psychological issues. Fear is one of the most primal human emotions, consisting of both a physiological and an emotional response. Its experienced uniquely by everyone. Teachers life is exciting, but it can also be very pressured and stressful. Students who enjoy you as a person are also more likely to enjoy your class. ( What if students don’t like …..) You shouldn’t worry about getting your students to like you. Overcoming fear of teaching is not about simply being tough. It is about preparation, confidence and effective communication skills.
    Thanks Jennifer!

    1. Hi Sultan,

      Yes, preparation is key. But you also just have to accept that to a degree you learn as you go…in any job. If you wait until you think you know everything, it might be a very long wait!

      Joking aside, I thank you for your insights. May we all learn to let go of the fears that hold us back from trying and doing our best.

      Regards,
      Jennifer

      1. sultan23c says:

        I want to say that release yourself from the notion that your students need to like you, you can teach better if you don’t care whether or not your students like you, it is a short method. Thanks for reply Jennifer!

  4. Harvey says:

    Very insightful. If only I had stumbled upon this post during the budding stages of my teaching career!

    I couldn’t agree more with point #3; it wasn’t until recently that it dawned on me that, just like a parent, I’m not here to be their friend but rather for them to LEARN, which, at time, can be fun. Once that seeded that was planted in me, I realized how much more focused I was and most of my anxieties about constantly entertaining them in class just seemed to melt away.

    Thanks again, Jennifer!

    1. Hello Harvey,

      I’m sure we all have words of wisdom for the people we were at the start of our careers. If only there were a telephone connecting us to ourselves one or two decades ago. What would we say? More important, would our younger counterparts listen to us?

      Here’s to the teachers we’ve worked to become, and to the teachers we’re still striving to be! Cheers!

      Jennifer

  5. Mel says:

    Great tips, Jennifer! I’d like to add a few things to the discussion–

    1) Be authentic. Don’t try too hard to impress your students, or think that you have to be ‘this’ or ‘that.’ Be yourself, and you will feel comfortable, teach with ease, and connect with your students.

    2) Be consistent. Take good notes. If you have even five minutes after class to reflect on your teaching, do it. Take a look at your lesson plan and jot down what worked well and what flopped. What would you change next time? What do you need to come back to and review during the next class? Keep a paper trail on everything – attendance, meetings, conversations. Be organized to a fault. Be consistent with your students – mean what you say, and follow through on it. Don’t make rules and then break them. If you have “No Exceptions,” then it needs to mean that — always. Be fair, be firm, be consistent, and your students will respect you.

    3) Be realistic. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Not everything will go perfectly, or even how you expect (even when you are a seasoned veteran). It doesn’t make you a bad teacher. Take good care of yourself, and make sure you schedule in some time to relax and practice good self-care. Teaching gets easier with time. It’s that whole “automaticity” thing – you will feel clumsy at first, but it gets more graceful with time.

    1. Thank you for adding some more depth to the discussion, Mel. I like the suggestion to make time to reflect. I also appreciate your mention of the “good self-care” factor. I had to learn about that from experience. I placed emphasis on the relationship between taking care of yourself and meeting your students’ needs in the final lines of a Teacher’s Pledge that I wrote some time ago.🙂 http://www.englishwithjennifer.com/pledge.html
      Best wishes!

  6. Hi there , I m commenting you listed here because I fully agree in what you wrote
    in this post! Is just pure reality! I m a fan of your blog site now since a number of
    and I want I could browse it a lot more often but you know my perform normally takes a
    good deal of my time ! I m sorry for my english I hope you forgive me
    !

    1. Thank you for writing. I appreciate the support.
      Best wishes to you!

  7. I am about to start teaching English in Panama, and this post was just what I needed to help reduce my anxiety. Thank you so much! I recently found your videos online, and they have been a big help to me so far. A lot of my anxiety revolves around the fact that the students registered for the class are all at different levels, and I don’t have a tool to quickly assess their needs. It is for a short-term intensive program, so there is a lot of pressure to choose just the most essential topics to present. I want to focus mainly on pronunciation, speaking, and listening skills, but I also need to teach some basic writing skills (mainly to how to write clear and complete sentences for documentation in a business setting). Do you know of any assessment tools I could use to assess their writing skills? I would appreciate any suggestions. In any case, thanks again for your post. I’m so glad I found your website and blog. Take care.🙂

    1. Hello!
      I’m so glad this post is helping new teachers. Please read through all the comments. Other teachers have advice to give as well.

      1. Here’s a link to a post that might apply to your situation. It has tips for teaching large classes. Although you may not be dealing with a large group, you said the students would be at different levels. In the post, there are some suggestions for dealing with mixed levels.
      https://englishwithjennifer.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/how-to-teach-large-classes-mission-impossible/

      2. If you’re not working with a textbook series, you might search online for a rubric to assess writing. Get ideas from reputable sites, like Departments of Education in various U.S. states.
      Here’s just one example: http://wvde.state.wv.us/teach21/writingrubrics/
      You can also do a search for a business writing rubric. Scanning through others’ rubrics, you’ll begin to understand how to form your own.
      Good luck!

  8. Hi Jennifer, this is Jean from Iquique, Chile. Some time ago I worked at a university in the English Dept. I was the guide teacher for students who were about to become teachers. I could see my students’ anxiety the first day they were in charge of a class and it is everything you mention but most important of all, they are working in a profession which is the most beautiful career in the whole world. Keep telling your students how fantastic is to teach and how they can change their kids’ world in the classroom.

    Best regards,

    Jean Guicharrousse
    jguicharrousse@gmail.com

    1. I very much agree, Jean. It’s wonderful to be a teacher. I have to be careful because I think I actually write about how wonderful our profession is too often! What can I say? When you love something, you want to talk about it!

      Here are just a few of my “happy to teach” posts:
      https://englishwithjennifer.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/the-hidden-wow-of-teaching/
      https://englishwithjennifer.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/what-are-you-thankful-for/
      https://englishwithjennifer.wordpress.com/2009/07/13/honk-if-youre-happy-why-do-you-love-to-teach/
      https://englishwithjennifer.wordpress.com/2009/05/22/teaching-is-like-tahitian-dancing/

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