John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Teaching Used to Make Me Sick

John Gardner

In the most recent issue of The Chronicle there was a huge spread about the challenges of teaching developmental English in an urban, DC area community college. Very moving piece actually which included a profile on the instructor. He revealed to the reporter that early in his teaching career he became physically ill from his nervousness about teaching—as in sick to his stomach, vomiting. This reminded me of my mild anxiety attacks and accompanying nausea when I first started teaching. But it led to an epiphany.

In January of 1967 I arrived at my permanent Air Force duty assignment, as a psychiatric social worker, at Shaw AFB, South Carolina. As I have written about before in one of these postings, my squadron commander gave me a direct order to do college teaching and proceeded to arrange to make it happen. Two weeks later I started teaching my first college class, a night class, on a Friday night, at a regional two-year campus of the University of South Carolina. My class was at 7.30. My work day in the Psychiatric Clinic ended at 4.30 and I had to hit the road for a 65 mile drive on rural, two lane roads through what then I regarded as the heart of darkness. In those days there were still signs on restaurant doors pronouncing “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” and I knew that meant liberal Yankees like me.

For the first 6-8 weeks or so of teaching what was my first college course, I was so nervous, and I mean really anxious, that I had no appetite at all. I could not eat. Actually, I was nauseous. And I didn’t need therapy myself to know that was going on. My self-administered diagnosis was what the American Pyschiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the DSM, my professional bible in that period of my life) labeled “adult situational reaction.” I was just one week ahead of my students every week in terms of my preparation. I felt I was clueless about what I was doing. I had not had any instruction at all about being an effective college teacher. All I knew were my own professors for models, and I remembered the best and worst of them vividly. Yes, college teaching was making me sick. Thank goodness I didn’t experience these symptoms any other time of the week except immediately before going to class.

And then suddenly, after 6-8 weeks or so, my symptoms abated and I became asymptomatic. I allowed myself to have dinner before I taught. And because this was 1967 almost 20 years before we raised the legal drinking age to 21, I also allowed myself to go out with some of my students after class ended at 10.00PM and, yes, drank with my students, and, of course, talked with them (that’s it).

So had happened to me? How had I overcome my anxiety?

I guess the first thing was that I learned that thorough preparation for a stress inducing event is one way to manage stress and its symptoms.

Secondly, recognizing that public speaking is one of Americans’ greatest fears, and remembering my grade in Speech 101 was a D, I realized that anxiety often accompanies feelings of lack of control. The assumption in this case is incorrect, and that is that the speaker, the professor, has no ability to control his audience and their reactions. I quickly was learning that there were all kinds of things I could legitimately do to, in effect, “control” the reactions of my students to my communication in the anxiety producing process  of public speaking.

But I think that what was really most responsible for my loss of anxiety and nausea before teaching was that I had had an epiphany!

I had discovered the most pleasing thing of my life, college teaching. I had never before done anything that was so much fun. And I had discovered that was because college teaching involves the four things I loved to do the most. I put that observation in the context of being a 23 year old, healthy, red blooded, heterosexual, young, single, man. The one thing I loved to do the most was not a sexual act. I am being totally honest, maybe even TMI. Teaching brought me pleasure much longer than sex and I could do it guilt free with many people, simultaneously too. And it was teaching that led me to discover something I had never discovered in college or graduate school.

To teach, I had to do the four things I most loved to do.

First of all, in order to teach you have to have some knowledge, and information to impart to your students. Ideally you might throw in some wisdom and experience but at 23 years of age I am not sure I had a lot of wisdom or experience. But I did have knowledge which I had gotten from reading. So the first thing I loved to do in order to teach was read. And I was a reader. I had always been a reader. I loved reading. It had never occurred to me that I could be paid for reading. There was no such thing at my little liberal arts college known as “career planning” in which a career counselor might have helped me discover that ideal occupational choice involves doing something professionally and for remuneration that you love to do.  OK, first thing then is reading.

Secondly, in order to teach you have to write something down after you have read—and that writing becomes the notes, the text, the manuscript, you use in teaching. And I loved to write. And I was getting paid, albeit modestly, $500 a course, to write.

Thirdly, teaching required first reading, then writing, and then speaking.  I knew I was an extrovert. I knew I had always loved to talk. And teachers have to talk, after they have read (or done something) to acquire knowledge, and written down that knowledge.

And finally, the fourth component of teaching I discovered was helping students. And I really enjoyed helping my students. I had discovered that college teaching is a “helping” profession.

So there I had it. I had moved from doing something that made me sick to something that showed me how to put together the four things I most loved to do: reading, writing, talking and helping people.

How are you helping your students discover how to convert the things they most love to do into a legal way to eventually earn a living?

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