Do you know who Bartimaeus is in the Bible? I do. Over the years, I must have taught the passage in Mark that references Bartimaeus at least seventy times (twelve years of over six sections of teaching the New Testament to middle and high school students, not to mention devotions, chapel messages, and Bible studies over the last twenty-plus years). I’ve given quizzes, tests, and assignments that referenced Bartimaeus, and I had to grade each of those. So, when I was sitting in church recently and the pastor asked people to raise their hands if they could explain who Bartimaeus was, how is it possible that, in that moment, I could not honestly raise my hand? I could not even remember enough to say that he was a blind man whom Jesus healed. The answer to that question holds an important lesson for us when it comes to teaching the faith.
In that moment, for some reason, I experienced a rush of fear and anxiety. Part of it had to do with the fact that, on the way to church, I was musing about a completely unrelated but difficult life situation, one that induced a bit of stress. Then, for some reason, when this question was asked, I had an odd moment of panic. What if the pastor called on me in the middle of the service and I failed to answer such a basic question correctly? I imagined how embarrassed I would be, how humiliated I would feel. In a flash, I saw it happen in my mind as if it were actually occurring. It was striking enough that I felt that familiar warm, flush sensation that often accompanies embarrassment.
Of course, I have a wonderfully insightful and sensitive pastor whom I couldn’t imagine doing that if he suspected it would embarrass someone, and he certainly didn’t call anyone out. Nonetheless, for reasons unknown to me, my anxiety prevented me from easily recalling the answer in that instant, even though I’ve known it and do know it quite well. Ask me the same question at another time and in a different context, and I could probably direct you to Mark 10, explain that the healing of Bartimaeus took place at or near Jericho, discuss the significance of Bartimaeus calling Jesus the “son of David,” and have a great conversation about what it did and did not mean when Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well.” Yet, this simple experience in church reminded me about an important lesson in teaching the faith.
What is going on inside of each learner has an impact on student learning and each student’s ability to demonstrate what he or she has learned. Certain types of stress and anxiety can be the enemy of learning. Under the right circumstances, we can stumble and forget even the most reinforced lessons. If a person who has studied and taught an idea for years can struggle in an instance, imagine the negative impact of high-stress or anxiety-inducing learning contexts when students are learning something for the first time and when they are in a more frequent state of stress.
This is why our classroom climate and culture is so important. If there is a student silently fretting about a bully sitting in the same room (or whom he or she will see soon after class), that fear is likely going to reduce how much the student learns. If you come off as overly stern, demanding, unforgiving, and relentless in your classroom teaching and leadership, that will also detract from some student learning. If a student justly or unjustly fears that you are “out to get” or don’t like him or her, that will impact the student’s learning too. If a student is intimidated by you or the context, that occupies precious brain power, which then is not attending to the lesson at hand, and student learning will likely plummet.
This is far from a science. Stress and anxiety are never absent from a classroom, but if we are at least aware of this consideration, we can take steps to minimize it. We can brainstorm ways to reduce test and quiz anxiety by giving students ample time for low-stakes practice and nonthreatening ways to check their understanding. We can find ways to encourage and assure students. We can look out for students who seem be experiencing stress in the environment and work with them individually to overcome it. We can also remember that student learning is not always accurately measured by a pop quiz, a traditional test or quiz, or calling on students in the middle of the class. Sometimes students know more than they are able to express in a given circumstance, so we are wise to devise plans that take this into account, finding ways to check for student understanding in informal and ongoing ways.
Stress and anxiety are a part of life; we can’t make them go away for good. Yet, with a little effort and attention, we can reduce its negative impact on student learning.