March 1st, 2017

Waking up to Tired Teaching


tired teacher

I have been wanting to do a blog post on tired teaching for some time now. Concerns about burnout are what’s motivating me. Teachers can reach a place where teaching does nothing for them or their students. They don’t just wake up one morning and find themselves burned out; they’ve moved there gradually, and it’s a journey that often starts with tired teaching.

Teaching Professor Blog There’s nothing on the subject in my big file of articles and resources. I can’t remember having read about it, and I’m not sure how much we even talk about it. We do talk about being tired. Teaching is relentless. It happens every day, several times a week—or potentially 24/7 if it’s online. And it’s demanding. There’s so much more than the actual teaching. There’s considerable planning involved before each class. Plus, we need to spend time with students—those who want to talk, those needing help, and those with questions or, sometimes, complaints. There are assignments to grade and feedback to provide—all carrying the expectation of a quick turnaround. With multiple courses to teach, we do get tired, but I think we regularly confuse physical fatigue with the more serious emotional tiredness that comes from a heavy workload of always being there, always giving, and always juggling multiple balls in the air.

Sometimes teaching gets tired because we’ve done what we’re doing a hundred times before. Many of us teach the same courses year after year. If they are those bedrock, foundational courses, the content typically doesn’t change all that much. We march through the material along well-worn paths. We know the way; we’ve seen all the sights before. Every student is a unique individual, but collectively they’re all novices who ask the same questions we’ve heard before, who get stuck in the same places, and who repeatedly make the same poor decisions about learning.

In the beginning, tired teaching comes and goes. We may feel ourselves falling into a rut, but it’s usually temporary and we’re soon back on track. But later, the tiredness returns. At some point, a kind of paralyzing inertia can settle over us. We no longer have the energy or motivation to change the syllabus, alter course readings, or update the assignments or activities. Add new content? No way, the course is already too full with essential material. Offer online quizzes? Who has time to figure how that works? Besides, the students will cheat.

That’s why and how tired teaching happens. The more important question is: What can we do about it? I think we have to start by recognizing that some form of tired teaching happens to all of us at one time or another during our careers. It’s an occupational hazard when you work in environments that prize always being rational and objective. A quiet assumption prevails that it’s the intellect that powers teaching. Content carries the day. We deny or diminish the importance of teaching’s affective demands. We may be physically tired, but we may also be emotionally drained and running on empty. The two can happen simultaneously, but they aren’t the same.

We can start by facing the reality of tired teaching, no longer pretending everything will be OK if we just get to bed earlier. We can follow that acknowledgement with purposeful efforts to take care of our instructional health and well-being. As many of us have learned, it’s not enough to know we need to eat well and exercise regularly. Both depend on consistent action and, like poor health, tired teaching is more easily prevented than cured. Let me start a list of ways we can respond to the possibility and reality of tired teaching. Please add to the list by sharing the preventive steps that work for you.

  • Purposefully make changes—not always big ones, not always a lot, but always some.
  • Regularly infuse teaching with ideas and information (not just techniques) sourced externally.
  • Engage in collegial collaboration—positive, constructive talk about teaching and learning with colleagues (occasional complaining permitted).
  • Take time for the pause that refreshes: regular reminders to yourself that this is work that matters and that what happens to many students in college changes their lives. You are a central part of students’ experiences in higher education.
  • Be in the moment—in that time you and students share, be present! Listen, observe, and be alert, alive, and focused on what’s occurring in that moment.
  • Celebrate successes—even small ones. The question that generated good discussion, those three papers showing significant improvement, that student who finally mastered a specific skill—all are moments to be savored.


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  • Walt Hamilton

    There is nothing that recharges me like volunteer work. I regularly work with a therapeutic riding academy. Kids with disabilities + horses = WOW. I’m good for another week.

  • Fran Dulcich

    Maryellen,thank you for this timely article!! You have validated my feelings and prompted me to take action! One thing that I’ve tried to do lately is to compliment my class before they leave. I thank them for their hard work and participation and tell them I look forward to seeing them in the next class. I’ve found that students seem genuinely surprised and pleased when I do this and leave the class smiling. We both do!

