While the title of this first blog post does not sound terribly exciting, it does describe how I feel at times. For me, now entering my 29th year of college teaching, mustering the energy and excitement I once did as a rookie instructor is sometimes hard. I desperately want to bring my absolute best to each student every time I enter the classroom but it is more difficult to do with each passing year. The words in James 3:1 still haunt me – “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” I often wonder why I did not decide to be a Walmart truck driver. They earn a comparable salary and are not held to such a high standard!
For me, “tired teaching” is not just the result of countless hours put into planning, teaching, and grading. It is also a result of trying to function in a challenging work environment filled with “important” meetings and competing demands for my time. The phenomenon I describe of tired teaching is known in the professional literature. Weimer (2010) characterizes it this way:
it lacks energy and is delivered without passion; it is easily offended by immature student behaviors; it favors the tried and true over innovation and change; it does the minimum, be that feedback to students, office hours, or the use of technology; it decries the value of professional development and manifests a kind of creeping cynicism about almost everything academic. (p. 174)
Now, no teacher sets out to become a passionless teaching machine. Waning instructional vitality sets in with time but it can be dealt with when recognized. It is important, however, to acknowledge that no one institution, leader, or colleague can do this for us. Staying alive and fresh as a teacher will only result from purposeful action that we take.
So, how do we avoid being that instructor who plods through the day counting the years until retirement? Weimer (2010) offers a few helpful suggestions:
Contribute toward a healthy institutional environment. Without this type of environment “we get frustrated, then furious. We get depressed, then disillusioned. We get tired, then exhausted. We get skeptical, then cynical” (p. 181).
Recognize that there is much to learn about teaching. Most Bethel professors, like those in other higher education institutions, were not trained as professional educators. As a result, many are self-taught. Given this reality one must consider if experience teaches everything one needs to know. And, are the lessons learned through experience always the right ones” (p. 184)? “Most would agree that experience is a good teacher, but not when it’s the only teacher” (p. 186). “Without an infusion of ideas and information from outside, without openness to other pedagogical methods, without recognition that education is a phenomenon that can be studied systematically and learned about endlessly, teaching stays put; it runs in place” (p. 185).
Consider how to marry methods and content. This takes a sophisticated knowledge to accomplish and it often begins with recognition that some forms of content are best understood when processed collaboratively, some by experience, some by example, etc. “What is taught and how it is taught are inextricably linked” (p. 187). The most effective instructors are not necessarily those with the most sophisticated content knowledge; the best teachers are often those with a continually growing repertoire of instructional strategies that develop along with their content knowledge.
Embrace the power of change. A regular amount of change “does for teaching exactly what exercise does to improve overall health” (p. 192). That change can be in the form of new courses, new texts, new delivery modes (e.g., online), new students, etc.
Infuse new ideas. Instructional vitality thrives on new ideas. Most would concur that regular pedagogical reading should be a part of every teacher’s life but research has consistently shown that this does not happen. Fortunately, new ideas and fresh insights are readily available in the form of professional development activities, consultation with faculty development specialists, and conversations with colleagues.
Explore different conceptions of teaching. What teachers believe about teaching has an impact on how they actually teach. Akerlind (2003) found that teachers typically start as teacher transmission-focused which revolves around covering material. This category is often followed by being teacher-student relations focused which is characterized by developing good relations with students as a way of motivating them. The next category, student engagement-focused, brings attention to what students (vs. the teacher) are doing. The final category is student learning focused. Teaching in this category is focused on assisting students in developing critical and original thinking, questioning of existing knowledge, exploring new ideas, and becoming independent learners. It is important to note that growth in conceptions about teaching does not occur automatically as careers progress. Movement on this developmental continuum requires conscious effort.
Bertolt Brecht once said, “The world of knowledge takes a crazy turn when teachers themselves are taught to learn.” Learning, especially as a teacher, is effectively summed up by thinking about the two characters for the word “learn” in the Chinese language. One character represents “study” and the other represents “practice constantly.”
It is an honor to author this first blog post. What are your thoughts/feelings, experiences, questions, and suggestions about tired teaching as we move into this new semester?
Let us learn together!
Akerlind, G.S. (2003). Growing and developing as a university teacher: Variation in meaning. Studies in Higher Education, 28(4), 375-390.
Weimer, M. (2010). Inspired college teaching: A career-long resource for professional growth.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.