A new academic year is about to begin, and, well, there’s this
course—maybe more than one—that you’re not exactly bristling with excitement to
teach. What should you do?
First, don’t beat yourself up for feeling this way. Some things about teaching are enervating. So much of the content in beginning courses and even some upper-division ones stays the same. Yes, you update, but students need to learn a lot of bedrock basics, and you end up teaching those time and again. And students collectively tend to ask the same questions, get confused by the same concepts, and make the same questionable decisions about learning. It’s hard to summon excitement when it all feels so very familiar.
Nevertheless, the absence of anticipation should cause some concern. Less than positive feelings about teaching can be contagious. Tired, ho-hum attitudes get communicated with all sorts of subtle cues, such as tone of voice, gestures, or facial responses to a question you’ve heard hundreds of times before. Students may not read the text, but those nonverbal cues? They don’t miss them. If you’re not all that thrilled about being in class, chances are they’ll respond in kind. It’s important not to ignore how you’re feeling about teaching.
Ask yourself what’s most enervating about the course. Are you bored with the content? Tired of grading papers that all say the same things? Disappointed by students always opting for the easy way? Whatever the answer, it’s hard to come up with solutions without having pinpointed what’s causing the reaction. You don’t want to get stuck on this step, but you also don’t want to leave it out.
Respond with a commitment to change; it’s a powerful antidote to the doldrums. Doing things differently almost always adds energy. There’s a bit of uncertainty. Will it work? It’s mixed up with curiosity. What will happen? There’s heightened sense of awareness. You’re paying attention, responding to what’s happening in the moment. And if it works, motivation suddenly reappears.
Start by considering how much to change. Teachers get tired. It’s hard to summon the energy to change. Doing things differently only seems like more work, and there’s already too much of that. Or there’s this sense that all sorts of things need to be completely redone, not just slightly altered. That much work fees overwhelming. How many changes to make depends on a range of factors—for instance, how many courses you’re teaching, what else is on your plate for the semester, how much change you can sustain, and your level of motivation. The amount of change should be reasonable and feasible.
Target the changes. Avoid generic admonitions such as “I’m going to get myself organized” and “I’m going to work on having a positive attitude.” Think about changes directed at some aspect of the course: assignments, exams, in-class activities, the feedback you provide to students. It makes sense to target whatever’s making the course tough to teach. But if you’re not terribly motivated, it wise to go with any targeted change that sparks your interest.
Small changes can have a big impact. Don’t underestimate their effects. Small changes are motivational because they feel manageable; they don’t require a big time or energy investment. Say you take lecture material you could do in your sleep and spend an hour coming up with new examples, prepare a set of questions to get students talking about the content, or spiff up two or three of your presentation slides. Small changes have cumulative effects: they build on each other and make the course look and feel different to you and to students.
Source those changes from outside. Trying to come up with interesting new ideas, even small ones, can be challenging when you aren’t feeling inspired. Good teaching ideas abound. They can come from conversations with colleagues who will listen to complaints but move on to ideas. They can be found by reading. They can be heard in workshops, faculty reading groups, and learning communities, and sometimes they come from students. Be shameless: ask for what you need. “I’d be interested in some good ideas for . . .”
Fine-tuning course content
periodically contributes a vibrant longevity to not only the courses we teach but
also the way we teach them.