  • goodsensecynic

    Not much comes from therapy aimed to treat the symptoms in the absence of a diagnosis of the disease.

    My suspicion is that teachers who “burn out” have “underlying conditions.”

    Some may be quite personal (medical, psychological, financial, domestic, etc.). If so, there’s not much that can be done until and unless those issues are resolved.

    So, see a doctor, a psychiatrist, a banker or a divorce lawyer, but understand the matter to be extraneous to the classroom.

    Some may be intellectual. Teachers thrive when they remain students – hopefully at a level more advanced than the material they’re teaching to undergraduates, but mostly involving the same issues. I have no wish to endorse the “publish or perish” syndrome, but any teacher who isn’t actively pursuing ongoing research – whether for a book, an article in a respected journal, a conference presentation, a departmental newsletter or even for private rumination and collegial discussion – is risking intellectual death by disuse.

    So, start reading and thinking (in the box, outside the box, or regarding a cunning plan to blow up the box).

    Some may be political. In colleges and universities in which the corporate culture mimics that of the discount department store and external forces collude with bloated internal management systems to treat students as “customers” upon entry and marketable “products” upon graduation, to commodify curriculum, to commercialize research, to technologize teaching and to model (v.t.) a labor process in which Associate Professors become the academic equivalent of Walmart Associates (with upwards of 80% of the teaching being done by adjunct, partial-load, part-time, sessional, contingent, contract or “precarious” faculty – call them what you will), a situation already exists in which higher education is being lethally compromised.

    Among many other things, the results include the intimidation of “contingent” teachers and the death of academic freedom, without which the professor is devalued and deskilled in the same way that industrialization obliterated artisans (see E. P. Thompson, “The making of the English Working Class,” New York: Penguin, 1968), automation devastated factory and clerical employment (see Harry Braverman, “Labor and Monopoly Capital, 25th Anniversary Edition,” New York: Monthly Review, 1998), and even “professionals” such as doctors and lawyers and semi-professionals such as teachers are eviscerated in what David F. Noble called “Digital Diploma Mills” (New York: Monthly Review, 1999).

    So, struggle against “Corporate U”, fight for intellectual autonomy, oppose “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” intended not only to destroy the non-STEM programs, but also to make higher education the training ground for a reserve army of technically competent but politically malleable and submissive corporate hacks.

    Not personal, intellectual or political?

    Please explain and, if no explanation comes to mind, consider another occupation.

    • Cathryn Brooks-Williams

      Your explanations ignore adjunct faculty who must teach at two or three universities just to meet their bills. As an adjunct, I often put in more hours than my tenured colleagues. I also went to professional development seminars so I could continue to improve my teaching skills.I also sat on committees and attended meetings (unpaid, unlike my tenured colleagues) to help improve the programs, meet accreditation, and learn what was happening within my department.

      But you are correct—after eight years of misuse and abuse from students and colleagues, I found another profession. Now I don’t have to worry about paying the bills and I have more time for my family. I loved teaching, but it was stressful.

      • goodsensecynic

        Of course they don’t. Nor do they have much access to research funds. Nor do they participate fully in a stable collegial atmosphere – which is toxic to them and to the full-time faculty with whom they should be engaged in the common project of maintaining and enhancing their academic disciplines from Art History to Zoology.

        The overarching premise in all of this is that higher education is being transformed into ideological reproduction, public-funded commercial research and increasingly “digital diploma mills” by corporate surrogates intend on building academic institutions on the model of discount department stores with Associate Professors becoming the intellectual equivalent of Walmart Associates.

        • Cathryn Brooks-Williams

          I agree with your second paragraph. However, adjuncts do participate when and where they are allowed. Many times, they are ignored or not included into the “collegial atmosphere.” Adjuncts often hold masters degrees in their profession. I know how many times I was told, “Oh you only hold a masters?” That perspective working in the field is often dismissed by my higher-learned colleagues.

