My teaching and my anxiety are each really hard to talk about without talking about the other. Each has informed the other, has helped and hurt the other. In many ways, teaching gave me the tools to live with anxiety, and my anxiety issues gave me the empathy and perspective to teach better.
When I’m having a full-on anxiety attack, I feel a lot like I just ran two miles after not running for five years, and also someone was chasing me, and also everything is a bomb, and also everything gets very far away. Also, my anxiety doesn’t really have consistent triggers. Just the other night, it was someone covering a Bob Dylan song. But I don’t think it was really that. A lot of the time, it’s just when I’ve been inside my head too much. Suddenly, breathing is hard and my heart is racing and my brain won’t sit still for one damn second and my body reacts to nearly every bit of stimulus like it is pain without actually feeling any.
When my anxiety is merely high, I’m extra irritable, but also hyper-productive. When I was finishing my last draft of my book, I went off my daily medication for the week of my spring break. My anxiety helps me focus, helps me stay grounded in the stories I’m telling, helps me be honest and raw in a way I want my writing to be. It’s not all bad, really, not all the time.
In the Venn diagram of my life as teacher/anxieteer, there is a beautiful person who totally gets me because she’s pretty much the boss of both. Shanna Peeples was the National Teacher of the Year the same year that I was Minnesota’s. This meant that we spent four weeks together in 2014 and have continued to connect at conferences and such. She’s one of the first people who read my book, and if she isn’t your hero yet, she should be.
When Shanna and I are together, we talk in equal amounts about teaching and anxiety, and often about how they work (or not) together. The night before the Bob Dylan cover, we were together at the National Network of State Teachers of the Year conference in D.C. Because we are us, we were out too late having drinks, and because we are us, too late was really only about 10:00 p.m. We ditched the larger group just getting started on the night, walked back to the hotel together, and talked about our brains.
These Are Our Brains on Anxiety
Tom: During my first few years of teaching, I remember feeling every once in a while like I was about to die, but I was too scared to stop teaching just for that, so I’d just sort of plow through. It took a few years to figure out I was having an anxiety attack in the middle of class, and even longer to figure out how my lower-level anxiety was directly affecting my teaching. But, it totally does, right?
Shanna: My whole first year of teaching, I couldn’t make eye contact with students. It was too threatening for me to look in their faces because I was afraid of the reflection. I figured those Black and Brown 12-year-olds—most of whom lived in various amounts of poverty-induced chaos—were judging how ludicrous it was that a White, middle-aged, middle-class woman was lecturing them.
Tom: Did you find things that worked? That helped get over the “I’m always the worst and this is terrible” sort of constant feeling?
Shanna: I did the only thing I knew how to do: lots of writing. You know, you only have to make eye contact with the paper. This was really more about keeping me from almost barking in panic on a daily basis, but had the wonderful side benefit of giving students lots of space to practice telling stories, and understanding that writing helps you find parts of yourself.
Over the last five or so years, I found that the less I spoke, the less anxious I felt. In fact, the more I invited students to speak, to share, to guide, to co-create lessons with me, the more I felt this weird sensation that I’ve come to decide is actual joy. It’s joyful to allow them more air time and it has this amazing side benefit of making them feel seen, heard and valued.
Tom: “Talk less” is like telling me to drink more water and do yoga. Like, of course it would be good for me, but that doesn’t mean that there’s even a small chance I’ll do it. But have you noticed that having anxiety and working on it made you better at some of the people parts of teaching?
How Anxiety Helps Us Teach Better
Shanna: Anxiety blueprinted emotional supports for my students. If they needed the nurse or the counselor, they had the freedom to take my hall pass and go quietly.
Anxiety taught me to check in with them to gauge their mood, allowing them to opt out of the lesson until they could recalibrate.
Ruminating over flaws and failures taught me to build a culture where it’s OK to be human, where achievement isn’t your only worth. Where your competencies with humor, thoughtfulness, conscientiousness, friendship and consistency are valued.
It also helps me think through decisions much more carefully, because I’m aware of how much I catastrophize.
Tom: I’m using that from now on when I’m quiet. When people ask, “What are you thinking about?” I’m going to say, “I’m not thinking, I’m catastrophizing.” But, yes, I totally feel that. Talking about anxiety with classes when it’s coming up has also meant a lot of students have felt OK coming to me with their anxiety issues. I think normalizing it is important. Like, we should be as embarrassed about having anxiety as we would be about having a cold or something.
Shanna: Exactly. Anxiety can be a good thing. Anxiety made me who I am. It’s made me empathetic to others because anxious people learn to quickly scan faces and body language, to read emotions. That’s helped me to be a better co-worker—and when I remind myself to breathe—a better partner, parent and friend.
Tom: That remembering to breathe part is one I need to work on more. But also, I think with anxiety making it so uncomfortable sometimes to sit still or be quiet, I end up doing a lot more things I should be doing anyway. When it isn’t making me a complete ass to be around, I think anxiety also helps me understand and connect with more people.
Shanna: As a department chair, anxiety taught me to lead from a shared power model because I know that I can’t wholly trust my own perceptions. My colleagues can see what I can’t and I need their vision. In a very real sense, anxiety helped me get better at trusting other people’s opinions, and to involve them in decision-making.
Paradoxically, miraculously, anxiety somehow created this alchemy that’s made me into a most surprising creature: a teacher leader.