Why My Anxiety Made Me a Better Teacher

     

     It was always there, but I didn’t actually discover what it was until I was 23, when I finally decided I was ready to ask for help. As a kid I was usually afraid of many things but I guess I always thought they were little fears, common ones. “They will go away”, I always thought. And I guess some of them did, but others came to replace those that were gone.

     When I was 22 my anxiety got extremely bad due to a car accident and I can easily say, that was one of the worst years in my life. Saying that many things scared me to death after the accident, is not enough to describe how I actually felt. I remember my heart beating really fast at random times of the day, I felt I wasn’t capable of doing things I used to do in the past. Studying for exams got really hard and I struggled to start my days. Everything got so much harder in those upcoming years that mainly those who experienced something similar can understand.

     I guess, that’s one of the scariest things about struggling with something… only a few understand what you need. In my case, everyone told me I had to go back to driving, because I would never be able to do it again if time passed by. So I did, and believe me when I say… it didn’t work for me! That’s precisely when my anxiety got worst. I felt most people were trying to push me to do something I wasn’t ready to do and I felt so vulnerable that I did it.

     One day I got home after driving 7 blocks and I remember I had to go to bed. My heart was beating so fast I got scared and I cried so much it was hard to breathe. I decided it was time to listen to my mind and body telling me “don’t do it anymore”. I will simplify the story that started that day as one of the biggest struggles I had to overcome in my life. Loneliness, darkness, luck of air, mixed feelings about doing things I loved but couldn’t do anymore. I had already finished studying to become an English teacher by that time and I was studying something else, but most importantly I was already teaching. Studying was extremely difficult for me and the days before exams were simply terrifying.

      I started going to the psychologist when I was 23 and, as I said before, it took me a year to ask for help and admit that I needed it. That was probably one of the best decisions I’ve taken in my whole life. Little by little I started seeing light and I felt I was capable of doing things I had stopped doing. It took me years and I’m still in the process, but experiencing all this sadness and frustration has made me a better teacher. How? You are probably thinking.

        Well, my therapy has taught me many things but I guess the ones that mainly saved my life were:

  • It doesn’t matter if people tell you what happened to you was not too bad, what is important is how you experienced it. This made me understand that it didn’t matter what people told me, the car accident destroyed all my structures and I had to work on building them up again and that was scary. In fact, people telling me it was not a big thing, didn’t help me at all, it only made me believe there was something wrong with me and I felt I couldn’t fix it.
  • Listen to yourself, your body gives you signs and you need to learn to read them and do something before it’s too late.
  • You cannot control everything. You see, there was nothing I could’ve done to change what happened. I had no responsibility in the accident and I knew it since day one. But this was one of the first times something so strong hit me, I was not ready and I could not understand why it was happening to me.
  • Sometimes you need to do things that scare you, when you feel you are kind of ready (as usually you are never completely ready). The more you do, the stronger you become and then the easier it gets to do new things.

    When you start teaching you always feel anxious because you are in the process of learning. But by the time my anxiety got really bad, I already felt safe in the classroom, so it was not a problem at all. I felt comfortable and, if I look back, I think that the instant feedback you have from students is what helped me not suffering while teaching.

   More particularly, it was in the classroom where I could put into practice all those things I was learning in my therapy. I’ve always found helping others way easier than helping myself, so I guess that helped me to start, not with me but with others. These are just some examples:

  • It doesn’t matter how many times you tell a student to stop behaving in a particular way, if you don’t understand why the person is doing it, you won’t be able to stop the behavior. Exactly how it happened to me, people tried to push me back into driving and I was not ready. Why would my students be ready to fight their difficulties on their own? Everyone needs to be understood and by showing you don’t believe what happens to them is important, you are doing nothing but making them feel worse. Behind every student not doing what they are supposed to, there’s a person shouting for help. Saying “I need help” is simply too scary because it means accepting you are having a problem.
  • I started paying more attention to body language, words and attitudes. I now understand that by observing my students I can help them without exposing them. Sometimes students can’t ask for help and you need to learn to read their facial expressions or their body language. Some words like “I can’t do it”, “I will always fail”, “I don’t want to”, mean something else and it usually means “I’m afraid of this challenge, please help me, I can’t do it on my own”.
  • You need to show yourself as a human being. Showing students we are also scared of things or letting them know that we also sometimes struggle, helps them understand they are not alone. There’s no need to lie! My experience tells me that my teachers at school pointing out how I was the perfect student  in the class, didn’t help me at all, so as an adult I also felt the need to be perfect. And you know, if you try to be perfect, you will also fail and failing in this society is a bad thing. As a result, you feel empty.
  • Not all students get low grades because they don’t care (and I’m not saying those don’t need help). Most times students find things difficult because they are experiencing something that stops them from learning. Don’t ask why they didn’t study, tell them first that you know they can do better and you want to talk to them so that you can both figure out how they can improve next time. Ask them how they felt the day of the exam, how they felt before, after. Give them the opportunity to reflect upon their feelings. Sometimes, they won’t be able to put it into words, but once you show you are eager to help, the magic will start and you’ll see little changes in their attitudes, they will communicate with you somehow, because they now know they are not alone.
  • Some students can’t face challenges, and that doesn’t mean they don’t have to do certain things… it just means they need help! If you help them today, you are avoiding them to face them on their own when they are adults. Don’t push them to the limit, just take them out of their comfort zone little by little, show them you are there to help them.

    Somehow, I’m glad all these things happened to me, as I can now understand why my students fail. I’m not an expert, I’m just a teacher trying her best, doing everything I can to make my students feel they are important, not only to me, but also, that they should be important to theirselves. People cannot change on their own, they always need a helping hand to face challenges. So… why not start by telling them they are capable of facing each challenge instead of telling them how they are not doing what society expects them to do?

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