March 25th, 2016

Take Advantage of Opportunities to Sustain Your Instructional Vitality


As my work on career-long growth and development for college teachers progresses, I continue to fret about the haphazard way we take care of our instructional health. To begin (and this is not our fault), we work hard and are way too busy. Whether it’s teaching five courses a semester or teaching less but having a research agenda that must be moving forward and continuously productive, we have precious little time for one more thing that might interfere with the frenetic motions required to keep our heads above water.

Against the backdrop of these strenuous job requirements (to say nothing of obligations at home), we must preserve and protect our vitality as teachers. I chose the word “backdrop” purposefully. Many times our busyness becomes an excuse for not participating in a faculty development workshop, not joining a pedagogical reading group, and not even being able to spend five minutes with a colleague who wants to talk about something happening in her classroom. We find time for what is most important, but often our instructional vitality does not make the cut.

For too long we have assumed that by force of will we can make it through semester after semester. Like someone out of shape climbing too fast, we gasp for air between semesters, over spring break, or during family vacations, but it’s never enough. Two weeks into the next semester and the tiredness descends.

Persistent tiredness evolves into something more sinister. I would venture that we all know faculty who trudge to class without enthusiasm, who are happiest when students don’t show up for office hours, and who end up disconnected from content they once loved and students who, now more than ever, need teachers committed to learning. The question about them, which is really about us, is how long were they just tired before burnout set in?

And there’s a follow-up question. Have you done anything for your teaching self this year? Perhaps you should consider joining us at The Teaching Professor Conference, June 4-6 in Washington, D.C. I know, that’s self-serving. Actually, it’s not really about attending this particular event, but about gently chiding you to take care of your teaching self.

I do have to be honest, though, and tell you that Teaching Professor Conferences are energizing events. It’s so refreshing to be together with a large group of faculty—all committed to teaching, all wanting new and better ideas to promote learning, and all willing to share freely. Even for somebody like me, who has been around the block more than a few times and is no longer easily impressed, I leave the conferences absolutely convinced that events like these are exactly what teachers need to refill empty tanks and rekindle dying embers. So, if not this year, maybe next. If not this conference, make sure it’s something else.

This post was originally published in 2008. We’re revisiting the topic now, with some minor updates, because instructional vitality remains such an important issue for college faculty.

  • Dr Brad Herrick

    An interesting perspective, yet I am annoyed greatly by the "it's not our fault" caveat in the beginning. Of course it's our fault…the majority of teachers today cave to pressure (either external or internal) to make problems go away; inflate grades to get better evaluations; pass students on to the next semester to get rid of a problem (even though the problem is passed on to someone else); telling students they can be anything they want to be if they apply themselves; concentrating more on how they 'feel' instead of how they 'perform.' These issues are exacerbated further if you are an adjunct (working out of your car…no office, no office hours), or you are in an open access university (I could go on forever with this one), or the high school system that generates your students has a 12th grade diploma equivalent to a 9th grade education elsewhere.
    Although I agree in principle with what you write, and yes, burnout can affect both your health and your professional conduct, immersing yourself in a conference where people who think like you tell you exactly what you want to hear, is just a momentary decompression that does absolutely nothing to fix the problem.
    My one hope before I retire is that I have a class that makes ME want to attend (instead of making them want to)…where the discourse is exciting, they are prepared, they are engaged. Sadly, as the semesters go by, I find just the opposite…more and more are distracted by work or family; their excuses for not doing an assignment are greater than the number of assignments they do; their prerequisites are missing or woefully inadequate (their transcripts say they are ready but it is obvious they were passed or grade inflated into my course, thus they fail SPECTACULARLY); and/or, they think they are entitled or deserving of a higher grade just because they showed up.
    Yes…I'm tired too…and it's partially my fault since I'm still doing it.