Birds are chirping, spring is in the air, and educators can see the light at the end of the tunnel that is summer break. However, even though we’re in the home stretch, we’re not across the finish line just yet.
In higher ed, this is the time of year when – let’s be honest – we’ve all seen colleagues flip on the autopilot switch and glide toward mid-May in sleep mode. On the other hand, we’ve also seen colleagues who’ve pushed themselves past the breakpoint. There’s a sweet spot, I think, somewhere between burnout (opens in new tab) and disengagement (opens in new tab), in which we use what we’ve learned about our students so far in the semester (or school year) to focus on what’s really important for them to learn.
Here are my strategies for doing just that.
Work Smarter Not Harder
In George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, Boxer is a literal and figurative workhorse whose motto is “I will work harder!” All too often teachers suffer from what I call “Boxer syndrome.”
Early on in my career as a writing professor, working harder was my solution to everything. There was no obstacle that canceling my weekend plans wouldn’t overcome, or so I thought. If a student didn’t improve after my feedback on their initial assignment, I’d offer twice as detailed feedback on the next. If a class lesson didn’t go as I had hoped, I’d spend three times longer planning the next session. The result was overwhelming my students (a.k.a. death by a thousand teacher comments) and overplanned class sessions with no room for spontaneity (death by PowerPoint).
I think about this at this time of year, particularly when I’m noticing certain students who are not moving forward with their writing. Rather than spending time making the same comments and pointing out the same mistakes, I’ll try to find out why the message isn’t getting through. Maybe there’s a cultural or generational barrier. Or the student doesn’t care to improve and is happy with the grade they received last time. Or their busy work schedule doesn’t permit them to put in the time they know they need to in order to improve.
Adjusting my approach based on knowledge about my students helps me do my job better in less time and my new motto is “I will work smarter.”
Reassess, Reassess, Reassess
With most college semesters more than halfway through, it’s a good time to pause and take stock of what is working well in your classes and should be amplified and what could potentially be cut.
We all have ideas that sound good on paper but don’t pan out in practice, and it’s okay to admit that by updating the requirements of your syllabus. In an online writing class I taught recently, I had a requirement that each student post something related to the craft of writing once per week. However, as the semester wore on, the posts became less substantive and it was taking me more time than I anticipated to moderate. I also heard from several students that they found it to be an unproductive time drain. I cut the requirement from the course so both the students and I would have more time to focus on the content in the course that was working well.
Being open to change at this time of the semester can really pay dividends.
Listen, Listen, Listen
There’s nothing worse than sitting at the end of the semester reading course evaluations and learning what you thought was working well about a class was exactly what students hated most.
To avoid this, several instructional designers I’ve spoken with told me they do course surveys during the semester to get feedback on the student experience in real-time. I’ll admit I was nervous about doing this. What if the students hated everything, or complained solely about non-negotiable elements of the workload of the course?
Despite these misgivings, I launched a mid-semester Google Form survey this semester and received compelling and helpful feedback. I pride myself in spending a great deal of time engaging and responding to student work, and the student response showed me that time was well spent. On the flip side, my students were frustrated by some of the group discussion limitations of the online platform we use. And, while I don’t quite have a solution yet, I’m exploring using Slack or some other communication tool to facilitate faster and more meaningful peer-to-peer communications (although managing that online discussion board is my Achilles heel).
Double Down on One-to-One Communications
Whether you’re teaching in-person or online, there’s nothing quite as effective as a one-to-one session with a student. While these definitely take time and can be difficult to foster in large classes, I find that they’re one of my favorite parts about teaching and help remind me of why I do it in the first place.
These connections also offer a good return on time investment. A single one-on-one session of 20 minutes or so is worth 50 emails back and forth. At this time of year especially, one-on-one meetings help reinvigorate and reinspire me, and are another way to focus the work we do for the remainder of the semester around what will really help students achieve their writing goals and meet the requirements for my classes.
I find that these meetings can be equally effective whether held in-person, via video call, or through an old-fashioned phone call. The important thing is fostering that individual relationship with students and getting to know about their goals, their struggles, and their passions, both related to class and beyond.
Take Care of Yourself
Taking care of yourself is important, even as work intensifies as we move toward the end of the school year.
Last year, after my wife and I fenced in our lawn, I made the mistake of skipping my half-hour morning walks with my dog in the name of efficiency. Ultimately, I got less done, was less healthy, and fell way behind in my podcast and audiobook listening.
It was a good reminder that what makes us happier and more efficient isn’t always intuitive. I recently interviewed (opens in new tab) Dr. Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist who teaches the popular Yale University “happiness” class, and thought of something she said in a previous conversation we had.
“We think happiness is all about self-care and being selfish, and kind of treating yourself, but actually happy people tend to be more focused on others,” she said. “They do random acts of kindness, they give more to charities, they volunteer more of their time.”
Teachers are always doing things for other people, but sometimes it’s nice to do something outside the scope of our work. As I like to say, be selfish and help someone else.
Here are a few of Tech & Learning’s recent articles to help you get through to the end of the school year:
- Teacher Burnout: Recognizing and Reducing It (opens in new tab)
- 5 Mental Health Tips for Educators During the Pandemic (opens in new tab)
- 5 Mindfulness Apps and Websites for K-12 (opens in new tab)
- 4 Ways to Create Virtual Healing Spaces in Education (opens in new tab)
- How to Show Appreciation for Teachers (opens in new tab)