Faculty Focus


Start-Up Anxiety: Professor Shares His Fears as a New Semester Begins

It is 6:00 a.m., Tuesday, August 28. My first day of class is this Thursday. It’s the end of summer, and once again, I am nervous about teaching. I just woke up from a bad dream. I was standing in front of a new class, totally unprepared. I think I had my clothes on, but there was nothing—I mean nothing—in my head.

Now I’m wide awake and trying to think through what I will do on the first day—actually, the first couple of days. My head has my stomach going. Or is it the other way around? Will I forget all I’ve learned about teaching, my content, and everything else that holds a class together? The 40 students who have signed up for the class will be expecting me to teach. If I do not come up with something interesting or demanding or commanding, they will drift away—either mentally or physically—and I will have failed.

I have often said to my friends who don’t teach that the week before fall classes begin is a tough time for me. The students are coming back and the campus is abuzz. They are moving into the residence halls, meeting new people, and getting reading to start a new year. They are all revved up. It’s like a party—actually, in many places, it is a party just before classes, and then the work of the semester starts.

As for what my job is, let me share the options I find myself considering:

  • Have them like me
  • Have them think I like them
  • Have them think I am funny
  • Have them think I know what I am doing so they will learn
  • Have them fear me because I know what will be on the exams and they do not
  • Not bother myself about what they think at all and just lecture

Emotions aside, I think my real job at the start of a class is to help the students relax so they can learn and see if I can get them to buy into how I approach the class. They have chosen to take it. For a few, it is required; but for three-quarters, it’s an elective. Perhaps they’ve opted to take it because they’ve heard good things about the course. Maybe they’re smitten by the title “Introduction to Environmental Studies & Agriscience.” More likely, they have heard that I feed them or that I don’t give exams. They will find out that the course requires them to work. Right off the bat, they’ll be writing about the assigned readings and the connections they see between those readings and their experiences.

Here is the kicker: It is the end of a wonderful summer for me. I have been doing some research and writing and spending time with my family. I haven’t been thinking about my knowledge of the big topics that we tackle in this course—energy, water, population growth, and environmental protection—or about creativity and how cooperation beats competition in learning. I’m even more concerned (afraid is probably more accurate) that I’ve lost my touch with groups—I won’t be able to get these new groups of students to interact constructively.

I’m not doing very well with this at home. This week I’ve heard myself yelling at my kids. And I see how ineffective that approach is. Maybe I have lost my touch—maybe I can’t teach in a friendly way anymore. Maybe I’ll have to lock into just plain lectures and act like a sergeant of knowledge.

I want my classes to be fun—places where students receive good information and real insights that slide down easily. I want my students to grow and see how learning can be connected to things they already know. I want them to be creative and find a piece of themselves in the readings I have selected. Is there a textbook that tells teachers how to do this?

The scariest part for me, despite my best intentions, is that I am not an extrovert. I can’t just tell myself that I’m ready, that I’m looking forward to class, that I can do this, that it will be easy, and that everything I need to know will come to me the moment class begins. I am way too cautious and too much of an introvert to feel that way two days out. So I wake up early and try to ease my twisted stomach by jotting down some planning notes for the first couple of days. At this point I can’t see beyond them, and so I turn to writing about my pre-semester anxieties in the hope that I might sleep better. It doesn’t help, but it does rev me up some more. So maybe I am getting ready. Maybe I can make it happen. I’ve got two days left to worry and wonder.

Dr. Peter Kakela is a professor at Michigan State University.

Reprinted from Start-Up Anxiety The Teaching Professor, 26.9 (2012): 5,6.