Are you having back to school nightmares? I always did, every year I was in the classroom. It was awful during my first few years–I barely slept in the weeks leading up to the first day. And the year I transferred from PreK to third grade I thought I had insomnia, it was so bad. I was so afraid that I wouldn’t know how to handle the “big kids” and they wouldn’t listen to me.
I assumed it would get better as I gained more experience, but I never did sleep well before the first day of school. There were just too many unknowns: What if my class list doubled and I didn’t have enough seats and supplies for everyone? What if I don’t send a kid to the right place at dismissal and he ends up going home with someone that isn’t supposed to take him? What if a student refuses to follow directions and openly disrespects me in front of the class? The list of things that could go wrong was pretty endless.
I’ve talked to a lot of other teachers about this, and I’m here to tell you, this kind of stuff is pretty normal. Not everyone experiences it, but most us do, and that includes veteran teachers. The first day jitters are real, and most teachers have butterflies the night before.
I think it’s okay to embrace that a little bit: give yourself a set amount of time to do some productive worrying. Go ahead and think through all those little things that could go wrong, and envision yourself thinking on your feet and handling it well. Plan out how you might respond to some of these challenges. The more prepared you feel, the less stressed you’ll be, and the easier it will be to turn your mind off and rest.
But the best advice I can give is for you to shift your thinking to a different line of questions.
When the self-doubt and “what if” questions pop into your mind, practice reframing them so that they are no longer fears (or reflections of your insecurity), but instead are calls to action.
Instead of: “What if no one likes me or is engaged in my lesson?”
Ask: “How can I make my first week of school so memorable that every student wants to come to class?”
Now instead of worrying about all the things that could wrong or how you would RE-act when there’s a problem, you’re being PRO-active, and thinking in advance: How can I make the first week of school experience memorable and engaging for kids?
Instead of: “How can I be confident when I don’t have enough experience and I’m not nearly as good as some of my colleagues?”
Ask: “What would I be doing or how would I behave if I were the best teacher for this particular job?”
Really think that through–if you were the best in the world at your particular position, what would you do first thing in the morning? What would you wear? What would you do in your spare time? What would you read? Who would you hang out with? How would you take care of yourself and make sure you had balance in your life?”
Then be that teacher. Because the teacher you’ve just envisioned is your best self. Figure out the first step you need to take to be more like that teacher–more like your best self, the best in the world at this teaching job. You’re turning that unanswerable question that’s full of self-doubt into a call to action.
Instead of: “Why don’t the kids love my class? Why is it taking so long to build relationships? Why don’t they respect me?”
Ask: “How can I increase the quality of a student’s life today?”
This shifts your focus away from how you are perceived and onto how you can take action to make a positive impact. It keeps you from worrying about what results you think you “should” be getting and the type of opinion students have of you, and instead keeps you focused on how you can meet students’ needs.
Here’s why I can PROMISE you this works…
Now this might all sound a little pie-in-the-sky, but it’s the technique I used to overcome my fear of teaching teachers and doing public speaking. Unfortunately I did not learn how to reframe these fears while I was in the classroom, so once I moved into instructional coaching and doing professional development, the same insecurities were still following me around. And in fact they were worse, because speaking to a roomful of strangers who are grown adults was far more terrifying for me than trying to develop a rapport with my students.
I wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before giving a keynote or doing a workshop, because I couldn’t stop thinking about how I would be perceived. I’d worry, “What if they think I’m boring? What if this is all stuff they already know? What if they’re not interested? What if they’d rather be basically anywhere else besides listening to me?” That’s not so far off from back-to-school teacher jitters, right?
One day in a moment of desperation, I came to this realization: “I can’t control what they think and if they like me. Some of them just won’t, no matter what. But a lot of them will really like me. If I can just find one person who looks like they’re really engaged and excited to be listening to me, I think I can get through it.”
I was no longer hoping to be the World’s Best Presenter Who Blows Everyone Away With Her Amazing Insights and Incomparable Delivery Style. I was just going to go in there, do my best, and look for the person in the room that I was really helping.
And to my amazement, I instantly felt less stressed. Because I realized in that moment, it wasn’t about me at all. It was about them: my students, my audience, my listeners. It was about serving them. And the more I thought about their needs, and being in tune with them, the less I worried about whether my outfit projected the right message or whether they’d laugh at my jokes.
From that day forward, every time I speak in front of a group, I practice staying focused on how I can meet needs and make connections. And I say PRACTICE staying focused, because this is not something that comes naturally to me: my nature is to be introverted and self-conscious and compare myself to others. But I practice shifting my perspective here.
Before I enter the room, I tell myself,
One person in this room is going to have his or her entire life changed as a result of our connection. Some aspect of that person’s life will never be the same as a result of some insight I gave or new belief or skill I taught. I am going to find that person and build that connection with him or her, and let the energy that comes from that interaction give me the motivation to keep reaching for the others and trying to help them have that same experience, too.
You can use this same process in your classroom, because you know what? One person in that room is going to have their whole world changed because of YOU. One person is going to look up to you and admire you and reflect back on your work with gratitude forever.
Find the person in your classroom who has that potential, who smiles back at you and laughs at your jokes and looks engaged when you’re talking. When you get flustered, look back to that person. That will give you the courage to keep working with the others who are less enthusiastic or harder to win over.
Now here’s the really awesome part: there’s almost always more than one person whose life is going to be forever changed for the better by you. If you teach elementary school especially, that might even be true for the majority of your students, who will adore you and love learning with you.
But it’s not about being liked or popular, and it’s not about being their friend. That’s a lovely side result but not the end goal. The goal is about meeting other people’s needs. As the leader of the classroom, you are there to focus on what kids needs and empower them. Always stay focused on that rather than trying to make sure they like you.
Focus on helping kids and being in tune with THEIR needs rather than trying to figure out what they think about you and making them like you.
When you make this practice a habit, you’ll find yourself not only less stressed about your connections with students, but you’ll actually be building better relationships that are centered on what kids need from you.
When you get stuck on your own insecurities, focus less on believing in yourself and more on believing in your kids. That’s what will empower you to transform lives.
This post is based on an episode from my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 15-20 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead.