Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

January, 1996
Subject: Random Thought: Anxiety in the Classroom, A Reply

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! I just came in from a very, very cold walk draped in icicles. Even though I was the only nut out on the street at 5:00 a.m. it was a far noisier walk then you would expect. That's because with every step my breath instantly froze and smashed to the street clinking and clanging broken glass. 20 degrees with a wind chill factor of 4 degrees!! My nose is a bright, rosy red. Rudolph, eat your heart out!!!

Well, I turned on the computer and found more off-list responses to my latest Random Thought. Most of them are off-list. If most of them weren't so heated, you would have thought from their chill that I had left the windows in both my office and home open and that my computer was in danger of freezing. And, once again, though I tried, the messages are piling up faster than I can answer them and are threatening to divert time I devote to the students. But, deserve an answer all of you who took the time to write do. So, with your indulgence I'd like to answer on list all of you who have written me. I hope no one takes this type of reply to be impersonal. I really do not mean it to be.

I have found over the last five years that I was altering both my personal and professional life as I was altering my attitude toward myself, my craft, and those around me. In that process I came to some conclusions. They probably aren't original, but were and are for me. I discovered that our schools in and of themselves have no inherent quality. They are neither boring nor interesting, frustrating nor satisfying, dull nor fascinating, joyful nor anxious. They are what we perceive them to be, what we make them out to be, what we let them make us out to be. We can have, for example, a class of challenging students and an institution of imposing administrators and goodness knows what else, and bemoan our misfortune and be discouraged; or we can have a class of challenging students and and institutions of imposing administrators and goodness knows what else, and accept the situation as an exciting, adventurous challenge. Either way, we still have a class of challenging students and an institution of imposing administrators and goodness knows what. It's a matter of attitude. If we must point fingers, I have learned how difficult it is to first point them at myself. I have discovered that if I wish to sing, I must find a song and a stage, and I will find a song and a stage; and if I wish to wail and rip my clothing, will find a dirge and a funeral. We have to admit that we are as happy or as sad, as satisfied or as frustrated, as encouraged or as discouraged, as we make up our minds to be. I truly believe our attitudes and moods are our choice, and it is our attitudes that determine what we see and hear when we are looking at and listening to both ourselves and the students.

I started becoming an excited and fulfilled teacher as I stumbled on and wrestled with two other realizations. First, I became almost apologeticly far less cavelier about generating that "no pain, no gain" atmosphere for students to breath in the classroom--exercising power at the front of the classroom asking students to do my biding--when I reluctantly had to see and admit that I didn't like being in the similar position of being among the powerless forced to grovel before and do the bidding of the higher authorities be they Dean, President, Chancellor, Regents, John Q. Public or legislator. It was not fun to admit that I was violating the golden rule by doing unto students what I did not like or want or fought against others doing unto me. It was tough to acknowledge and be sensitive to the double standard I was practicing. It's tougher to eliminate it, and I haven't completly attained that goal yet. If you don't understand what I mean and think anxiety is good for the soul, if you don't think that as the level of anxiety increases hesitancy grows, if you don't think that as the level of anxiety rises performance lowers, if you don't think that as the level of fear of failure or being wrong or looking stupid or being penalized proportionally increases the spread of intellectual and emotional paralysis and diminishes the inclination to take risks and be creative or imaginative, if you don't think that anxiety is a hammer-lock that turns your head to look over your shoulder substitute the word "student" with "teacher" or "educator" or "professor" and replace the nitty-gritty student-centered words like "grade", "essay", "project", "test", "recommendation", "graduation" with teacher-centered words like "livlihood", "salary increase", "promotion", "tenure", "contract", "evaluation", "accountability"--just to mention a few.

My second realization was that my happiness and fulfillment rested on a set of my attitudes, not a set of circumstances. After some tough soul-searching and a difficult spiritual journey that have yet to end, I concluded that I wouldn't, couldn't, be a happy or excited or fulfilled teacher as long as I concentrated my aim on the targets of a certain salary level, size of my reputation, the extent of job protection, the title of my position, length of my resume, and so on. The real bullseye for an excited and fulfilled teacher is to be a person who has a a sense of purpose and mission in what he or she does, a belief in what and who they are, a rewarding sense of what they are doing, a love of people; who understands that caring about others helps everyone who gives it and receives it, who sees that you cannot truly help a student without helping youself.

Some of you have asked me, tongue-in-cheek, how do I sustain my passion for teaching day after day after day. You're asking me the wrong question. Ask me if how do I maintain my belief in the students and my interest in life.

Let me take the first. I approach each class as a gathering of diverse, special individuals, not as a roster of names. I work hard not to lose sight of the unique individuals behind the ID numbers. Each student is a person with feelings, hopes, dreams, and fears whom I as a teacher have the power and opportunity to touch with my words, feelings and actions. I am always amazed at the power of a Tootsie Pop hurtling through the air towards a dour face, of a soft tap, a simple touch, a soft word, a second of listening, a moment of stopping to care, a friendly glance. Each person is an undiscovered masterpiece. Each person has a talent to be developed and a potential to be sought. Each person is capable and significant who has the capacity to make a difference if he or she would acquire the courage and take the risk to use it. Most students will not remember those teachers who merely knew their subject and transmitted information. They will, however, remember most those teachers who cared about them as sacred people and pulled for their success. It won't matter in the future how long my resume is or how widespread my reputation will be. It will only matter if I somehow magically and mysteriously am a gift in the life of a student. I don't think I can do much better as a teacher than get students to believe that, help them start finding them, aid them in seeing what's going for him or her, and make them feel great about themselves. It's the small people behind the podium who are negative about students, put them down, belittle their ambitions, and dash their dreams.

Now about life. There is so much out there yet to learn; there is so much room in me for change; there's so much learning and growing to happen in there. Even at the youthful age of 55, with all my honors and prestige and experience and accomplishments, I still have things I want to stop doing, maybe must stop doing; I still have things I want to start doing, maybe should start doing. I still have nightmares to confront and dreams to come true. For me, everyday must have a sunrise; it must be a constant renewal, a constant adventure, and a constant discovery of something new. If it isn't, if what I do and what I am has become a sunset, whatever I do has lost its vitality, I've lost my vitality, and it isn't worth doing.

By the way, Kim and I have abstained for the last five days!

Have a good one.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
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                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
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