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Anxiety in the Classroom: Storm Clouds Approaching

January 17, 2013

When it happened, the first thing I would notice were their eyes.

It was never a flash of realization, but rather a wave. I might stutter, start to sweat, lose my train of thought, and would start to realize this was more than just a brain hiccup. I’d notice that they were all looking at me. As the wave washed over the room, my heart would start hammering, like thunder rolling in during a storm. An imaginary hand pushed down on my chest, and I would feel an intense desire to hide or run outside—anything to not be looked at. It felt like all I could see were 35 pairs of teenage eyes watching me, and eagerly anticipating my next move.

Of course they were watching me, though—I was their teacher.

I’ve been dealing with panic attacks for most of my adult life. They don’t happen often. What’s more frustrating is that, like many who deal with anxiety, there’s no specific trigger that sets them off. High-stress jobs or situations don’t tend to spark them. I’ve fallen down a cliff (seriously), and I’ve worked pretty high-stress jobs without panic rearing its ugly head. In fact, the first big attack I had in college occurred after a particularly annoying apartment move.

In addition to all the chest tightness and flight instinct, anxiety also likes to play tricks with the mind. During that move I began to irrationally fear my own death. At two in the morning, I called my mom sobbing, convinced that the mole on my chin was cancerous and that I was going to die that night.

By the time I was accepted into Teach For America, though, anxiety attacks were pretty rare. Therapy had given me the tools to deal with panic as soon as it felt out of hand. Somehow, I even managed to get through my first year of teaching without experiencing an abnormal level of anxiety. Sure, I still had the normal, “Oh crap, what am I going to DO with them right now/tomorrow/next week?” that most of us experience. For the most part, though, I found myself going through the typical emotional first-year-teacher cycle.

During my second year, however, I noticed that being in front of my students had become more mentally taxing than I realized. Nothing had changed: I was still exercising as much as I had my first year, and the classes I taught were arguably less stressful. The only that had changed was the way my mind reacted to being in front of 35 kids in rotation for 8 hours a day.

The first time I noticed my anxiety returning, I was in the middle of a lesson on what Piggy’s specs mean in Lord of the Flies. Suddenly, I heard thunder in my ears and felt it in my chest. I was mid-sentence, and I looked up and saw their eyes, waiting to see what I was going to do next.

I took a deep breath, and said as steadily as I could, “So. Um, turn to the person next to you, and discuss.”

“Uh, discuss what, Miss?” one of my students called.

The wave was coming. My heart was starting to race, and I had to think fast. “Well, Cristian—you wear glasses. What do they mean to you? What could glasses symbolize? Two minutes on the clock, be prepared to share out.” I started the timer, and nearly sprinted to the corner of the room.

I put my back to the wall, and began to take a few deep breaths, counting to ten as I did so. Within a few moments, the wave began to ebb. My heart slowed, the thunder quieted, and I began to feel normal again. As the timer rang, the anxiety had subsided, and I jumped back into my lesson without another thought.

Recently, I once thought through what would’ve happened if I had a full-blown attack in front of my kids. If I ever return to the classroom, I can’t help but think it’s only a matter of time. What a nightmare, I initially thought. Even if the attack had remained physical, losing it in front of your kids never feels great. It’d be a disaster.

Little moments of anxiety continued to pop up during my second year. Normally, I’d take a minute in the back, or pretend like I was running to use the restroom. Once, during a particularly tough one, I gave my students something to work on while I pretended to look for something under my desk. I took a few breaths, and did my best to pull it together. After a few minutes, I popped my head up to check on my students.

Miguel, who has always given me trouble, was sitting closest. He looked over, but instead of the smart-ass remark I was prepped for, he quietly went, “Hey Miss, ya good?”

I looked back at him, stunned at the young man before me. I realized that Miguel—despite the amount of times we disagreed—had it in him to forgive me in that moment of weakness. Instead of attacking me when he might’ve sensed I was vulnerable, we had built enough trust in each other for him to let me fall apart for a second, and then build myself back up.

When my students would break down (either angrily or emotionally), I did my best to remember that they were human, that no one is perfect, and that my job when that happened was, among other things, to show them kindness. Miguel returned that kindness to me, and in doing so, reminded me that I could be a little kinder to myself. Yes, I was the adult in the room. Yes, I needed to be the leader in front of my students. Still, I also needed to remember that we were all human and imperfect, including myself. If I could admit and accept my own weaknesses and be kind towards them, it would only show my students that it is okay to be break down, because there is hopefully someone in the world who will show you the momentary kindness to help you get back up.

I looked back at Miguel, his eyes and caring anchoring me back as the wave ebbed away. “Ya,” I smiled at him, “I’m good.”