The Anxiety and Joy Experienced by Teachers

Jun 06, 2024

“It’s just a dream,” the teacher whispered to themselves.

But it wasn't just a dream. It was a nightmare – the same recurring nightmare they had every August for well over a decade.

They found themselves in a classroom, attempting to address the class, but it was like their voice was stuck on mute. Directions were impossible to give, their lips moved but their voice was trapped. The room loomed massive and bare. The classroom walls crumbled and cracked. Meanwhile, students were clamoring on tables, shouting across the room. Some hurled items off the bookshelf. The principal walked in, holding a clipboard, shaking his head in disapproval of their perceived incompetence. He scrawled across his page, Minimally Effective. Eventually, the teacher found their voice and yelled at the class, only to be met with laughter.

This was their first week of school nightmare. A recurring dream every month before the start of a new school year where their subconscious revealed all the anxiety, pressure, and worries about once again stepping into the classroom. The dream had evolved over time with changing locations and characters, but the story remained the same.

What if the students refused to work? What if I have to raise my voice? What if the kids didn’t take me seriously? What if I’m not prepared? What if angry parents call my principal?

What if I fail?

And these nightmares are not without reason. The truth is, they’d become a reality throughout the teacher’s career. Not all at once, but over the course of nearly two decades, everything the teacher feared had happened. They had been unprepared and lessons had fallen apart. There had been moments when students mocked them; there was always "that one class" that seemed impossible to quiet down. They had yelled at a class in a moment of frustration. They had even been stuck on mute (It was on Zoom though, so an easy fix). And while classroom walls never physically crumbled, they felt the metaphorical squeeze due to the unjust lack of materials and equipment provided to a low-income school.

On a broader level, they had moments when they felt like they had no voice, choice, or control in their current classroom. No matter how much training they received, professional development books they read, or even how much experience they had in the classroom, being a teacher was still ripe with challenge.

And yet, none of these challenges broke them.

It turns out there is a difference between failing and failure. Failure is the end. It’s the breaking point where progress stops.

But failing is an opportunity. When you’re a teacher, there’s no possibility of getting it all right. Teaching is too human for that. There are too many variables, too many nuances, challenges, conflicts, and stories taking place. But amid all of this challenge is the opportunity to grow. And the longer you teach knowing this, the more you can observe the growth that takes place.

Building relationships with students is messy. Learning their stories, sharing your own, feeling the disappointment when they inevitably let you down— being vulnerable— it's messy.

But years later when a former student, who hails from a family with no one who has ever graduated high school, tells you they earned a college diploma, you understand why the messiness is worth it.

When you make an adjustment to a lesson to accommodate a student in a special way because of something you learned about them through relationship, and see it move and engage them, it makes the challenge of adapting and differentiating worth the reward.

When you experience the joy of watching a child read for the first time, or see one speak bravely in front of their peers, or create something that causes real transformation in their community, or lean in to a difficult class discussion rather than shut down, or walk with a little more confidence thanks to an affirmation you gave, or you notice kids in your class are kind and inclusive in part because of the classroom climate you've created, you see why this work is worth it.

The impact teachers have on their students, both big and small, lasting and momentary, underscores the immeasurable value of dedicating one's life to education. It's in these simple joys and transformative moments that the true essence of teaching comes alive, reaffirming the profound difference educators can make in the lives of their students.

Therefore we adapt. It’s why we innovate. It’s why we persist and develop resilience in a career that requires it in order to thrive.

The work of a teacher is important, and it's important enough to innovate in order to keep doing it well.

And perhaps this is why we have teacher-dreams and nightmares. When an important task is looming, it tends to affect our conscious and subconscious. If you are approaching your first day ever as a teacher, you probably feel some anxiety. That makes sense, because you are about to embark on critically important work.

And if you are in your 30th year of teaching, you probably feel some anxiety. That makes sense because you are doing work that is critically important work. Of course you are nervous.

Day ones are a big deal.

But they’re also not.

When we (Trevor and John) were new teachers, we both read books focused on the first few days of school. We learned about rules and procedures and desk configurations. The message seemed clear: Make a great first impression. Set the tone for the year. If you fail in that first week, you’ll be in recovery mode for the rest of the year.

Over time, though, we realized that the first week of school is overrated. It would be like only focusing on the wedding day and forgetting that life is found in all the days that follow.

The first week of school, as well as the first year of teaching, is the exposition in an epic journey.

It’s the beginning. 

Expositions matter, but epic journeys aren’t found in the exposition. They occur after the inciting incident, as the conflicts intensifies and the characters develop and the plot thickens. It’s okay to obsess over your first day of school outfit or rehearse your first day of school speech. But it’s equally important, perhaps even more essential, to ask yourself how you’ll continue to innovate and experiment and flourish on day 114, when you're exhausted and in need of inspiration.

In moments like those, and many more as a teacher, the work requires a different approach.

Being different isn’t just about day one of your year, or your career. It’s about day 25 and day 4025. It’s the recognition that every day is an invitation to innovation. It’s the freedom to make mistakes and learn along the way. It’s knowing that you will always be a new teacher because you will always have a new group of students and a new context and new knowledge and new strategies in a constantly evolving world.

Being different is a mindset.

So, whether you are a pre-service teacher or one who’s been in the classroom for decades, we all get to be new teachers. The teaching profession is an invitation to be different, not just every year, but every day. Because every has the potential to make a lasting difference in the lives of students.  

This is an excerpt from my new book, New Teacher Mindset. You can check it out here on Amazon.

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