          • goodsensecynic

            There are (at least) two separate but related issues.

            First, with regard to “senior” colleagues (PhDs, full-time, tenured or tenure-tracked), they can be annoying when they rely on a sense of privilege or entitlement that excludes their “junior” colleagues (MAs, contract, adjunct). Regardless of whether the top-tier employees actually deserve the deference and respect they command (that’s another story), the least that should be expected of authentic academics is that they see themselves engaged in a common project with others in their field including bottom-tier faculty, research & teaching assistants as well as graduate and even undergraduate students. Accordingly, allegedly “higher-learned colleagues” are indulging in a deplorable intellectual conceit when they presume to be condescending to their organizational “inferiors.”

            Second, with regard to what passes for “professionalism” in the academy, it is an absurd delusion. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau did us all a great service when he passed his “Wage and Price Controls” legislation back in 1975. The controls, of course, were economic nonsense (wages were controlled, but prices were not), but the dark cloud of the law had a silver political lining.

            In dealing with personal income, Trudeau-the-Elder distinguished between “wage-earners” (who were subjected to the full force of the austerity measure) and “professionals” (who were exempt).

            Professions were defined as self-governing occupational groups which exercised control over:

            (a) entry to the professions (normally a licensing board, which also oversaw and accredited schools awarded whatever credential – e.g., J.D., M.D., D.D.S., etc. – was required to be admitted to “the club”;

            (b) discipline within the profession, including penalties for misconduct and, in extreme cases, expulsion from “the club”;

            (c) fees charged for services within the group (though this may not apply, for instance, to medical professionals working within “state-run” facilities or lawyers in public defender offices, etc.

            In any case, Trudeau produced a list of “bona fide” professions including, of course, physicians and surgeons, barristers and solicitors, dentists, accountants, architects and the like (it’s been over 40 years and a factoid not worth the research).

            What was absent was any reference to teachers – from pre-school to post-doc supervision. Professors at any stage of their careers – whether at Harvard, MIT or Hillbilly Junior College in East Jesus, AK – are NOT professionals. We are education workers, just as other people are farm workers, factory workers, mine workers, office workers and so on. We have the same implicitly adversarial relations with our employers as do sales clerks, auto workers and bank tellers.

            The fact that our work is more mental than manual and that we sometimes get to work in environments where time clocks are invisible and incompetent overseers refrain from micromanaging our labor doesn’t mean that we are structurally different than any other worker who receives a wage (though we may prettily call it a “salary”) for doing what we’re told.

            So, the answer to problems of both the first to the second sort is the same: Solidarity (or “collegiality” if that sounds less proletarian) – organizing for collective bargaining and the development of demands which must be met by the employer at risk of strike action.

          • Cathryn Brooks-Williams

            Thank you. Our state is starting to organize for adjunct professors. I left the teaching field mainly because I got tired of the low pay–I needed to be able to pay for my living expenses–and treated as an adversary, even thought I sat (unpaid) on several committees to help my university. I also know several PhD’s who are working as adjuncts and hoping against hope to jump on the tenure-track…for the same pay I was getting. Had I been made full-time, I would have stayed in teaching.

  • Angela Linse

    Great article Maryellen! I love the first item. We talk with faculty all the time about the value of just taking “baby steps” along the teaching change continuum.

    I also want to share one suggestion, credit for which goes to Dr. Deena Levy here at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence. She once asked a faculty member if he told his students that they were awesome (when they were). In response he said, “They are!!” His tiredness instantly dissipated! Your article made me realize that it is not only important for students to occasionally to hear that from their faculty, but also that doing so can reduce teaching tiredness.

  • Akilah

    I would also add: take a break.

    As someone who does not get paid much and has constantly worked during the summer, I realized last summer that it was just all TOO MUCH. I taught one online class last summer (which was like heaven) and didn’t sign up to teach any classes this summer. I can certainly use the money, but I don’t think I’ll be effective at all if I don’t get a little time off.

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