16 Don’t Forget to Breathe: Advice for Coping with Graduate Teaching Anxiety
Graduate teaching anxiety is a unique form of communication apprehension.
Ignore your overactive amygdala. Teaching will not kill you.
Teach with empath. Students are more afraid of you than you are of them.
Don’t forget to breathe. A hospitable atmosphere is key to successful teaching.
Institutions should better support their graduate student instructors.
What if I forget what I’m saying? What if my students think that I don’t know what I’m talking about? What if I don’t know how to answer their questions? What if they think I’m a fraud who has no business teaching them? These thoughts and others raced through my head as I woke up in a sweaty panic the night before the first class I taught as a graduate student. I had spoken in front of groups of people before—many times, in fact, as a debate and forensics student, so what had me so on tilt thinking about teaching public speaking to a room full of undergraduates? I wish I could tell you that these feelings subsided once class started, or even that I grew more comfortable over the course of the semester, but I would be lying.
The first time entering a classroom as the instructor of record can be frighteningly dysphoric. Anxiety is defined by the American Psychological Association (2019) as “persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor.” Between precarious employment, demanding coursework, and figuring out this whole research thing, graduate students have plenty to stress about. Anxiety and stress can manifest with similar symptoms (e.g., increased heart rate, sweating, insomnia, extreme fear, etc.)—the difference is in the temporality of the stress experience (APA, 2019). Even today, a decade after I started teaching undergraduates, I still get butterflies in my stomach, a sweaty brow, and clammy hands in those awkward moments before a class session starts.
In this chapter, I synthesize research on graduate student anxiety and teaching anxiety to articulate the unique communication apprehension phenomenon of graduate teaching anxiety. Given that graduate students are about six times more likely to experience anxiety and depression than the general population (Evans, Bira, Gastelum, Weiss, & Vanderford, 2018), being a graduate student is an endemically stressful vocation. Compounding this problem is that “many graduate students are required to teach as part of their assistantship, forcing them to balance roles they may or may not even want” (Musgrove, 2020, p. 56). However, teaching is a core part of graduate education in many disciplines for good reason. Not only are graduate students more effective than full time faculty at convincing undergraduate students to major in a discipline, but graduate students who teach frequently are also more likely than their teaching-averse peers to graduate and find gainful employment (Bettinger, Long & Taylor, 2016). In other words, it behooves both departments and graduate students to find strategies for helping new teachers cope with anxiety.
To be clear, nothing written here is meant to let institutions off the hook by suggesting only individuals ought to be responsible for their own mental health. The rhetoric of well-being in academic institutions too often conceals the psychologically distressing demands of academia (Hurd & Singh, 2020). Institutions can and should design better processes for ameliorating the systemic stresses of graduate education (Bekkouche, Schmid, & Carliner, 2021) rather than laying that responsibility on their overburdened graduate workforce. An estimated 50% of all doctoral students in the United States do not finish their degree programs (Patterson, 2016), suggesting a widespread structural problem with graduate education that will require the sustained resource commitments of higher educational institutions to solve. In my experience in and observations of graduate programs, graduate students are often thrown into a classroom with little more preparation than a standardized syllabus and a four-day pedagogy seminar the week before classes start.
Without proper pedagogical training, graduate instructors may enter a classroom with subject knowledge but little to no confidence in their ability to communicate that knowledge to others. This is a problem because, as scholar Selami Aydin (2021) has argued, “teaching anxiety is one of the most considerable concerns in the teaching and learning processes that directly and negatively affect teaching effectiveness” (p. 747). These stakes are magnified by the fact that graduate students make up 28% and 22% of instructional faculty at R1 and R2 universities respectively (American Association of University Professors, 2018), meaning graduate teaching anxiety can significantly impact the quality of undergraduate education at an institution. Universities can and should do better when it comes to graduate student mental health and well-being. However, waiting for institutional change does little to help a panic-stricken graduate student the night before teaching their first class.
My goal in this chapter is to offer coping advice for graduate students suffering from teaching anxiety. To do this, I draw from personal experiences paired with lessons I’ve learned from teaching undergraduate public speaking students how to cope with presentational anxiety. A premise of the narrative method employed in this text is that human beings are homo narrans (Fisher, 1985) who express, transmit, and retain knowledge through storytelling. By sharing my experiences with GTA, I hope for readers to finish the chapter with a better understanding of, and strategies to cope with, graduate teaching anxiety.
