Overcoming Instruction Stage Fright

When I was applying to library school I asked some of my college librarians if anything had surprised them about their library work. More than one said their jobs involved more teaching than they anticipated, and I realized that if I was going into academic librarianship I should prepare for instruction to be a part of my job. While the idea of actually standing up in front of a classroom was pretty frightening to me, I saw the user education side of libraries as incredibly important and exciting. Somehow I imagined that when the time came for me to stand in front of a classroom, I would be totally accomplished and knowledgeable, and therefore confident.

When I began a student assistant position in reference and instruction this semester, the time to brave the classroom arrived without my previously anticipated sense of preparation and confidence. I was excited and terrified. A part of me believed that I could be quite good, while the other part waited for the fraud police to stop me before I could present my novice self to a class of undergraduates.The fraud police never showed and I led my first library sessions just last week: two sections of a freshman English class preparing to write annotated bibliographies. During the first session I experienced what I’m sure many new teachers have before me: I got flustered, found my carefully prepared outline unhelpful, forgot some of my major points, and spoke at what I can only imagine was an alarming speed (really, it’s all a blur now). But, with some encouraging words and refocusing advice from my supervisor/mentor (who had been observing) I was ready for round two. A few minutes into my second session I was already feeling more confident and coherent. By the end of class each student had found useful sources for their projects and I had found a sense of authority and enjoyment while talking to them about their research.

Building confidence in the classroom will take me a while, but after only two hours I have much better tools for getting there. Here are the steps and approaches I’ll be taking with me:

Observe other instructors. Some of my initial fears about instructing centered on the unknowns: What would it be like? What would students expect of me? How long would I have to talk? What kind of tone or attitude should I take? After watching a few sessions I could begin to answer those questions, if only generally, and that made me feel better. Observing a range of teaching styles and tactics has helped me to think about how I might approach certain information needs and has given me ideas for specific classroom activities.

Keep it simple. Before teaching my first class I had pretty high expectations for what I would be able to accomplish. I wanted to take a process-based approach, I wanted to engage the students throughout my lesson, I wanted to keep ACRL standards in mind, and I wanted to convey a narrative of how I would approach their assignment. That was way too much to think about and I quickly became overwhelmed, forgetting much of my preparation. I felt much more successful and confident during the second session when I just focused on one central idea: telling the story of how I would approach their assignment. I’ll try to encourage more interaction as I get more comfortable.

Make sure you have plenty of water.  I recommend taking a sip to create a natural pause after you ask a question (in addition to any dry mouth emergencies as well).

Find a mentor. I’m lucky to have a strong mentor structure already in place in my library. Talking through my fears and ideas, and receiving constructive feedback has been one of the most important parts of my instruction experience thus far. Although having another librarian observing your instruction may feel like added pressure, I would definitely recommend it. Self-assessment is really challenging when you’re nervous. Based on my supervisor’s feedback my first session wasn’t nearly as bad as I first feared.

Focus on successes. If you’re like me your first inclination may be to pick apart everything that you could have done better. Don’t forget to reflect on the things that went well and to think about how you can build on them. For example, I felt best while talking to each student and answering their individual questions after my initial lesson. In the future I’ll probably plan for short lessons that give just enough direction to get student started, then leaving plenty of time for solitary or small group work.

What helps you to overcome your nerves (in the classroom or elsewhere)? Any tips for new instructors?

Featured image from Pixabay

Editor’s note: this post was originally published February 18, 2013.

8 replies

  1. I’ve found that preparing a written script and then practicing until it’s second nature helps me to relax and actually helps me be more free with what I say. If I know what I’m supposed to say backwards and forwards, then I am more confident veering from that course, because I know how to get back to it.

    My biggest fear is a dead class — one that just gives me blank stares when I ask questions and try to engage them. But I don’t think that happens as often as I think it might. Classes do tend to loosen up a bit as the class progresses, so maybe starting with some sort of interactive activity will help loosen it up more quickly. I have a 2-hr presentation to give to librarians at my university library in a month. I’m pretty scared, but I am confident that I can do it.


    • I have that fear too, Chris. You just never know what kind of class dynamic you’ll walk into. Starting with something interactive is a great idea. Good luck with your presentation!


  2. I try to frame my instruction sessions as conversations. I don’t straight lecture unless there are 100+ students, so I incorporate discussion and hands-on activities to avoid “sage on the stage.” Although I can see how memorizing a script can alleviate some anxiety, I think it can also make the lesson too restricted with little room for mistakes or a question that could catch an instructor off-guard. Overall, I would suggest keeping it loose and conversational while still hitting your student learning outcomes. This keeps the students engaged and reminds me that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great points, Nicole. I especially love the reminder that you don’t have to be perfect to be effective. Staying loose allows for mistakes and questions that might turn out to be really great teaching moments.

      Liked by 1 person

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