mid-semester burnout
September 27, 2006 2:55 PM   Subscribe

I teach several required college courses. My enthusiasm is dwindling, and it is starting to show.

I taught all summer and I am feeling burned out and bored, even though I have genuine enthusiasm for the topics. I have been on cruise control for the last three weeks and I need to get it together and regain my enthusiasm and refocus the classes as the students are getting restless, and deservedly so. I guess I'm looking for two things:

1) tips on getting re-motivated, other than fear and guilt, and

2) things I can do that a great college teacher does

Thank you for your thoughtful responses. I do not wish to become deadwood.
posted by anonymous to Education (27 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
1) Getting re-motivated:

Re-start your internal clock. By this, I mean that you're feeling rundown because you never had a break. So, mark a day sometime next week when you will get your stuff together. Give yourself permission to not get it together until that time. As the day nears, just gently remind yourself that it's coming, and that you need to be ready.

When the day comes, it'll be a lot easier to move your ass and start doing things again.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 3:11 PM on September 27, 2006

Have students teach small portions of each class. Thank them for their work, explain it helps to gauge their (evolving) understanding of the subject, stress that you don't expect them to be perfect, and then address the student's misconceptions and round out the lecture.

There's no better way to learn than to teach. Even if they do it badly, they'll quickly discover how to come to grips with the subjects, and the practice at public speaking and explication will boost their confidence and serve them in nearly every future walk of life.
posted by orthogonality at 3:11 PM on September 27, 2006

Bring in some material that really excites you (even if it doesn't "exactly" fit the requirements.) When you are excited, the students will be, too (hopefully.) Alternatively, put more responsibility on the students to bring in interesting material to class: projects, discussion, etc. Gets them involved, introduces new ideas, and takes some of the burden off of you.
posted by imposster at 3:12 PM on September 27, 2006

Man, it sure would be helpful to know what you teach. Now is the time to drop $5 and get a sock puppet so you can interact in this thread.

1. A colleague of mine throws away all his lecture notes and other teaching material every 3-4 years, whenever he feels bored with the old stuff. He wins teaching awards all the time. You don't have to that radical, but you should introduce something new into your classes.

2. Try some new teaching tactics, take some risks. Ask to observe a colleague teaching and see if you can lift any ideas. Or email me and I will post it back here.

3. Bring in some guests--other professors to give a lecture, people in the community to talk about what they do, whomever.

4. Give the students some of-the-wall assignment. My history students go to local graveyards and write papers about the town based only on the info they find on the graves. They always end up loving it.

You once loved what you do. It can be like that again.
posted by LarryC at 3:29 PM on September 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

This advice is based on what the best college teacher I ever had did.

1. Learn everybody's name in the first 2-3 classes

2. He made sure he presented both sides of every point. He did this to the extent where he would make even boring subject material controversial by expertly arguing each side. You can do this even if you teach english 101 by saying shakespeare is a stupid hack, e.g. He also made his students take a side on the spot, since he knew their names.

3. Assign smaller amounts of work, but expect your students to know it well and to have an opinion about it so you can use #2 and make them take a side.

4. Spend the first half of every class lecturing, in focused way, about the material that was asigned. Make the points you feel important your students know. What was john stuart mill really trying to say? Go over 5-10 quotes that summarize what you want them to learn from the reading assigned.

5. Spend the second half of the class asking pointed questions about the material to the students, who you know all by name. If one makes a point, argue the other side and vice versa. Try to pit the students against each other. Ask them about the quotes. Make them have an opinion.

6. Without overwhelming them with material, move quickly. Do not spend more than a few days on the same subject, but also do not be superficial.

7. Have interesting midterms and finals. Have weirdo options, that force people to study in weird ways. My teacher had three different finals that were graded in totally different ways. For example, you could write two essays, or your could identify the authors of quotes, etc.

He was crazy, and is currently mildly famous for his crazy opinions on the middle east, but he was the best damn teacher I ever had.

I don't know about the motivation thing. I am not a teacher. But I do know that good teacher's have clear in their mind WHAT they want their students to learn, WHY they want them to learn that specificcally and clearly understand HOW they are going to get them to learn that.

