Every year I try to remind myself that I always survive the month of October, even when it feels that I won’t. Between committee work, meetings, mentoring, advising, organizing our annual celebration of student writing, and observing graduate instructors’ classes, I have little time to read, to write, to sleep, or to think clearly, for that matter. On top of all of these responsibilities, I also have several classes to teach.
I’m not special. October is busy for everyone in academia. What frustrates me most during this time of year, however, is not only the busyness and administrative tasks. It’s that I feel my classes begin to suffer. I’m spread so thin and am so tired that I stare at the pages of the book as I try to come up with innovative lessons and engaging activities for my students. I’m out of ideas. Or, when I come up with a good idea, I am too tired or too limited on time to implement it the way I want. Instead, I recycle lessons I have taught over the last eight years in the classroom. I know they work, and I try to update when I can. Students don’t seem to notice, and the classes seem to go fine. But, I am frustrated. Mostly with myself.
One of my colleagues and friends shared an article with faculty in our department. In the article, “The 40-Year-Old Burnout,” Jonathan Malesic describes his own experiences with academic burnout and outlines the consequences of this rampant problem. I have never used the word “burnout” to describe what I feel, but as I read, I recognized myself in his experiences. What hit home the hardest for me, though, was his explanation of how burnout affects students and instructors’ sense of their own effectiveness:
“Burned-out professors, then, are people who cannot muster the strength to do the intellectual labor of their job, who see students as problems, and who feel their work has no positive effect. Maslach has shown that burnout results from a good thing — serious investment in one’s work and students — that in the wrong conditions comes back as continual stress.”
Frustrated with myself and my own ineffectiveness (perceived or otherwise), I then become frustrated with my students. I begin to see them as problems that I must solve or deal with. At this time of the year, my students begin coming to class unprepared. They don’t read. They don’t participate, or they don’t engage with the material the way I think they should. They don’t organize their paragraphs using the rules I taught them. I forget that they, too, are busy and overwhelmed, that they, too, may be experiencing their own burnout.
This semester, however, my frustration began much earlier, mostly with one of my Expanded classes. This class is composed solely of international students, L2 learners. I volunteered to teach this class. I wanted to to teach it. It’s the first time we have offered a class designated solely for L2 learners. Our justification for doing so is that we could better address and meet their needs. I have taught many L2 learners in the past, and I have found that they are eager, hardworking students, who are also really good writers and thinkers. They are prepared for higher education. The only reason they are placed in the Expanded course is because they are not entirely comfortable with the English language yet. And, as anyone who has ever studied another language knows, that just takes time.
This class, however, has been a struggle since the first week. The students were not completing assignments and homework from the beginning. And they weren’t participating in class discussions. The class arrangement allowed us to have conversations about American educational practices. I encouraged them to share with me the practices with which they were familiar. To tell me about their educational experiences, to discuss how they learn. I encouraged them to ask questions, and I tried to explain why we do the things we do in an American University. One of the things we discussed was the importance of and the benefits of participating in class discussion. I explained why I ask that students participate. I explained that their participation allows them to share ideas, to spark ideas, to participate in the conversation before writing. I explained that it helps them to make sense of the information, that it gives them the opportunity to ask questions, to show confusion, to demonstrate comprehension, to question, to be curious. I explained that it also allows me to see where we need to spend our time in class, what they are struggling with and what they understand.
I felt good after this class. We had productive conversations. They talked and laughed. But, the next class meeting was silent. They didn’t participate, and I left the class feeling angry.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I heard something that changed my perspective. I have been listening to Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on audio. The novel explores issues of race and the immigrant experience of a woman named Ifemelu who leaves Nigeria to come to America to attend college. In one scene, Ifemelu describes one of the problems she has with the American college classroom:
“…she was uncomfortable with what the professors called “participation”, she did not see why it should be part of the final grade; it merely made students talk and talk, class time wasted on obvious words, hollow words, sometimes meaningless words. It had to be that Americans were taught, from elementary school, to always say something in class, no matter what. And so she sat stiff-tongued, surrounded by students who were all folded easily on their seats, all flush with knowledge, not of the subject of the classes, but of how to be in the class”.
Ouch. I realized that although I had explained to my students why I expect them to participate in class, I had not explained how they could participate. The very next class meeting, I postponed our lesson for the day. Instead, we discussed strategies for participation. On the board, I wrote topics of discussion, things they wanted to talk about (one of the items on the list, unanimously voted upon by the Nepalese students, was “Why is American food so bad?”) Together we worked through these topics, developing questions, making connections. We practiced having conversations about the topics, and I asked them to practice responding, not only to me, but also to their peers. It helped. Since that day, at least half of the students have begun contributing to class discussion. We are still working on it, and some days are better than others. But, I no longer dread going to the class, and I hope they don’t either.
While I was trying to get my international students to participate in class, I was having the opposite problem in another Expanded class. This particular group of students have no problems talking in class. They all contribute to class discussions, and they all have great ideas. The problem is that they all talk at once, over one another and over me. We get very little accomplished. I started thinking, though. Yes, American students don’t seem to have as much of a problem understanding why we ask them to participate, but these students, too, don’t fully know how to be in a class. Because I have been teaching for so many years, primarily freshmen, I assume they know how to be in college. They don’t.
Yesterday, in this class, we also discussed participation, and I explained how we can have productive conversations by allowing each other to speak and by responding to one another instead of interrupting. We practiced, and by the end of the class, we had a board full of topics that we had discussed. And it all related to their homework. I was a proud teacher, but at the end of the day, I was still a tired teacher.
A couple of days ago, I heard an exasperated teacher make this comment: “I am going to spend an entire day in class teaching my students how to write a paragraph. They clearly don’t know how.” Please understand that I am not judging this teacher. I can not and will not point fingers. My first response, however, was, “Of course you need to teach your students how to write a paragraph. They aren’t just born knowing how to do it.” Then, I checked my response. I was guilty of these same kinds of comments. The truth is that teachers have often taught the same material so many times that we forget that others are encountering it for the first time. And many of us are overworked, stressed, and tired. We don’t have enough time to devote to our students and classes, and we are not rewarded for our investment in teaching, which leads to dissatisfied students and teachers.
There is no easy solution to teacher burnout. There is no simple solution to students coming to class unprepared. In fact, there are a lot of causes and problems that lead to these very complicated issues. I can not change the system. I can work on changing myself and remembering that I can’t do it all. But, here is a list of things I have decided I can do to help both me and my students. It is going in my bullet journal so that I can remind myself daily:
- Be gracious to yourself and to your students. We are all tired and are juggling many responsibilities in and outside of the classroom.
- Don’t assume. If you see that students are not doing what you want them to do, don’t assume they are lazy. They may not understand. They may not know that they should do it, why they should do it, or how to do it. Take the time to check in.
- Don’t be afraid to throw out the lesson plan. I don’t mean go to class unprepared. I mean, if students need something different, dare to go off schedule. It really will be better for them and for you.
- If you begin seeing students as a problem, step back. Look at yourself. We all encounter difficult students and people in our lives and in our classrooms, but I have found that, if I’m honest, sometimes, I am the problem. Not the student.
- Be prepared to teach students how to be in a classroom. It’s my job not only to teach writing, but also to teach students how to be in college. It’s my responsibility to teach them the expectations of the classroom and to explain how these behaviors lead to their success. I can not hold them accountable for things I am not willing to teach them.
- Finally,(this one is much easier said than done) take care of yourself. Make time for things that have nothing to do with work. You will be happier for it, and so will your students.