Bringing joy back into teaching this year

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Emergency remote teaching, social justice awakenings, efforts to quiet diversity and equity efforts, accountability demands, questions about the very value of higher education, and now…generative AI.

As faculty members embark on another semester, there is again the ominous feel of the unknown and the sense that we should be changing everything in our classes to adapt.

As the saying goes, change is the only constant. We are teaching in a setting that is not going to stop throwing us curve balls. Our students, settings, formats, and goals are different all the time and will likely continue to change.

Yet, constantly reacting to change takes a toll on our energy. While some changes can spark a new excitement, constant uncertainty can negatively impact our attitude towards teaching and lead to feelings of overwhelm and burnout. I’ve even heard faculty members say they are burnt-out about talking about burnout.

Perhaps we need to shift the conversation away from responding to triage and avoiding burnout, and instead towards finding joy in our work through intentional practices.

Reconnecting with our teaching values and goals

Teaching is an area of faculty work that is known to cause some of the most stress, especially for new faculty who have been given little if any background on learning theories, teaching strategies, or curriculum development. Yet this is also an area that produces immense rewards and joy in our work.

How can we maintain balance and positive attitudes in an ever-changing environment? We can’t stay on top of everything anymore, but we can tap into our own values and goals, as well as and some tried and true teaching strategies, to help us feel a sense of purpose and control in our work.

Here are a few ideas meant to do just that.

Designing for long-term learning

We often design our courses based on what we want students to learn by the end of our course. But what if we think bigger, longer-term, and imagine the impact we want to have on students’ lives, careers, and professions years after they leave our classes?

In Dee Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, learning is considered significant when it actually changes how students live their personal, social, civic, or professional lives (Fink, 2013, p.7). This taxonomy asks us to think about the kind of learning that goes beyond content and skills, and includes the meaningful learning we hope students carry with them in the future.

This step in not only fun and inspirational for many faculty, but it can open up new ways of thinking about our courses and our teaching. It can help remind us why we love teaching and give us that overall purpose that helps guide our practice and keeps us motivated.

Centering values and care

By centering care, I don’t just mean that we treat our students as humans, get to know them as individuals, and want the best for them. Those things ARE important. Rather, I’m talking about the Caring domain in Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning.

Centering values and care in our courses means tapping into those learning goals we have for students that are often outside of our more easily measurable content and application-focused learning outcomes. Caring goals may include how students feel towards a topic or profession, or whether or not they come to value something, or value it more, as a result of being in your course.

Do we want them to value community engagement, or appreciate the benefits of literature, or recognize the role of science in policy decisions? These are things that we often hope students will gain, but are unlikely to just magically appear for most students. But if we articulate those goals, call them out, and design an identifiable opportunity for them to happen in our courses, they are more likely to be achieved by more students. And these are the parts of our teaching that tend to bring us the most rewarding feelings.

Addressing pedagogical challenges

Of course we have real challenges in our teaching, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when things do not go so well or when our great ideas still result in student resistance, uneven results, or surface-level learning. Here is where the idea of a “special pedagogical challenge” can be useful.

In the Integrated Course Design model, participants are guided through identifying ONE pedagogical challenge in their course. The idea is that each course has something about it that makes it challenging to teach that particular subject to those particular students in that particular course.

Focusing on just one issue and creating a plan for addressing that challenge can help us go from frustration to a sense of control. It’s a way of turning problems into an interesting challenge that we can address in a more proactive and intentional way.

Of course, not all challenges will be resolved, but making progress towards a challenge, rather that continually fretting about it, can feel empowering and even spark inquiry into our teaching practice (perhaps a future Scholarship of Teaching and Learning study!).

Developing reflective practitioner habits

A common theme among these ideas is adjusting our approach and attitude towards the teaching work that we do. Do we dread having to grade, or do we acknowledge that this is important time spent giving students feedback in their learning process? (And if it isn’t, how can we redesign our assessments so that meaningful feedback is occuring?)

Here is where reflection can help. One of the main benefits of a reflective practice is that it allows us to “unburden” ourselves from our daily worries and frustrations, and to take a step back and see the big picture (often what we tell our students about using reflection to aid in the transfer of learning!).

Reflection can help us avoid mindless routines, reconnect with our purposes, and feel more positive and effective in our work. In other words, avoid burnout. The key here is that reflection is a habit, or a practice, not something we only do when something bad happens. It is something we need to prioritize enough to build into our regular routines. There are many practical strategies to avoid burnout and to develop reflective practitioner habits to aid us in this process.

Can we talk about joy?

Is it possible to maintain a sense of control and purpose in our work, and even regain our joy of teaching under current scenarios?

I used to feel uncomfortable talking about “joy” and “caring” in academic settings, and know there is still some skepticism in certain circles. But I’m unapologetic about it now. I keep getting asked to talk about this topic and receive such positive response, I think this framing really resonates with where we currently are in academia.

It’s been a rough few years in college teaching. We’ve been through a lot. But we can move forward with intentional, change-tolerant, and change-adapting practices.

Reconnecting with our values, goals, and dreams for student learning can be a great start.

Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. John Wiley & Sons.