We become teachers for a variety of reasons: a love of the subject matter, a love of children, or even a love of summer freedom. When we choose to become teachers, we don’t always realize how difficult this profession can be on our mental health. An aspiring teacher with social anxiety might not realize how triggering the profession can be, until it’s too late.
At least, that’s what happened to me. Others always called me a “shy” kid growing up, but I grew up before the term “anxiety” was common. When I was growing up, one could feel anxiety, but one didn’t have anxiety.
I thought my dread of large groups and parties stemmed from general social incompetence, not a bigger issue. It didn’t occur to me that one day I could grow up, go to a job, and feel the same way I did in a room full of strangers.
But I did. My first day of teaching was one, big anxious simmer. I figured it was first-day jitters.
Except I got that same, panicked feeling every semester after that, every time new students walked through my classroom door.
Even years into teaching, when I was planned out for weeks and knew I had great lessons lined up for students, I dreaded the first week. I would lose sleep the night before. I would suffer stomach aches the days leading up to September 1st. Every. Single. Year.
If you’re a teacher with social anxiety, you’re not alone. There are many of us. And you can still thrive in this profession with it. I hope this blog post will help you feel less alone and give you a starting point for easing some of that anxiety.
What Does It Mean To Be A Teacher with Social Anxiety?
Before we dive into some tips for dealing with social anxiety in the classroom, let’s make sure we know what social anxiety is first.
Social anxiety is not the same as being introverted or shy (although there could be some overlap).
Introverts are energetically drained by time spent with others (while extroverts are energized by time spent with others). While introverts tire faster in groups of people, it doesn’t mean they’re not enjoying themselves or that they’re anxious in groups. They just need more alone time to feel grounded.
Social anxiety is an unfounded fear of being judged. A teacher with social anxiety will feel hyper self-conscious, will worry about harassment or embarrassment, and/or might try to avoid situations that trigger these feelings.
For me, meeting new people, especially when there’s pressure for these people to like or respect me (ahem, students), was always triggering.
I have a hard time sleeping the night before the first day of school. My heart races during the first day. I feel exhausted and drained by the end of it.
There’s this pressure to look like I have everything together. Meanwhile I’m internally panicking about mispronouncing someone’s name or waiting for a student to complain.
I worry about looking competent. I want my students–and to some extent, my colleagues–to believe that I know what I’m doing.
As the semester progresses, my nerves calm down. Once we’ve established a routine, I’ve learned names, and the students settle into procedures, the anxiety pretty much disappears. Every time a new student comes into my classroom, however, it roars right back.
Can You Be a Teacher With Social Anxiety?
Sure. I mean, I am. While I still have tremendous anxiety at the beginning of each semester, it does get a tiny bit better every year. And the beginning of a new semester is only a few days of the year.
Most days, I’m fine. But everyone’s experience is going to be different. My anxiety is triggered by meeting a ton of new people at once with social pressure. The act of speaking in front of a group, by itself, however, doesn’t bother me.
If you’re still in school or considering a teaching profession, try to pay attention to your own triggers. What specifically fuels your anxiety? Are you willing to be uncomfortable a lot to move past it?
I don’t believe that people need to or should make big life choices around their fears or anxieties. We should work to overcome them.
However, if you’re still young and just thinking about teaching as a possible career, you might ask yourself if teaching is going to be a job you’re comfortable in.
While social anxiety needn’t stop us from living our lives, it might not be wise to purposely trigger our anxiety on a daily basis either.
If you love your content area, there might be better professions where you deal with a small group of people instead. (A math major might want to look at becoming a CPA, an English major, a librarian, etc.)
But, if you know for certain that teaching is the right job for you (or you’re already teaching), rest assured that you can do this job, even with social anxiety.
Long Term Approaches for a Teacher with Social Anxiety
If you find yourself teaching with social anxiety, and it’s getting in the way of you doing your job or living your life, I encourage you to consult with your doctor.
Therapy is often prescribed for working through anxiety. Depending on the severity of your own anxiety, your doctor might prescribe you some medication.
For what it’s worth, I don’t take any medication for my anxiety, but I’ve done therapy on and off during difficult times in my life.
I work with many colleagues who take antidepressants or antianxiety medications and who are still some of the best teachers I know.
You can still be a great teacher, even with social anxiety. But you do have to take care of yourself, be proactive, and listen to your doctor.
As an aside, I did a lot of theater in high school, and I believe it helped lower my social anxiety.
