By: Maryellen Weimer, PhD
I continue to worry that we devalue the affective dimensions of teaching—the emotional energy it takes to keep delivering high-quality instruction.
Most faculty are on solid ground in terms of expertise. We know and, in most cases, love our content. We don’t get tired of it—oh, maybe we do a bit in those foundation courses, but the content isn’t what wears us down; it’s the daily grind, having to be there every class session, not just physically present but mentally and emotionally engaged as well. Good teaching requires more energy than we think it does.
I’m posting this because it is the end of the academic year, and many us are feeling tired and used up. That makes it a good time for a gentle reminder: take time to refresh. We’re also approaching summer, which is often a time when things slow down. Some of us don’t teach during the summer, or we teach fewer courses, whereas others have only that brief time between terms or semesters. Whatever time you have, some of it should be used to recharge and refresh.
I’m not advocating some generic relaxation, although we all do benefit from unplugging now and then but, rather, a planned and purposeful set of activities that renews your commitment to and passion for teaching. This is not the kind of refresh that comes from revising a syllabus, choosing a new textbook, or working out the details of a group project. This needs to be about you and what will enable you to stand excitedly before students the next time you teach.
Have you considered a conference? Of course, I’d recommend the annual Teaching Professor Conference, but you might also consider an institute, extended workshop, or some other event where teaching and learning are front and center on the agenda. I have to admit that I’ve never been a big fan of conferences—too many people, always in big cities—and I’d rather learn alone at home in my blue jeans with a cat curled on my lap. But even I agree The Teaching Professor Conference is an event that feeds the souls of many teachers. There’s something special about being in a group where everyone unabashedly cares for teaching. Add to that the opportunity to learn; to consider new instructional options; to meet teachers from all over the United States, Canada, and abroad; and to discover that they’re confronting the same challenges and issues. That’s invigorating!
But as refreshing and energizing as in-person events can be, they aren’t the only way to recharge depleted instructional energy. There’s renewal to be found in the content we love. If we spend time exploring an area of special interest, if we catch up on some of the latest research and new findings, there’s a good chance those feeling about the content will spill over into teaching. Loving the field can motivate teaching. What we’re teaching is important; it matters and there’s an urgent need for others to learn what we know.
I think colleagues can refresh each other but not with complaint-filled conversations or exchanges focused on ways to quickly grade quizzes or enrich online discussions. There is much to complain about, I know, and daily details matter, but those conversations don’t lift our spirits. We need to talk about why we’re teaching, how it makes a difference in our lives and the lives of others, and all the reasons we need to carry on despite the challenges. We need to share quotations that inspire, tell stories of those teachers who made us love learning, remember students who credit us for what they’ve accomplished, and recount first encounters with the field that has become our life’s work.
Am I hearing the curmudgeons among us chiding that Pollyanna platitudes aren’t going change how hard we have to work, how many students don’t want to learn, and how those in charge regularly make dreadful decisions? The realities of academic life can be frustrating, demoralizing, and stressful, but what we need is an attitude that accepts these realities and at the same time understands that with education, there is a greater truth and a larger set of reasons that merit our continuing commitment. If we don’t take time to refresh, recharge, and recommit, the value of what we’re doing is no longer a driving force. We mustn’t settle for less when students need our best.