How to cope with new-semester jitters

Follow these tips to sail into the new semester.
By Dawn Wotapka

Just before each semester starts, Margarita Lenk battles insomnia and stomachaches due to nervousness. The fact that she’s been teaching for three decades doesn’t make it any easier for Lenk, Ph.D., an associate professor of accounting at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo.

“Nerves are very common in every aspect of our profession,” said Lenk.

That’s right: It’s just not the students who deal with jitters ahead of a new class. “As a professor, I’m the one in the driver’s seat, which carries a different type of pressure,” said Angela Spencer, Ph.D., who teaches courses on financial accounting and accounting theory at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla. “I’m always trying new things in the classroom, but I never know how successful those new things — whether it’s updated content, activities, or assignments — will be.”

Experienced faculty members share their best tips for coping with new-semester anxiety:

Realize this is normal. Understand that you are not alone, and you don’t have to pretend that this nervousness doesn’t exist. “Walking into a classroom and facing a sea of new students and faces that are not familiar can be a bit daunting even to an experienced professor,” said Laura M. Prosser, CPA, an assistant professor of accounting at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, S.D. “Face [the jitters] head-on.”

Talk to your peers. Prosser tries to spend time with her colleagues before classes start. She discusses classes, technology, syllabuses, and other relevant topics, which “can be very beneficial to reducing the nervous anticipation that a new semester brings,” she said.

Shake off the past. As you gear up, recognize that each semester is a fresh start. If last semester wasn’t perfect, acknowledge what went wrong, learn from it, and move on. “It’s a given that every class period isn’t going to be successful,” Spencer said. “Nothing is gained by obsessing over the past or allowing failures to prevent us from trying new things.”

Get organized. As you mentally prepare, do so tactically as well. First, get organized, Prosser said. Prepare for the semester by having your classes planned, handouts copied, and other housekeeping matters completed well in advance to reduce stress and save time down the road. If you’re teaching in a physical space, check out the classroom layout and figure out how long it will take you to arrive. In all cases, test the technology you’ll be using. “The key to organization is to be prepared early to avoid last-minute stress caused by not having things ready to go,” Prosser said.

Start a discussion. Study a class roster once it becomes available to learn students’ names. If you’re able to access students’ email addresses before the first day of class, consider communicating with your new students by posting a discussion topic that allows them to introduce themselves, Prosser said. “This would be an ungraded exercise that is voluntary and could be used in both a face-to-face or online class,” she explained. (Here are other ideas for fun activities for the first day of class.)

Focus on the first impression. Come to the first class with an outline of what students will learn and how you’ll be there to support them. “The instructor sets the context, culture, tone, and the first impression is extremely important to manage,” Lenk said.

At the start of each class, Lenk provides students with an outline of what they will be learning, including a list of specific tasks they’ll be able to say they’re proficient in at the end of the semester. This helps motivate them to “study hard and do the work, as learning accounting takes elbow grease,” she said.

She also shares the multiple ways she’ll offer supportive help and assistance without judgment. “I explain that the only negative judgment that is possible as an outcome is if they had the resources and the opportunities to get help and they chose not to use either,” she explained.

Prosser reminded her peers to exude confidence. “Walk into the classroom confident and ready for a successful semester,” she said. 

Put students first. Remember that your students are nervous as well, and they’re the reason you’re teaching. Take the focus off yourself and think positively about the way you’re going to help mold your new students. “I remind myself that the students are not there for me, nor do they care about me, but rather they are counting on my help in developing themselves,” Lenk said. “Remember that as a number one priority, and let that guide every decision.”

Finally, if you find yourself in need of a quick pep talk, remember that you’re up for this challenge. “Continuously remind yourself of one thing: Even though you may have a steep learning curve in a particular semester, you still do in fact know more than the students,” Spencer said. “Don’t let the newness of the situation lower your confidence.”

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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