Dealing with anxiety on the first day of class is common among new teachers of Arabic and, also, when you start working at a new institution. This is so because the first encounter between teachers and students is full of expectations, on both sides.
On one hand, students want to know if they’ve made the right choice by taking Arabic, they wonder if they’re going to like the language, if they are capable of learning it, and they want to be liked by their professors. On the other hand, as teachers, we want to make a professional impression on our students, we seek their respect, and we also want to be liked.
Teachers who are not native speakers of Arabic might experience additional anxiety, depending on the nature of their students and the level of Arabic they teach. (But this post is not about psychology or the native vs. non-native teachers debate -just not yet-, so I’ll get back to my main topic.)
Here are some tips that can help mitigate your nervousness the day you start teaching, while laying the foundations for a smooth semester:
Arrive early to class, and show your excitement. Smiling from the heart breaks barriers and puts everyone at ease. Research shows that people who tend to smile are more liked than those who don’t; because as humans we like being with people that visibly enjoy being with us. If you smile in class, you’ll discover that students will smile back at you:)
In most classrooms, seating arrangements follow a very traditional pattern: people sit in rows, as if they were “workstations” . But for teaching and learning a foreign language, this type of configuration doesn’t engage learners to communicate and collaborate. One thing you can do, before you start class, is to ask students to help you arrange the furniture in a U-shape or conference table(s). This will create a sense of community, it will contribute to feeling more relaxed when teaching, and students will know that this is the first thing they need to do when they enter the classroom for the rest of the semester.
It’s not really about listing your credentials, but about saying your name, how it’s pronounced, and maybe sharing something more personal (hobbies, what languages you speak, Arab countries you lived in, favorites places in town, or anything of this sort). This humanizes you in the eyes of students, and it helps building rapport.
Something else worth mentioning at this stage, is how you want students to call you: ustaaza, just by your first name, or Professor? This will save you a lot of uncomfortable moments and emails that can potentially be a source of anxiety.
If you introduce yourself, it naturally follows to show interest in your students. Depending on their number, you can have students introduce themselves in front of everyone, one by one, or have them talk to their classmates and then report back. I like asking my students to share: their name, nationality, major, languages they speak, why they chose Arabic, and what they know about the language. This is a great opportunity to discuss a few aspects related to your course, and to spot heritage learners and make sure that no one has been misplaced due to her/his Arabic proficiency.
It’s not enough to ask students their name; you need to learn them by heart as soon as possible. Calling your students by their name, instead of pointing at them, makes them feel valued and respected, and it develops a sense of community in the classroom, which helps creating a relaxed environment. When I first meet my students, I like testing myself recalling their names out loud, to see if I memorized them. I do a few rounds on the first and second days of class, until I get an A:)
If you sent the Syllabus in advance (see my previous post), Day 1 can provide valuable information about the nature of your students (for example, their organizational skills). But even if they’ve read it at home, you’ll need to discuss the document in class in detail to allow for questions and concerns. Make sure that everyone is on the same page and that there are no misunderstandings.
And keep smiling:)
Regardless of the level of Arabic that you are teaching, students need to leave their first class feeling that they’ve learned something they can practice in the real world. If it’s Arabic 101, students should ideally know how to use a basic greeting and introduce themselves. If it’s a higher level, take this opportunity to do a speaking practice that helps students recall some of what they’ve learned in a previous semester. Shining the spotlight on students helps you focus your attention on them, rather than on your nervousness.
The success of your Arabic course will depend a lot on the impression you give on the first day of class and the type of interactions you build with students. The best advice I can give you is: be honest and transparent, respect your students, and prepare well for every single class. As for the butterflies in the stomach: We all have them on the first day:)
Do you have any particular tip or habit that has helped you in the past? I would love to know!