“But This is What I’ve Always Done” – Tips for Avoiding Teaching Ruts

As an undergrad I had a hard time settling on a major so I sampled a lot of different courses during my first couple of years. I remember signing up for one course that looked perfect because it combined two of my interests — media and American politics. In addition to learning about the changing dynamics between the two from a historical perspective, I was excited to see how the professor would incorporate the current presidential election into the course.

It wasn’t the worst course I ever took, but it was probably the most disappointing. Each class the professor would stand in front of us with his handwritten notes, which had that yellow tinge paper gets after years of use. He never once strayed from his script to mention the presidential election that was going on at the time. I’m sure he had his reasons. Maybe I misunderstood the whole goal of the course, or maybe he was simply bored. As 20-year-old college students, we were definitely bored.

I hadn’t thought about that class in years, not until I was watching the online seminar 15 Practical Strategies to Re-energize Mid-career Teachers and realized that at some point my professor probably had gone from what was once a comfortable teaching routine into a deep teaching rut. It happens, but there are ways of keeping it from happening to you. The key is to keep learning and trying new ideas and building on the techniques that work, rather than become contented with the status quo of “this is what I’ve always done,” says Dr. Ike Shibley, an associate professor of chemistry at Penn State Berks and himself a mid-career teacher.

“One of the best ways to keep fresh intellectually is to constantly be challenging your own mental abilities,” Shibley says. “Learning helps you as a faculty member stay energized.”

During the seminar, Shibley outlined 15 strategies for keeping yourself engaged, enthused and excited about teaching. The strategies require various time commitments – from minimal to substantial. Here are just a few of the strategies he discussed:

Strategies that require a minimal time commitment

  • Create a new assignment – New assignments can force you to reconceptualize how you’ve been teaching a particular section of your course, and over time may even lead to an entire course redesign.
  • Use a new text – As part of the switch to a new text, you should adjust your notes and teach the course in the order the author uses. It will lend a new perspective to your course content.
  • Use a supplemental text – Books about academic subjects that are written for the general public can help get students interested in your discipline.
  • Read a pedagogical article/book – Whether it’s College Teaching, which publishes peer-reviewed articles on how instructors across all academic disciplines can improve student learning, or one of the many discipline-specific journals, reading pedagogical literature is critical, Shibley says.

Strategies that require a moderate time commitment

  • Teach a new course – Whether new to you or new to your department, teaching a course for the first time is more work, but it’s also energizing.
  • Audit a course – Find a course with interesting content and a great teacher and ask if you can audit his or her course – pay attention not only to the content but the pedagogy as well.

Strategies that require a substantial time commitment

  • Mentor new faculty – Helping a colleague think about their teaching can rejuvenate your own.

“All of these strategies are about trying to keep yourself energized so that your students have the best learning experience they can possibly have,” says Shibley. “As a teacher, you can’t do everything for the students, but you can commit to your own improvement so that the next opportunity you have to interact with learners those learning interactions are happier, stronger, healthier, and altogether better. You will improve over your career and I’m hoping that these 15 strategies give you the ways to do that.”