Also, please do not do what orthoganality suggests. Every student hates teaching a class and they hate teachers who make them do it.
posted by milarepa at 3:58 PM on September 27, 2006 [4 favorites]

Do you get a sabbatical? I realize this is a cruel point to make, but time off does help recharge your batteries and gives you a chance to think about things in a new way. Summer is just not enough time to get resituated and fall comes too soon. So some way to get away for a year (teaching at another school, teaching a whole new set of topics for a year) could help you get back into the mindset.
posted by drmarcj at 4:14 PM on September 27, 2006

Revisit your syllabi - chances are you've not rejiggered it since you perfected it. Think about revamping it entirely or just tweaking, but go out into the world and find some new source material that really interests you, and that could re-engage your original ideas about whatever it is you teach.

Consider each class a performance, and judge yourself based on how Oscar-worthy you are. Become mezmerizing.
posted by DenOfSizer at 4:14 PM on September 27, 2006

Ask great, thought provoking questions, and don't be afraid to let the uncomfortable silence hang heavy. Just walk around, waiting, watching. Eventually, out of terror, out of the shear fear that the silence will swallow their souls, and to keep from being so concious of every throat clearing in every second, someone will try to answer.

Immediately thereafter, someone else will try to think.

After all, you are not there to keep them comfortable, you are there to educate them.
posted by paulsc at 4:15 PM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've never taught, and I don't know if this is trite, but:

Don't teach subjects. Teach students.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:23 PM on September 27, 2006

If there's any chance the students are trying to coast along without fully preparing for class -- make that impossible. Assign a lot of short papers on the reading, have them do in-class talks or writing or even quizzes based on their preparation. Don't try to catch them unprepared... rather, have them prepare and then ask them to show it.

When I was in college I heard that one of my favorite professors was teaching a class that was generally considered a piece of cake because there were no exams and few papers. I told him. He was very hurt and sad about it, and embarassed by his naivete. The next semester he changed the requirements, assigning a couple of one-page papers per week. He announced the work-load on the first day, and on the second day the class was a lot smaller. And midway through the semester, he told me that he'd never had such a smart and involved group of students and he was enjoying the class immensely.
posted by wryly at 4:38 PM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

OK, I'll address number two:

I was a "Can Coast And Still Pull a B+ In An AP Class" kind of high school student. Always loved history and read a lot of it in my free time. So when I take my History of Western Civilization I class my freshman year (that I think everyone had to take,) I think, naturally, that I'm going to coast.

Got murdered on the first test. I think I scored a 30-something. The professor told the class after the test that if you scored below a certain grade you might as well drop the class, because you weren't going to be able to recover enough to pass.

So I dropped it, and coasted with another prof in the same class the next semester. Of course, since history was my minor, I ran into this same prof again. Brain-slightly-wiser but liver-less-effective, I pulled a "C" our second go round.

Had him again my last semester. And I was going to win, dammit. Studied my ass off. Poured over old tests in the library. He was notorious for multi-part questions on his tests, and you suffered greatly if you knew the Who but couldn't answer the What Happened Next. So I covered every possible angle.

I was one of only two people to get an "A" in that class (out of 30 or so.) Academia-wise, it was probably the high point of my college experiece, since he made something that I knew I was good at challenging.

So, I guess what I'm saying is don't be afraid to make it hard. Yeah, the coasting classes could be cool, but he's one of the few profs I still remember.

Thanks, Dr. Dahmus.
posted by Cyrano at 5:08 PM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Now for something completely different: I'm surrounded by educators, my wife, her friends, my friends, are all educators and one thing they all have in common is occasional severe burn-out.

What we've learned to do is to take mini vacations periodically. Go away for a weekend or spend a weekend doing only things that you really love (not educational!).

If you do it right, Sunday night you'll have the "oh, crap I need to plan" thing going on and your juices will flow they way they would normally. Everyone needs a break, but teachers especially. I hope this or other suggestions work well for you.
posted by snsranch at 5:13 PM on September 27, 2006

Firstly, don't be hard on yourself. Anyone who would write this question has to be a consistently above average instructor even on the worst days. Even if I'm wrong about that, you are clearly doing your best to improve the situation. Drop the guilt, it's not doing you any good.

Secondly, take a risk and talk to someone who knows who you are; someone more experienced who you respect as a teacher. Talking at length really helps to flush out your real feelings about things.

