Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

How to Slay the Dragon of Classroom Anxiety

I’ve written about this before, but when I was in the second grade, my teacher kept a barf bag in her desk just for me.

At the time, I didn’t realize there was an actual name for my experience, but if I was in a public elementary school today, I would probably get diagnosed with test anxiety.

As a high school humanities teacher, today, I’ve learned that while most students aren’t anywhere near as anxious as I was, it is normal for most students to experience some measure of anxiety about school.

So I thought I might offer a few random tips that have helped me slay the dragon of classroom anxiety. Hopefully, they’ll help you slay your dragon too.

My first recollection of this “test anxiety” was in the first grade when we were given timed math tests.

“Time tests,” as they were called, were a single page full of simple math problems we were supposed to have memorized. Depending on how many there were on the page, we generally got a minute or a minute and a half to complete the problems.

By all means, they were simple even for a first grader, and I knew every problem by heart.

But for some reason, when the teacher started the stopwatch, the numbers on the page turned into Chinese alphabet symbols. I would stare at the page through tears trying to make sense of one-plus-one. 

What does this even mean?

Suddenly, I would hear the click of the stopwatch and those chilling words, “Time’s up! Put your pencils down.” And at the clattering of #2 pencils on the desks, hysteria commenced.

The Barf Bag

It continued into the second grade. Every time I missed a question on a test, I would cry so hard I’d start heaving.

Whenever the teacher announced a test, and often when she was just expounding on a concept I didn’t understand, I would begin to panic. My stomach would start aching, I would get short of breath, and I would turn clammy and get nauseated.

As soon as the tears welled up, my teacher would pull out the barf bag and excuse me to stand outside the class or go to the nurse’s office.

I eventually got over the crying and nausea (okay… the nausea at least), but even as a grown man working on a doctorate, I am still amply acquainted with the wrenching stomach and tightening throat.

I’ve been through the drill hundreds of times before, but each new experience meets me with some measure of anxiety.

Sometimes, I feel like a small child thrown into the deep end of a murky pool without floats. Up to my neck with unfamiliar terms and treading through abstract ideas only vaguely familiar to me, I occasionally catch myself reaching for the barf bag again.

That’s when I know it’s time to draw the sword and slay the anxiety dragon. I’ve boiled it down to three simple steps.

Know Your Enemy

The philosopher and military strategist, Sun Tzu, wrote, know your enemy! In this case, your enemy is not school, and it’s not yourself. It’s fear.

And a large part of what gives fear its power is the unknown. By discovering the cause of your fear, it may not eliminate the challenge of slaying it, but at least you will illuminate the dragon of anxiety, making him less mysterious, less ominous, and much more vulnerable.

So, ask exactly what you’re anxious about. Be honest with yourself. Be specific.

  • Is it the fear of “not getting it?”
  • Is it frustration about your conscious incompetence? (In this case, it means you are completely aware of how clueless you are.)
  • Is it the shame of feeling like you’re the only one who doesn’t know or understand the subject matter?
  • Is it the angst of knowing how hard you’re going to have to work to keep up with the rigor of school and still have to keep up with all your other responsibilities?
  • Is it the prospect of having to write academic essays, ones that are going to be read and critiqued by someone you don’t know yet?
  • Is it the fear of not being liked or accepted by the teacher or by other students?
  • Is it something else?

By naming your fear, you can see the dragon clearly and know just where to thrust your sword to slay that fire-breathing anxiety.

Know Thyself

Next is where you need to be honest about your own current educational aptitude. Socrates famously used the Delphian maxim, Know thyself. The reason you’re in school is to get an education, not a job, and not a grade. That means no one expects you to know or understand everything, and so you don’t need to put that on yourself either.

Be okay with not understanding everything you read or discuss. Enjoy the book, the discussion, the art, or the assignment for its own sake. Be content knowing that each time you cross the idea in the future, you will gain more understanding of it, but for now enjoy the scenery and take in what’s appealing or pleasant at this time.

Remember, the concepts and ideas we address in a Classical Christian School often begin vague and disconnected—they look like “men as trees walking.” Later, the contours of the ideas will come into better focus with each new reading, reference, and discussion. Eventually you’ll recognize the myriad threads of interconnectivity between other ideas, and gain some mastery over it.

For example, the first time I read Frankenstein, I was amazed at how different it was from my expectation. I enjoyed that enlightening experience.

The next time I read it, I understood something different about the creature. It was like a whole new experience, but not entirely distinct from the first.

The third time I read it, I realized something about the frame story structure and the author’s worldview. It too was a brand new experience.

That pattern continues with each book I read.

That’s the way real education works. Don’t fight it. Don’t fear it. It’s not the dragon. Embrace it–patiently and enthusiastically.

Strive to reach your own potential, not some else’s. Instead of feeling fear that you’re not measuring up, or harboring bitterness about someone else’s success, by all means try to learn from them, but don’t compare yourself to them.

Just concentrate on showing up, participating in each part of your own education, and let your grade and the other person’s potential take care of themselves.

In any case, be aware of what you do know and what you do understand, and use that to contribute to your own and your class’s learning experience. Be humble, but don’t be shy or timid.

Be confident. Remember, you’re a dragon slayer!

Know Your Job

This sounds a little obvious, but it’s worth mentioning that a student’s vocation is that of a student. In other words, a student’s job is to study.

That’s where you wield your sword against the dragon of anxiety–not in your mind.

Your job is to read with as much understanding as you currently possess, no more, no less.

Your job is to record commonplaces from your reading in a notebook everyday.

Your job is to show up and participate in the discussions with enthusiasm.

Your job is to contribute what you know, or what you think you might know.

Your job is to ask good questions.

Your job is to be humble, and open to changing your mind, when it means approximating yourself more closely to the truth.

Your job is to use your imagination—that’s not daydreaming, necessarily—at least not in class time—but to envision how some things might relate to other things within, and to, the divinely-ordered cosmos.

Your job is to be respectful to the teacher and other students by acknowledging them as fellows in the educational journey.

Your job is to complete your work to the best of your ability by approaching it the way you might eat an elephant, carefully, and one bite at a time.

Your job is to enjoy yourself.

Your job is to know your plan and stick to your plan–even when the dragon sneezes fire at you.

When it’s all said and done, knowing what you fear, knowing how you learn, and knowing what your job is might be an efficient way to slay the dragon of your classroom anxiety. But remember, it’s still a dragon, and slaying dragons is dangerous business.

That’s why you won’t want to exclude prayer from this work (Philippians 4:6-8).


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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he’ll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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2 Replies

  1. Billy Henderson

    Great advice Scott.
    I recently surveyed Isaiah for our congregation. Of course I read chapter six and had to ask God where my culture was slipping into my own life. As usual, the Lord was faithful to give me steps for growth.

    To keep it short, my problem was complaining about my workload. Repentance meant returning to faith that God gives grace for what he requires. My problem was complaining. However, realizing that God gives grace for the studies (job) to which he calls us may be helpful with study anxiety as well.

    1 Corinthians 15:10 (ESV)
    10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

    1. Amen! Thanks for sharing so personally, Billy. We can all use a good dose of Isaiah 6 reflection–regularly.