A recent story on The Onion, the Internet’s beloved satire site renowned for its ability to pinpoint painful truths in its “fake news” stories, last week underscored one of the saddest dynamics of modern education. In “Inspirational English Teacher Cancelled out by Every Other Teacher at School,” the problem of teacher burnout is readily apparent:
“Despite her effusive passion for education, constant encouragement, and heartfelt devotion to her pupils, English teacher Marcia Belsheim’s inspirational influence on Clement C. Young High School students is reportedly entirely canceled out by the attitude and conduct of every other educator employed at the institution, sources confirmed Tuesday. “Mrs. Belsheim makes me feel like I can do anything I set my mind to, but then unfortunately the rest of my classes convince me that school is a waste of my time and I probably won’t amount to anything,” said student Paul Whitaker, 15, adding that the brief glimmer of excitement he feels toward learning in his first period English class is quickly and permanently extinguished by his six other teachers’ apathetic and detached classroom behavior.”
It’s just that the teaching profession is unlike most other jobs in its unique demands. Teachers at every level, from kindergarten to college, are expected to be sources of knowledge and wisdom, entertainers, cheerleaders, and innovators—all at the same time.
Look, we’ve all been there. There are days when we just can’t recapture our enthusiasm for teaching, or have to cover a topic for the millionth time, or are struggling with a class that just doesn’t seem to get it. When our colleagues are in a similar place, it’s as contagious as a virus—and that can bring down even the most enthusiastic instructor.
It’s not that we don’t love teaching. It’s just that the teaching profession is unlike most other jobs in its unique demands. Teachers at every level, from kindergarten to college, are expected to be sources of knowledge and wisdom, entertainers, cheerleaders, and innovators—all at the same time. Such a diverse load of responsibilities to juggle can be wearisome.
That’s why educators need to join together and support one another. For college instructors, this is a little more difficult because we generally work more in isolation than those who teach in the K-12 levels and have their own dedicated classrooms in smaller schools, see each other in the hallways, and attend school events. Online instructors are even more isolated, and lack even the most minimal opportunities for collegiality and mutual support.
So how can college instructors support and inspire each other? Try some of these suggestions and build a better, more collaborative team!
- Build an online resource database: We can all benefit from collective wisdom, and one of the more effective uses of new online technologies is the opportunity to share our expertise and creativity with our colleagues. Most schools now have online learning management systems, including Blackboard, Moodle, and Edmodo are just a few. But even schools without a full online component at least have web pages for the departments and the college itself. There’s a great opportunity here to create a database of creative assignments, worksheets, readings, research instructions, etc. Let each faculty member contribute and establish a user agreement system, perhaps through Creative Commons licenses that give permission for other faculty members to use the assignments.
- Start a reading group: This week I’ve been reading Bruce MacFarlane’s “Teaching with Integrity: The Ethics of Higher Education Practice” (2004), a book I’ve been meaning to read for years. It addresses some of the most common ethical challenges college instructors face, including how to treat all students equally (i.e., if we give an extension to one student are we ethically obligated to give one to all students?) I cannot wait to discuss this book with my teaching colleagues, but I won’t really be discussing it with them as much as I’ll be telling them about it, because we haven’t all read it. A regular book discussion group focusing on professional issues would solve this problem, and allow faculty to bond over the kinds of discussions that transcend departmental divisions, and help us maintain our own critical faculties.
- Collaborate on lesson plans and rubrics: There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel every time you teach. Work together to build cohesive instructional strategies and create consistency across your department. It helps you get to know your colleagues and their teaching philosophies, as well as encourage meaningful dialogue about your common goals. These plans and rubrics should not be mandatory, to preserve academic freedom, but on those days when teaching seems especially challenging, it helps to know you’re your colleagues have your back. As with the resource database, this can be shared in an online format. It will also come in handy any time your department comes up for accreditation review.
- Mentor new teachers: St. John’s University has an Online Faculty Mentoring Program that should be emulated by universities everywhere. New online instructors are paired with experienced faculty who volunteer to “help instructors to expand and refine their strategies while incorporating approaches offered in University courses that prepare them to teach online. Mentors also provide feedback about student-faculty and student-student interactions.” This not only provides new professors with a sounding board and resource, it also helps those new instructors integrate into the school and faculty culture.
- Team-teach by taking over in your area of strength: Many times when I’ve taught ancient history survey courses, I’ve wanted to invite scholars of ancient Greece and Rome to take over my course for a lecture or two. It’s not that I am not fully-versed in those areas—I couldn’t teach those courses if I wasn’t. But faculty members with specific research interests always bring a uniquely personal element to their subjects, and I’d like to take advantage of that more often. It’s a way of acknowledging and honoring the achievements of my colleagues, and also an opportunity for me to learn, too—and that’s inspirational.
- Create a Facebook page just for your faculty group: Social media today is what cocktail parties were to coworkers back in the 1950s, but now professional and personal news is shared across the cloud rather than a crowded room. Borrow a page from your students and start sharing interesting articles, stories of funny teaching moments, and department information through a Facebook page just for you and your colleagues. Don’t be surprised when invitations start to fly back and forth; your department will become a friendlier one when there’s more informal, low-pressure contact. Just remember to keep it professional and preserve student confidentiality. Read more about creating a professional learning network.
- Create a Collegiality contract: Last week one of my colleagues arrived early to class and walked into the room to dump his bags while I was still teaching. It was distracting to me and my students. While it’s helpful to make sure that everyone in a department shares a common commitment to collegiality, that’s clearly not always possible. Some departments seem fraught with conflict that can be rooted in professional disagreements, personality clashes, or both. Ask your colleagues to collaborate on a collegiality pledge or contract, because it’s well-known that people are more likely to honor decisions they have a part in making. Establish basic rules of conduct and civility, and promise to stick to them.
- Design and conduct a research project together: Another way to show respect for your colleagues is to unite your department through a shared project that shows off the other professional skills of your teaching faculty. You can design a project that analyzes student outcomes or another relevant factor of your academic program, and then publish your findings or present what you’ve learned at an academic conference. The interaction between fellow teachers can be a bonding experience that strengthens your department.
- Pick an “instructor of the month” to highlight: You may not always agree with your fellow instructors, but it’s important to take time to show appreciation for the hard work that everyone in your department does. This can be as simple as allowing one of your colleagues to share what they’re doing in class during a faculty meeting or as elaborate as inviting them to share their most recent research in a guest lecture open to the whole school. The important thing here, though, is to do this for every instructor, including adjunct, part time, or other contingent faculty, such as those on visiting or temporary contracts.
- Observe your colleagues in action: All too often, college instructors are locked into their own cocoons as they struggle to balance the various aspects of their careers, including teaching, grading, research, writing, committee work, etc. One way to maintain your momentum is to find inspiration in your colleagues. Is your curiosity piqued by the rave reviews your students give to another instructor? Ask that professor if you can sit in, unobtrusively of course, on one of their lectures. It’s flattering and helps encourage greater collegiality in your department. You may even discover a whole new style that you can incorporate into your own teaching.
These are just a few of the ways that you, as an instructor, can initiate positive change in your department or at your college. Inspiration can come from anywhere, but if you find it among your fellow instructors, you will help your department become a positive and effective environment for both students and the hard-working faculty members that serve them.