If you’re feeling adventurous and really want to crush your anxiety, you might consider facing your fears head-on by auditioning for a play, joining a speech-makers club, or hosting a ton of parties!
Tips for Surviving as a Teacher with Social Anxiety
I don’t know if it’s possible to get rid of one’s social anxiety entirely, but there are a few things that have helped me be less anxious.
Tip #1: Plan Ahead
I was super anxious my first year teaching because, on top of social anxiety, I had the added nerves of a first-year teacher. I had no idea what I was doing. There was no curriculum, no materials, and maybe three book sets to choose from.
Planning ahead has made those first-week jitters much easier to handle.
In fact, I’m a little bit of a planning freak leading up to the first week. I will often make all of my copies for the first week–you know, just in case–and I’ve got my end-of-the-quarter project created and ready to go while my colleagues are planning day two.
I think it’s important to point out that I’m not saying to be a control freak!
Trying to control everything is a setup for failure. But, if you prepare and control what you can, you will feel less anxious and more confident.
This goes for teaching outfits too!
If you worry about students talking about you or judging you (I mean, being front-and-center in a room of judgemental teenagers isn’t easy for anyone), it might help to plan out outfits you love and feel confident in. Don’t scramble around in the morning.
Angela Watson has a fantastic podcast episode about putting together a teacher capsule wardrobe and–not to be dramatic–it changed my life. Or at least my closet. I highly recommend giving it (and the rest of her podcast) a listen.
Tip #2: Plan Around Your Anxiety
One of my biggest mistakes when I first started teaching was trying to emulate other teachers I admired, rather than teaching in a way that felt authentic to me.
My favorite high school teacher always gave really long interesting lectures, so I had this idea that that’s what good teaching looked like. Turns out, hour-long lectures did not work for my highly-diverse, rambunctious students who love hands-on learning.
When I began teaching in a way that made me excited–using movement, getting creative, having in-depth discussions–that’s when I began feeling in synch with my job.
If you’re socially anxious, don’t plan lessons that revolve around you, your presentations, or your work. That probably sounds obvious, but it wasn’t to me.
Instead, teach using mini lessons. Use stations and meet with smaller groups. Create a back-to-school scavenger hunt instead of spending the whole first day reading a syllabus and talking about yourself. Create literature circles.
Teaching doesn’t mean that you have to be front and center all of the time.
Student-centered learning is not only great instructional practice, but it will ease some of your social anxiety as well.
Tip #3: Build Relationships with Students
Ultimately, social anxiety is the fear of being judged. When you build a mutually respectful relationship with students (or colleagues), the fear of their judgment significantly lessens.
I have a hard time getting a whole group of teens to like me while simultaneously teaching. I’m sorry, but it’s really hard to earn popularity points while I’m talking about Shakespeare or assigning work.
So when students are working independently, I like to walk around and small talk. I might comment on some new shoes I like, an exceptional doodle where their work should be, or ask about the new Monster flavor they’re drinking.
I do much better socially one-on-one, so I try to build relationships that way when I can.
Another great way to build relationships for the socially anxious is through writing.
During the first week of school I usually do back-to-school stations (again, anything to get the focus off of me during my peak anxiety).
One of the stations includes writing me a letter. Some students skip this station, but I always write a letter back to students who do one. I’ve found my letters saved in student folders months later–even when they can’t find that one super important assignment that’s a week overdue.
Those letters help me build a relationship in a medium–writing–that is less anxiety-inducing for me and more rigorous for them. Plus, I think the students out there with social anxiety appreciate it too. They want to connect just as much as the extrovert kids, but might not know how.
Tip #4: Build in Time to Rest and Reset
In addition to using teaching methods that take the focus off of you, you may want to build in assignments or activities that simply allow you to rest.
Not every teacher with social anxiety is an introvert, but I’m willing to bet that there’s a lot of overlap. For them, having a moment when you’re not socializing or talking at all is priceless.
The best thing I ever did for my teaching life and my students was to start doing independent reading every week. I purposely planned thirty minutes of silent reading smack in the middle of every week on Wednesdays.
These quiet periods of reading gave me time to rest and rejuvenate, while it gave my students the extra reading volume they desperately needed.
(Learn more about building a classroom library here!)
Don’t be afraid to give students independent work, too. Every week, our students read an informational article on their own. It gives me time to check-in one-on-one with students and gather myself if need be.
If you’re a teacher with social anxiety, don’t lose hope. You can do this.
If you’re really struggling with anxiety, I urge you to talk to your doctor and come up with a game plan together.