Lesson One: Teaching will not kill you.
The vertigo inducing shift from desk to lectern precipitates waves of self-doubt and feelings of imposter syndrome—even in otherwise gregarious graduate students. Science education researcher Miranda Musgrove (2020) defines teaching anxiety as “a feeling of concern that [one’s] teaching will not go well because they do not have the teaching resources to meet the demands of the task” (p. 3). Perceived deficits may include a lack of knowledge, insufficient instructor support, poor presentational skills, as well as all manner of personal anxieties. Anticipatory concern is normal and from an evolutionary perspective, it is desirable because it motivates planning to overcome threats and survive. Being concerned about finding shelter before nightfall or anticipating the presence of predators at the local watering hole are critical parts of surviving sans civilization, and humans have been perfecting those anxiety-driven skills for much longer than they have been teaching in the paint-chipped halls of their underfunded state institutions of higher learning.
While we wait a few millennia longer for evolution to sort out the appropriate stress response mechanisms for lecturing to undergraduates, it is important to be conscious of the human tendency to catastrophize all threats as mortal threats. Obviously, staring down a hippo hoping it doesn’t eat you while you gather enough water to stave off dehydration is not the same as staring down first-year students in your department’s general education service course. However, both phenomena can elicit the same biochemical fight or flight responses that, in the case of the hippo, can keep you alive but, in the case of students, may betray the subject authority graduate students work so hard to achieve.
Over the last decade I have taught 32 sections of public speaking despite never having taken the course in my undergraduate program nor having ever been taught to teach the course in my graduate programs. The first time I taught public speaking was during my master’s program. I taught at a community college down the street from my university. The assistantship I’d been awarded for my master’s program was for coaching debate rather than teaching, so to get the teaching experience I would need on the job market, a mentor counselled me to apply for the adjunct pool at the local community college. Getting the call from the college’s basic course director informing me I had been assigned to teach a section of public speaking was both exciting and terrifying.
I remember thinking they must be desperate to assign a second-year master’s student with no teaching experience. Reflecting on that course now, I realize how awful it must have been for those students who endured my pedagogical growing pains. Every class session must have seemed like a joke as I dutifully, and unironically, exhibited some of the worst characteristics of public speaking behavior including overreliance on poorly designed slide decks, avoiding eye contact with my audience, talking too fast, and digressing into jargonish gibberish every time a student asked me a question. It was bad—I knew it, the students knew it, and as I was not asked to teach another course for that community college, I assume the basic course director eventually figured it out as well.
Although my students that semester may not have learned much from me, I learned two incredibly valuable lessons from my miserable performance teaching them: bad teaching is survivable, and failure is acceptable. Properly framed, failing in the classroom is training for other graduate student endeavors. For example, trying out examples and explanations on undergraduate students can help a graduate student refine answers to questions they receive about their work from peers at conferences or from their committee members at their defenses. Such a statement may seem painfully obvious, but because of our anxiety-ridden, survival-focused, and evolutionarily-outdated human psychology, we must occasionally remind ourselves that death is an exceedingly unlikely outcome of encountering failure as a teacher. We may know that consciously, but research suggests speaking in front of an audience is a more common fear than the fear of dying (Speech Communication Association, 1973; Dwyer & Davidson, 2012), which—I might suggest—makes teaching an act of mortal courage.
Teaching will not kill you no matter how bad of a job you do. Lots of other things could kill you, such as sharks, bears, pumas, and falls from great heights, but teaching will not kill you, and it is important to take comfort in that. Relatedly, bad teaching will not kill your students either, which is important to keep in mind since graduate teaching anxiety is linked to concerns about one’s impact on others (Musgrove et al., 2021). Despite the delusions of overactive amygdala, teaching failure is not life threatening, so no matter what goes wrong when you enter that classroom, you can take comfort in the fact that you will probably still be alive at the end of the day. A bad class will not break your teaching career either as demonstrating you are a teacher who can learn from prior experiences communicates that you are a teachable teacher committed to self-improvement.
Lesson Two: Students are more afraid of you than you are of them.
