Facing my fear

By Maria Cho | 01/15/2015

A teacher gives herself an assignment.


I have been teaching nursing students in various programs for five years. I enjoy teaching, but it takes courage to stand in front of people. Although I have improved every quarter, I still have to repeatedly go over the material I am teaching, review PowerPoint slides and quizzes, and read recently published articles on the subject. If I were to tell my students that I am afraid of public speaking, they would not believe me. I am usually quiet in big meetings and hesitate to ask questions in a group setting. I’d rather ask questions of the speaker individually. I don’t know if this is because of my personality, my cultural background, or my gender.
Cho_Maria_ID_embed_SFW2My specialty is oncology nursing. As an oncology nurse, I have had much experience working with elderly patients, which has led me to be interested in geriatrics. I love to listen to life stories of older people; they always remind me of what I need to focus on in my life at this moment and what my priorities should be.
Easy for you to say
It was an honor to be selected for the interprofessional and multidisciplinary geriatric faculty development program established by the University of California San Francisco, but my joy was short-lived because of my passive nature. Attending the program’s monthly meetings was challenging and took courage. At the first meeting, I was intimidated by several things: 1) the diverse professions and impressive backgrounds of other attendees, 2) the nontraditional format (it was not the usual classroom teaching and learning style I was familiar with), and 3) speaking in front of people. Of the three, I was most uncomfortable with speaking up in the classroom.
When I applied for the program, I assumed the course would be taught through lectures and PowerPoint slides. However, all of the lectures involved various ways of learning the material—experiential learning as well as both small-group and large-group discussion. I enjoyed the small groups and tried to actively participate, but I found this a challenge in large groups and only participated twice in class discussion. This experience made me think again about why I am not verbally active in the classroom. Is it because I have public-speaking anxiety or because I am self-conscious of my accent, grammar, and enunciation?
I am an immigrant, a female who grew up in the Korean culture. Although I know asking questions and sharing thoughts contribute to active learning, I am not comfortable with doing that. During my education in Korea, asking questions was not allowed in the classroom. Teachers taught you what you didn’t know, so you needed to respect them. Even when the teacher was wrong, students were not allowed to correct him or her because it would be embarrassing to the teacher.
I am not sure if my reserved personality led me to be who I am or if I am a product of suppression that was present in my Korean learning environment. However, I have noticed that even younger generations of Korean people display similar characteristics in the classroom setting. Korean culture is heavily influenced by Confucian values, where there is a moral responsibility to respect someone who has higher status than you, such as government officials, teachers, and doctors.
Breaking free
Face-saving to avoid shame, another crucial cultural factor in my upbringing, may account for why I am not comfortable speaking in front of people, especially to a multidisciplinary team and large audiences. In other words, I do not want to be judged by my verbal communication skills. This behavior, however, became a cell that locked up my creative ideas and questions. Differences in communication styles that relate to gender, values, and expectations are common in all workplace situations, but individual personality and culture also play a significant role.
Changing one’s behavior is not easy. Although it may be a challenge for me, I am planning to do the following to change my behaviors: 1) I will actively look for opportunities to speak up in meetings. 2) To meet more people and become more comfortable interacting with faculty members, I will attend more meetings and sign up for committee activities when opportunities arise. 3) To overcome my fear of speaking in front of people, both within nursing and outside of nursing, I will seek out and attend meetings of the local chapter of Toastmasters International. 4) I will work to positively visualize myself giving successful class presentations and participating in class discussions. And, 5) I will not focus on my limitations, but on the strength I can bring to the meeting or discussion. RNL
Maria Cho, PhD, RN, is assistant professor, Department of Nursing and Health Sciences, California State University, East Bay, in Hayward, California, USA.
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