The immediate reaction of my dearest relatives and
friends, upon being told that I had won a teaching
award, was to impugn the integrity, reliability and
objectivity of any selection process that could produce
such a result. My relatives and friends know me to be
a very shy person and they were most surprised that
students could even hear me speak!
I will defer discussion on whether I am deserving of the
teaching award. However, I do know that I have come
a long way since my first lecture, which was done at
breakneck speed with sweaty palms and a thudding
heart. It was all over in half an hour and I had nothing to
say for the rest of the session. Since then, I have gained
more confidence in speaking in front of a large audience
and learnt how to pace myself when I speak. I have also
improved on other aspects of my teaching.
I shall discuss here how a shy person can handle a large
lecture group of 40-60 students. However, I understand
from a previous CDTL Brief article, Tan (2001), the
definition of a 'large group' can vary from 10 to 400
students. Whatever the actual student figures may be, I
hope the following three pointers on what is helpful to
me may also be of help to any shy teacher who thinks
her group is large.
a) Go in with the right frame of mind
When I was about to embark on my first lecture,
someone trotted out a suggestion that I should, to take
the edge off my fears, imagine all my audience with no
clothes on. The suggestion presupposes that when I see
my audience (mentally, of course) in a ridiculous state,
I would lose my fear of them.
Now on hindsight, I think such a suggestion may
actually start a person off on the wrong footing. The
suggestion works on the premise of a 'me vs. them'
attitude and an underlying assumption that a person
can only feel confident by convincing herself that she is
'superior' than those she is confronting. However, such
thoughts automatically put students (our audience) in an
Over the years, I have found that what actually helped
me most is to see the students as they really are. That is,
recognising that the audience is generally composed of
well-disposed, well-meaning and bright people who are
in the course for a variety of fairly ordinary reasons (e.g.
they would like to learn something about the subject,
they hope to earn a good grade). Usually, students are far
less threatening and critical than a shy person embarking
on her first lecture is apt to think. So, do not assume that
students are waiting to pounce on our slightest mistake;
or that they are ghouls preparing to feast on our misery.
This is scarcely what is on students' minds when they
first come for classes.
b) Focus on students, not ourselves
When I teach, I try to put myself in students' shoes and
figure out what is on their minds. I find it helpful to focus
on students' needs and wants (the two, needless to say,
do not always coincide) and concentrate on addressing
these. For instance, students would, minimally, like to
know what is going on in class. So if I see many blank
looks while I am making a point, I will focus on trying
to get the point across in such a way that more students
can understand what I am trying to say. Diverting my
energy to explaining a concept to students also helps to
distract me from thinking what a disaster I must be as a
teacher because I cannot even get a simple point across
-a thought that is helpful neither to me nor my students.
I find that in concentrating strictly on what needs to be
done during my lectures, I soon forget about how I am
doing and so, forget to feel nervous.
c) Bring along a 'security blanket' if necessary
Having the common shy person's fear that I will
suddenly blank out in front of a large group and forget every fact that I had ever claimed to have expert
knowledge of, I used to write out my lectures laboriously
word for word. I am ashamed to admit that when I
first started lecturing, I used to read verbatim from
this prepared script. But having a written script as a
'security blanket' soon gave me the confidence to add a
few extempore sentences of my own, then, ad-lib whole
points and paragraphs and eventually, whole sections. I
am now confident enough to shape the lecture, to a large
extent, in the direction of students' interest and depend
upon student interaction to structure its content. I still
bring in my lecture notes as a sort of ritual, but there
is now little correspondence between what is said in
class and what is written on those sheets. For shy and
nervous teachers, I think it can be helpful to bring along
a 'security blanket' to start with. But the teacher should
be very clear that she is not going to wrap herself in it
for the rest of her life.
To the other shy teachers out there-if I can lay claim
to being a good teacher, so can you!
Tan, C.H. (2001) 'Keys to Effective Large-group Teaching', CDTL
Brief, Vol. 4, No. 5, pp. 1-5, & p. 7. (Last accessed: 27 April 2006).