Anxiety in the Classroom: 3 Lessons Learned
When I reflect on my personal education history, I see that I experienced barriers during two time periods.
Growing up, I did not recognize that I struggled with anxiety. My body would shake in fear when my teachers would announce group activities, my heart would race wildly when we had class discussions, but I did not have a word for what I was feeling. However, as much as I wanted to fly under the radar, my anxiety made me participate or respond in class even when I did not want to. There were no accommodations or adaptations. My teachers only saw an ideal student, eager to please, high achiever, quick to take part, aware of my classmates. Why would any teacher think there was a problem? Even if they did, why would they want to change this ideal behavior? But inside, I was imploding with fear, terrified of making mistakes, losing my status, being assigned group work, visibly quaking during every pop quiz. My teachers did not see that I was overly sensitive to my classmates because I was regularly bullied for my religious beliefs which forced me to be constantly aware (fully-alert) of my surroundings to stay safe and aggressively protective of other students who were bullied.
Later, while still a perfectionist, I loved college and had a mostly barrier-free first two years. It was at this point that I began having seizures while serving a church mission abroad. I spent the next five years trying to finish my undergraduate degree with a seizure disorder. I transferred to Brigham Young University and was surrounded by extremely capable, often perfectionistic students (which was a little difficult for my anxiety). However, most of my professors went above and beyond to work with me. I was an accompanist for the a capella choir and Dr. Bishop offered his office for me to slip into when I felt I was close to having a seizure during class. During a particularly bad semester, Dr. Hadfield asked my classmates if they would take notes for me during class whether or not I was able to attend in person (and to their credit, many were eager to help!) My campus job allowed me to bring in teaching assistants to help me lead the ASL labs. The BYU accommodations office was willing to help but often they said it would depend on the professors willingness (or lack, thereof) so I am very grateful that most of my professors were willing to make exceptions for me or brainstorm other options (regardless of whether they had official directives from the accommodations office or not). I know that it was only because of the support of my professors, my fellow students, and my campus employment, that I was finally able to graduate.
I have no doubt that my experiences with anxiety and managing a serious health problem have influenced how I teach and support my students. My barriers have taught me three lessons for teaching:
1. Many common teaching practices are not anxiety-friendly (e.g. pop quizzes, true/false exam questions, heavily-weighted group projects, high-stakes summative tests). They may be teacher-friendly (i.e. grading-friendly) but they are often “gotcha teaching” (a phrase I came up with today when I thought of the similarities with “gotcha journalism”).
2. Disability-friendly teaching is everyone-friendly teaching. “Revising...materials effectively will help not only those students who struggle, but also the others in the classroom. Good teaching is good teaching and all students benefit from improved materials and strategies” (Kent ISD, n-d, p. 1). This is why the theory of multiple intelligences resonates with me; it nurtures the learning of all students.
For example, rather than a standardized multiple-choice exam on World War II, a teacher can give students the choice to either (1) compose a eight line poem about Pearl Harbor, (2) draw a political cartoon about Neville Chamberlain’s “peace treaty” with Hitler, (3) recite Churchill’s victory speech, (4) compare the Holocaust with the current genocide of Uyghurs in China, (5) record yourself and two classmates performing a scene or song from the musical “Allegiance” about the Japanese internment camps or (6) write a thank you note to Corrie Ten Boom.
3. Anxiety in the classroom manifests itself in two ways: perfectionism or apathy towards learning. Our minds naturally crave learning. If a student seems apathetic to learning, there are always other reasons, not an inherent lack of desire. Anxiety may also manifest as “high absenteeism rates, difficulty processing and retrieving information, sleep deprivation, disruptive behaviors in class, fractured relationships with peers and teachers, irregular homework completion and classroom participation, complaints of physical ailments” - all of which are too often labeled as “an attitude or behavioral problem” (Stack, n-d).
I hope my empathy for students facing barriers has grown because of my experiences. My top priority is to make my classroom a safe environment with minimal trauma triggers and a deep understanding for how outside influences impact a student’s performance in class.
Kent Intermediate School District (n-d). Classroom adaptations: Creating a climate of success. https://www.trimesters.org/uploads/3/4/7/1/34719762/classroomadaptations.pdf
Stack, D. E. (n-d). Managing anxiety in the classroom. Mental Health America. https://www.mhanational.org/blog/managing-anxiety-classroom