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Like many people, I have days when the simple act of getting out of bed feels daunting, let alone going to campus, lecturing, meeting with students, attending faculty meetings, grading papers, and so on. These challenging days are often amplified by an internal dialogue questioning why I feel this way, despite recognizing the sacrifices my parents made to get me here, understanding that I should be grateful for my job, and acknowledging that others may be facing more arduous circumstances. While all these points are valid, they do little to alleviate my feeling of being marooned in the wasteland of existential doubt, questioning whether anything truly matters.
So, what do I do on such days? I am learning the art of self-compassion. What seems to also help me is if I step outside myself and gently guide my thoughts toward my initial motivations for entering the teaching profession and working with students. Reminding myself of my why and shifting my focus from the grand and at times overwhelming aim of societal transformation to the more tangible, immediate journey of education can and often does provide a comforting perspective. This shift enables me to recenter, reenergize, and approach my responsibilities with renewed purpose and even enthusiasm. I began to notice that a more effective and logical approach to managing these difficult days is to engage in a form of reflective self-talk that reaffirms my commitment to my students and emphasizes the importance of the journey.
Reflecting on my own experience, I wondered and began to think of my students—How do they handle such days? After talking with several of my current and former students, and to empower my students to appreciate their educational journey and foster a sense of community within the classroom, I designed the following activity, which I use on the first day of class. The activity not only encourages students to identify and articulate the driving force behind their decision to seek an education and enroll in my course but also promotes self-reflection and the reassessment of personal objectives. The activity is also designed to foster a sense of community in that the students share their personal motivations and learn about their peers’ driving force. Below, I will walk you through the activity.
The take-home message for your students could be along these lines: When you’re motivated toward a goal that aligns with your purpose, you become engaged. This engagement, in turn, feeds back into motivation because you start to see progress toward fulfilling your purpose, creating a positive feedback loop.
I’ve done this activity for a couple of years in various biology courses. It’s always a success and gets students thinking and talking about things that matter deeply to them. I refer to their whys throughout the semester, trying to schedule moments for students to reflect on them in light of what they’ve learned so far. I have found this activity to act as an anchor for students as it can continuously guide and influence their educational journey. I share with them that I, too, engage with this activity regularly and that whenever I encounter challenges or need to make important decisions, I remind myself to think back to my why.
The activity not only has the potential to supports students’ immediate learning but also equips them with a powerful tool for lifelong learning. In that sense, this activity can be a powerful tool to combat student disengagement and apathy.
Finally, a few important considerations:
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Mays Imad, PhD, is an associate professor of biology and equity pedagogy at Connecticut College. Previously, she taught for 14 years at Pima Community College, where she also founded the teaching and learning center. She is a Gardner Institute Fellow for Undergraduate Education, an AAC&U Senior STEM Fellow, and a Mind and Life Institute Fellow.