Love Your Fear

"It's ok to have butterflies in your stomach; just teach them to fly in formation." -Helen Keller

Photo of Edward Benbow IV
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When I was a wrestler in high school, I would get nervous every time I stepped on the mat. Even when I got better at it, and started winning most of them, every match was preceded by a period of anxiety that I could feel in my body. The proverbial butterflies were always in my stomach, but as soon as the first whistle blew they would disappear. Actually, they never went anywhere, I just got them to work for me instead of against me.

Years later, when I got my first job as a wrestling coach, one of my high school athletes told me something he had heard from his junior high coach, and I've used it ever since: "It's ok to have butterflies in your stomach; just teach them to fly in formation." Apparently it's a quote by Helen Keller, but I never knew that until I looked it up a few minutes ago before posting it as my description for this piece. Of course, I got that from the internet, so it may or may not be an accurate attribution. But regardless, it is a nice way of describing the feeling you get when you harness your fear and make it useful.

These days, I get nervous before every class I teach. I've heard it said that teaching is at least 75% theater, and I certainly feel like a stand-up performer most of the time. Even though it's not comedy, and the ultimate objective is not to get a laugh, I do try to crack a joke now and then (sometimes even successfully) to warm up the room. It's true that the teaching profession has much in common with the acting profession; when we are in front of our students (or even leading from the back of the classroom), we are on stage and the spotlight is upon us. We struggle to keep our audience engaged, and often have to deal with hecklers. Usually we have a script, but we always have to be ready to improvise if things aren't going well, and wing it when necessary. Some of my best lessons have been constructed on the fly with ideas hatched by the students themselves, in the moment, as they test their own mental wings and start thinking about things in new ways.

So how do we develop these crucial skills, not just in classroom management, but in audience participation? How do we strengthen our abilities to keep students engaged in the process of their own learning, by virtue of our "stage presence" and dramatic performance? How do we keep putting on a good show even when it seems like nobody is paying attention?

I don't have answers to those questions, but I would love to hear some discussion about them. All I know I learned by trial and error, and I still get stage-fright before every performance. So right before the bell rings, for every period of every day, I take a deep breath and tell myself three things:

"Face your fear. Embrace your fear. Replace your fear."

So far, it has worked for me, and I'll keep doing what I'm doing for as long as it keeps working.

The show must go on.

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Photo of Sarah Lundy

The metaphor you've borrowed powerfully captures one of the most vital but intangible components of teaching. Are you familiar with Parker Palmer's work? To paraphrase much of his thoughtful writing too briefly here, "We teach who we are".

I know that many of my students left my classroom with a stronger understanding of who I was as their teacher than the research & writing skills or the content themes we struggled through together.