“Do Adults Get Nervous Too?”: why our students need honest answers

Years and years ago, too many to feel comfortable admitting, I wrote an essay for my Master’s degree entitled: ‘Sensitising Teacher Education: Incorporating a Focus on Affect’.   The role of affect in language learning was a topic on our syllabus, connected with the psychology of language learning and individual differences, and I was determined to develop this topic but from a different angle, one which got and probably still gets too little attention – the treatment of affect in teacher education.  

The argument I was making in this paper, based on my own experience of training as an English language teacher, and surveying a host of teacher training books and journal articles, was that teacher education was not keeping pace with wider societal trends, particularly in the workplace, where counselling, stress management, team work and negotiation had become commonplace.  Today, you can add the buzz words of mindfulness, mental wellbeing, emotional health, and resilience to the list above.  My thesis was that there was very little evidence of the ‘explicit treatment’ of affect on teacher education programmes and that this needed to change.

 

What is affect?

Affect’ is generally defined in terms of emotions, feelings, moods, dispositions and attitudes which shape behaviour.  And ‘explicit treatment’ for me meant that affect was dealt with on training programmes in such a way as to help trainees identify and address it in the classroom.  Despite affect being a very complicated area of research, with many interconnected variables (think about the complex relationship between anxiety, competitiveness and self-esteem, for example), and, thus, extremely difficult to measure objectively, my position was, and still is, that even initial teacher education programmes, as short as these may be, need to focus on it explicitly. 

Why? Well, I argued that trainees may be able to survive a lesson that has gone horribly wrong, but unless they realise, as the influential Earl Stevick did, that “success depends less on materials, techniques and linguistic analyses, and more on what goes on inside and between people in the classroom”, they may not know how to put it right

 

Understanding affect can help us improve our practice

It’s the putting it right bit that I’m concerned with.  For me this can only happen when we give learners opportunities to share their attitudes towards learning (including the materials, activities and classroom management strategies we use) in a safe and supportive environment, one in which negative affect is not stigmatised but treated as a normal human condition experienced by learners and - here’s the crux - teachers alike.

And this brings me to the title of this post.   This was the question I got asked recently by a Year 9 student during a confident communication workshop I was delivering for his class. Outwardly, this boy gave off an air of confidence. Throughout the workshop he regularly volunteered his opinions, spoke up loudly, made good eye contact and engaged his classmates. But, when it came time to give his solo final speech, he was a full of nerves and reluctance.  And, in the middle of my cajoling and encouraging, he asked: ‘do adults get nervous too?’  

This struck me as such an important question, not because it was overly profound, but because it was so genuine. He wasn’t stalling for time; he was searching my eyes for a sign of empathy, that basic human connection that tells us we are not alone in our fears.  

 

Giving honest answers

And, so I gave him my most honest answer; all the time.  For me, it manifests itself in a poor sleep the night before I go into a school, a death-like grip on the steering wheel as a I drive to my destination, a dry throat right before the students enter the classroom, and a racing pulse in the first few minutes, until I feel I’ve established some sense of rapport with at least a handful of the group.  

And, I’m fairly certain that most teachers - both inexperienced and experienced - have suffered from self-doubt and anxiety at some point in their careers, most commonly when they have to stand and deliver a talk in front of their peers. In fact, I was reading accounts on Twitter of teachers locking themselves in bathrooms and throwing up before presenting at staff meetings and conferences.

 

Building resilience

It’s these kinds of experiences that we need to share with each other on training programmes and in classrooms with our students if we want to build our own and our students’ resilience.  Students and trainees, all of us, need to understand that insecurity and failure are part of growth and development. We all need empathy and reassurance at times and we should all learn how to empathise and reassure others. If teachers and trainers pretend that we are infallible, if we don’t discuss our setbacks and our rebounds, if we don’t model the provision of empathy and reassurance, we are serving to perpetuate a classroom culture in which our learners are afraid to fail or, worse, even try. 

So, do adults get nervous? Hell, yeah, we do. We do because we care. Our learners care too. It’s our job to explore these emotions, to discuss how we can manage them, to share stories of failures and successes, to model empathy and to encourage our learners to embrace and learn from the setbacks they will invariably face.