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Notes on Teaching and Learning

Managing Public Speaking Nerves in Your Teaching

September 1, 2022
ND Learning
Man lecturing students in a university lecture theatre

By Haley Dutmer

Shaky hands, racing heart, flushed cheeks, butterflies in the stomach, drawing a blank. Sound familiar? Same. I’ve had a fear of public speaking my whole life and I used to wonder if people like me could ever be teachers. Teachers speak publicly almost every day…How was I going to manage? 

The good news is you can indeed be an excellent teacher despite public speaking nerves. There are lots of excellent teachers out there who have a fear of public speaking (including, to my surprise, several of my favorite professors!). The other good news is, you aren’t doomed to be as afraid of public speaking as you are now for the rest of your life–these nerves can lessen with time and practice.

Here are five things to keep in mind about public speaking nerves and teaching. In addition, please know that resources are available on campus to help you manage anxiety such as the University Counseling Center, Care and Wellness Consultants, and the McDonald Center for Student Well-Being for graduate students or the ND Wellness Center for faculty and post-docs. 


Recognize Your Strengths

There’s more to being a good teacher than being a good orator. (Being a good teacher is not the equivalent of giving a TED Talk multiple times a week!). For example, effective teaching qualities include being organized, thoughtful, responsive, prepared, knowledgeable, adaptive, etc. And, a class period need not–and indeed, should not!–be composed solely of a 75-minute lecture. Public speaking surely will be part of your class period, but a good portion of the class time should be devoted to discussion, reflection, and small group activities.

You, just as you are, bring strengths to your classroom. Be yourself. Recognize and lean into your strengths while also challenging yourself a bit out of your comfort zone so you can grow. 

Take a moment to reflect: What strengths do you bring to your teaching?


Catch Your Catastrophic Thinking 

Anxiety makes us fear for the worst. An anxious thought I’ve often had is: “Everyone will notice I’m nervous. Then they will think I don’t know what I’m doing. And I’ll make everyone uncomfortable, and then…” These are known as catastrophic thoughts. In reality, catastrophe probably won’t strike in your classroom. Rather, your students likely won’t even notice your nerves, and if they do, they probably won’t mind or judge you for being nervous.

If you find yourself having a catastrophic thought, notice it and challenge it: “I notice I’m feeling really worried about appearing like a fraud. But, my students probably won’t think something so harsh of me.”

In addition to challenging negative thoughts that arise about all the ways your teaching can go wrong, it can be helpful to focus on positive thoughts about all the ways class could go well. There is evidence that focusing on what you are excited about can help with nerves. 

Consider: What do you find exciting about working with students in the classroom?


Be Prepared, but Don’t Expect Perfection

Anxiety is often a response to ambiguity–there’s no way to know what’s going to happen in class until it happens. However, by preparing, and thinking in advance about a couple different ways the class period could go, this can help you feel more confident once you’re up in front of the class and thinking on the fly. 

For example, when preparing for a class period, take at least a couple minutes to pause and consider what questions or confusions  your students might have about the day’s content. Anticipating these questions in advance will help prevent you from feeling caught off guard in the moment.

But again, there is no way to avoid ever being surprised in class, no matter how much preparation you do. So resist the urge to try to plan for every possible scenario that could arise–such preparation will have diminishing returns, be unsustainable, and may actually increase your anxiety.

It’s ok if you don’t know the answer to every question, it’s ok if an activity you try ends up being a flop, it’s ok if you make a mistake. A perfect class period is impossible. Imperfection is to be expected. Allow yourself to make mistakes, forgive them right away once they happen, and focus on the lesson you learned so you can keep improving.

Recall: What’s one instance where teaching didn’t go as you’d hoped? What did you learn from this experience about how you can better promote your students’ learning?  


Have a Growth Mindset About Public Speaking

Looking back at my own public speaking fears–a lot of them were based on a fixed mindset about my abilities. In other words, I thought public speaking must be an innate skill and I was just not the type of person who could do this. This black and white thinking over-simplifies reality. 

In reality, public speaking is a skill that, with practice and support, anyone can become better at. Believing this is known as having a growth mindset about public speaking. Public speaking nerves are normal and extremely common. While they may be intense, they are something that you can learn to manage.

Think back: What’s one (even small!) way your public speaking has improved over time?


Focus on Student Learning–Not Your Teaching Performance

It’s easy to be hyper focused on yourself when you’re feeling self-conscious. But remember, the classroom is all about your students’ learning. It’s not about you. Intentionally focusing your attention on student learning can help you avoid fixating on your own performance. 

For example, when responding to a student question, do you catch yourself worrying about proving that you know the answer, or are you thinking about how you can respond in a way that deepens the students’ learning? It often is better to guide a student to an answer rather than to give them the answer yourself right away. And remember, if students ask you tough questions, that’s a great sign that they are engaging with the material (a teaching win!), rather than a sign that they don’t trust you as a knowledgeable teacher.

Reflect: What’s one way you would like to improve your students’ learning experience?

Finally, remember to take a deep breath. You are qualified and competent. You bring unique strengths to your teaching and you will continue to get better with practice. You can do this. 


Further Reading

“Public Speaking for Teachers I: Lecturing Without Fear,” Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, Yale University 

“How to Foster a Growth Mindset in the Classroom,” School of Education, American University 

“Public Speaking Tips for Teachers and Educators,” School of Education, American University

“9 Tips for Overcoming Classroom Stage Fright,” Edutopia