When experiencing graduate teaching anxiety, it is good to keep in mind the old hiker adage about encountering predators in the wild (Pester, 2021): students are often more afraid of you than you are of them. Younger students in general education classes arrive to college after spending much of their lives being disciplined in the primary and secondary educational systems to be obedient and deferential to authority (Foucault, 1978; 2010). In my experience, a student’s fear of their own failure occasionally manifests in the student lashing out at their instructor through heckling during lecture or expressing excessive displeasure at grading feedback, but more often is turned inward as students police their own behavior while seeking the approval of their instructors. By the time a student gets to college, they have likely experienced enough bad teaching to overlook many idiosyncratic tendencies of first-time graduate instructors. Consider that at the same time such students are transitioning to a new phase in their education, you too are transitioning into your role as a graduate instructor. There is solidarity to be found in that shared struggle to learn together in new ways.
I started my doctoral program about seven years after finishing my master’s degree. In that space of time, I taught a lot as an instructor working for a dual-mission university (meaning the institution sustains baccalaureate programs alongside a community college mission). Returning as a doctoral graduate instructor after having taught for so many years as a non-tenure track instructor was humbling. I remember meeting the interim writing program administrator on the first day of pre-semester graduate instructor training and wondering who between us had more teaching experience—an exercise in hubris and ego protection more than utility. It was her first time being responsible for the pedagogical training of graduate instructors in the composition program, but to the extent she felt nervous or anxious about that fact, she rarely showed it while teaching.
However, my graduate student anxiety about my own competence as a writer, teacher, and scholar manifested in a few antagonistic interactions I had with the interim writing program administrator. Upon reflection, I suspect I felt threatened by learning from her how much I didn’t know about teaching, even after having taught undergraduate courses for so long. In a few out-of-class conversations with her near the end of that semester, I came to understand that she likely did feel a good deal of anxiety and students like me didn’t make it any better. That realization arrived too late because I was absorbed in experiencing my own learning anxiety and fear of judgement. In other words, I was more afraid of her than she had any reason to be of me.
Power dynamics make all this understandable. Teachers have more power over students than students have over teachers. The asymmetry is not always apparent to the graduate instructor who plays both the role of teacher and student, nor is it apparent to the students of graduate instructors. For many of our undergraduate students, a full professor and a graduate instructor are both just teachers. Whether or not you feel like an expert in your content area, you may be the only disciplinary expert some undergraduate students will ever encounter. When they think of biology, foreign languages, writing, chemistry, or anthropology, it is your face that may come to represent your discipline in their limited experience. That is a lot of pressure, but it is also a lot of power.
Invoking the Peter Parker Principle (Nagel & Pierre, 2020), such power entails significant responsibilities as well. In recognizing the imbalance of power between teachers and students, I suggest part of quelling graduate teaching anxiety is attending to the anxiety students experience in the learning environments you construct. Do your best to recognize that many students face obstacles to their learning that graduate instructors can help to ameliorate. In helping anxious students find solace in education, a graduate instructor may also be aiding themselves in a myriad of ways. For example, reducing student workloads implicitly reduces assessment burdens; this entails assigning fewer, higher-quality tasks for students to demonstrate mastery and can serve as a mutual kindness to your students and your future grading self. Being flexible with students about deadlines means most students will be flexible with you if, for example, you forget to grade an assignment because you were up all night trying to beat a conference submission deadline. Reflecting on the fact that students are often more afraid of you than you are of them can help you recognize the opportunity for cultivating empathy on both sides of the lectern. An excellent way to reduce graduate teaching anxiety is by creating more empathetic environments to learn and teach in.
Lesson Three: Don’t forget to breathe.
Reading through student course evaluations can sometimes feel a bit like sifting through the rubble of a self-produced disaster searching for evidence that at least something went well. Over the years, I’ve found some real gems of advice from my students on how to improve my teaching. Putting aside the occasional garbage comment (i.e., racist, transphobic, sexist, ableist, imperialist, fascist, etc.), student evaluations can reveal useful insights about user experiences in our courses. Consider approaching such evaluations from a design perspective (Rose, 2016), which means being curious about how user experiences may inform more engaging course designs. Reducing friction between teaching and learning can help create a more comfortable atmosphere in the classroom.
