Back to School Anxiety

New students at the start of school—whether elementary, secondary, or university—are unaware that everyone else is as self conscious as them. Each student sits in class thinking everyone else is probably smarter, more articulate, more skilled. And so they fret, “How am I being perceived?” The especially anxious don’t say anything to reduce the risk of possible embarrassment.

I met with my first year writing students after a faculty panel discussion of the University’s first year reading book, Into the Beautiful North. One Spanish professor on the panel did an excellent job of deconstructing the text for the students. I thought she was too critical of the author, but she’s probably smarter than me. Afterwards, the 500 students were encouraged to ask questions. A young woman with strikingly blonde hair asked a thoughtful question which ended with “you-all”. Some students chuckled softly.

I told my students that was too bad because that phrasing probably had less to do with her intelligence than what part of the country she’s from. And no doubt, while asking the question in front everyone, she was wondering, “How am I being perceived?” I used that negative example to talk about how in our class we’ll laugh together at times, but never at anyone. No one, I explained, has to have their questions, thoughts, or comments perfectly formed before participating. Class discussions are where we practice becoming more articulate.

Then, I suggested we deconstruct the faculty panel that deconstructed the text. I told them that what’s true for students is equally true for faculty—they’re self conscious. Consequently, when there are four Ph.Ds on a panel, odds are they will subconsciously compete to be the most insightful and to sound the most professorial. In especially egregious cases, the ensuing pseudo-intellectualism can be comical. I pointed out to my students that the faculty on the panel would not talk the same way with friends later that night when at a pub or at halftime of a high school football game. That’s because they sat on the stage wondering, “Are my insights as cogent as the others’? Is my vocabulary as impressive? How am I being perceived?”

Everyone is insecure in different ways and in varying degrees. The best schools are those where a majority of teachers create supportive and encouraging classrooms where students are inspired to participate fully before they’ve fully arrived.

5 thoughts on “Back to School Anxiety

  1. Ron, I remember the very first class I took with you. It was a j-term class on diversity in the classroom, and I vividly remember the first five minutes of the first day. You had us analyze who we thought you were, using just what we saw on the outside. I thought at the time that you were really putting yourself out there for us to (potentially) judge you. I remember thinking how secure you must have been to do that. But after you spoke and had us re-evaluate some of our misconceptions, I really think I began to understand that, although it is hard to put yourself out there, sometimes it has to happen. I’ve actually stolen this activity and used it with my students. It’s amazing to me how truly insecure I feel during those few moments, how exposed. But I also find that it breaks some ice and gives us something to start with. And it makes them think about how they judge others based on outward appearance. I have learned a lot about misconceptions and biases from you, and I am truly grateful for that. :)

    • Thanks A LOT Danielle for taking the time (at the busy start of the school year) to share that memory. I appreciate it. I miss having you as a student, but I’m really glad lots of young people get to be your students.

  2. Hey Ron, I love your insight and passion for learning. I was wondering, do other faculty members ever read your blog? Do you ever get any flak? I really appreciate the way you engage the issues. I remember the post you wrote a while back about the way college professors are often exalted over high school teachers. It really made me smile but I wonder if your colleagues felt the same way. Keep up the good work. The world really needs more teachers like you.

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