Metaphorically speaking of atmosphere, one evaluation comment that has stuck with me for many years simply read “don’t forget to breathe” as a singular piece of qualitative feedback. The brevity of the comment belied the value of its insight. Likely, the student was referencing the fast pace with which I spoke as I anxiously sped read through text heavy slide decks about ancient rhetoric and public delivery. However, the comment resonated with me at a much deeper level. When I read that comment, I had just quit smoking and had finished up a summer of hiking in the foothills above the university. On the elevated trails, my lungs felt the benefits of my smoking cessation efforts as I inhaled the fresh mountain air above the city, held it in for just a moment, and exhaled it back into the atmosphere. As some feminist researchers have noted, there is a trans-corporeal quality to breathing (Górska, 2016; Neimanis & Walker, 2014). To breathe is to enter an exchange between human and more-than-human bodies. Such exchanges make life possible but also, as the COVID era has painfully taught us, may put life at risk.
What does it mean to not forget to breathe as a graduate instructor coping with teaching anxiety? For me, it means slowing down and remembering that teaching is a social action that makes for a better conversation than it does a diatribe. Atmosphere connects us to one another. In the classroom, we breathe the same air whether we are in a desk or at a teaching station operating the projector. Breath helps circulate molecules through perceptually deceiving spaces of nothingness. Matter is between us, connecting us through the material wanderings of breath passing back and forth in dialectical engagement—surrounding and carrying our words. Breathing deeply is an act of muscular desensitization that relaxes us, preparing our lungs and minds for more efficient operation while teaching and learning.
A commitment to breathing as a tactic to reduce graduate teaching anxiety is also pragmatically helpful as a teaching tool. Stressful in-class moments may be countered with instructor-led breathing exercises. Heated discussions are to be expected, but sometimes a cooling-off period of breathing practice can help deescalate bubbling conflicts. Exam reviews can be panic-laden events where a few moments of breathing at the start of a class session can reduce tension and open space for learning. Trans-corporeal (Alaimo, 2018) connection through breath is an opportunity for reflection on the privilege of teaching in air-conditioned spaces, where atmosphere is purified, and breathing is taken for granted. For some students, graduate and undergraduate alike, the university is a respite from an increasingly toxic and unbreathable world. Grappling with our breathing privilege is humbling, as teaching and learning often is and ought to be.
I have taught over a hundred courses since that first time I stepped into the local community college classroom. Teaching did not get better during that semester, but over the years, practice and patience have made me a better teacher and a better scholar. Learning to teach has been a long process of learning how to fail with humility, grace, and dignity. Undergraduate students are surprisingly empathetic, especially when you make it clear that you, like them, are still learning your vocation.
In sharing my experiences, I’ve articulated three lessons I’ve learned about teaching that have helped me cope with graduate teaching anxiety. First, teaching will not kill you. We are biochemically wired to make a big deal out of nothing. That combination of instinct and physiology was great when we were competing with lions, tigers, and bears for food, but less great when performing at the front of a lecture hall.
Second, students are more afraid of you than you are of them. Don’t let that get to your head, but it should be a relieving insight to know power dynamics being what they are, most students are much more concerned with your impression of them as learners than they are of their impression of you as an inexperienced teacher. Some students will even ignore academic hierarchy altogether in their communications by inappropriately referring to you as a “Dr.” or “Professor”—a telltale indicator of the point I am making, but also a wonderful ego boost if you need one.
Third, don’t forget to breathe. Go slow, take your time to teach at a pace that includes everyone. Use the interconnected nature of breath to your advantage by creating hospitable atmospheres for teaching and learning. Remembering to breathe is as much about being kind to yourself as it is about being kind to your students. Mutual interdependence is demonstrated by the need to breathe and, taken seriously as a pedagogical framing, can help create symbiotic pathways of support between graduate instructors and their students.
Finally, institutions can and should do more to help graduate instructors learn their craft. This means investing in them as whole persons and not treating teaching struggles as individual failure. Being a graduate student instructor is full time work and should be paid as such. Graduate students should receive better healthcare and earn retirement benefits. They should be given dedicated professional development funds, have a say in their schedules, and be represented in faculty meetings. More spaces for self-care and well-being (Hurd & Singh, 2021) should be carved out in physical and virtual locations for graduate students to meet, vent, and organize. Mentors of graduate student instructors should also be better supported and trained. Such training should include how to recognize teaching anxiety and burnout in graduate instructors. Going forward, institutions who profess to care about the well-being of their graduate instructors should put their money where their rhetoric is and do more to help.
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