Thirdly, is it really just boredom or are you feeling like you're losing control of things, and that's what actually killing your motivation? What stopping you feeling really in charge right now? Are you avoiding a confrontation with a superior about some aspect of your work? Consider the things that you are dimly aware of as minor irritations right now and ask yourself if they are actually affecting you more than you think.
posted by teleskiving at 5:30 PM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm in university right now. Here are some of the things my favourite professors have done:

- If possible, and if the class is not too large (under 50 people), arrange the seating in the classroom so that
- Ask questions and open the class to discussion every class. Make students feel like all their points were valid. One prof would do this by saying "Exactly - that point ties into the idea that _____". She was really approachable and commented on every contribution. I think her comments also helped other people come up with points when were were having discussions.

- Bring short videos or sound recordings in that are relevant to the course material.

- Assign short presentations to each student. Use those presentations to break up the lecture. (e.g. Presentation for 5 minutes, followed by discussion of presentation for 15 minutes. Lecture for an hour. Repeat.)

- Unless the student is comfortable, don't put anyone on the spot. I hated that, because if I didn't have anything to say I felt stupid.

- Not all my good profs did this, but a lot of them made jokes.
posted by catburger at 5:38 PM on September 27, 2006

- If possible, and if the class is not too large (under 50 people), arrange the seating in the classroom so that

Oops. I meant: "... so that it makes a more intimate setting. Some of the classes where I've had really good discussions were really small ones, set up theatre style, but crammed with people."

And the presentations are good to get students talking about what they are interested in. (This was for a media studies class.) It's important to keep this assignment quite open ended so that students can pick whatever they want. Also, gives you a break from lecturing the full 3 hours or however long it is, and the students a break from taking notes.
posted by catburger at 5:42 PM on September 27, 2006

2. He made sure he presented both sides of every point. He did this to the extent where he would make even boring subject material controversial by expertly arguing each side. You can do this even if you teach english 101 by saying shakespeare is a stupid hack, e.g. He also made his students take a side on the spot, since he knew their names.

I like this idea of arguing both sides. My favorite classes are always the ones where the teacher compels us to actually think for ourselves and figure things out (this is a disturbingly rare occurance). Ask a particular student to take a position on something in class, then ask for someone who disagrees. If nobody does, take the opposite stance yourself. This can be especially helpful because students often think they know what answer will please their instructor, or what the status quo answer in the field is, so they take that position without having to give it deep thought. Just when they think they have the "right" answer, you jump in and play devil's advocate and make them actually justify it.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 6:16 PM on September 27, 2006

Ooooohhh. Also, once in high school, my english teacher used the pencil sharpener to "phone Robert Frost". It caught our attention. Acting like a crazy should help keep you and your students entertained.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 6:17 PM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Decide you are going to pretend you are very enthusiastic. You will just be playing a part. You will think to yourself 'what would an enthusiastic person do'? You will not let it bother you that you aren't being genuine, that you are kind of being a fake. You will decide that you will do this for a period of time, maybe two weeks.

Of course the point of doing this is that the hope is there that you will actually become enthusiastic by acting enthusiastic. This might happen or it might not. Even if it doesn't you will still get one week of better than average work done. Which is pretty good for a worst case scenario.
posted by I Foody at 6:27 PM on September 27, 2006

remind yourself of why you got into this topic in the first place; and try to return to those original plans and dreams, to continue to develop them. Teaching is great but its only a job; you need these original plans in order to invigorate your life, purpose, etc, and that in turn will reinvigorate your teaching.
posted by jak68 at 9:31 PM on September 27, 2006

Also, please do not do what orthoganality suggests. Every student hates teaching a class and they hate teachers who make them do it.
posted by milarepa

YMMV, but when I did this as a TA (history) for small classes (15-20 students), feedback through anonymous evaluations was extremely positive. I explained my rationale during the first class (chance to practice public speaking skills, think on your feet, good practice for running meetings out in the Real World, etc) and told them I wanted each student to self-evaluate, with a self-assigned grade and short paragraph handed in to me assessing their strengths and weaknesses. It counted a reasonable amount toward their overall grade.

The A- and B-range students loved it. They were bored with the usual structure. The rest didn't get into it as reliably, but the ones who made a real effort still found it rewarding. One anonymous opined that s/he didn't appreciate "doing the instructor's job for them", which wasn't exactly accurate. It was easier on me when they did a good job, yeah, but I always made sure I knew the material because a few students dropped the ball entirely, and even with the good ones there were always further points to build on anyway. I learned a lot too. Some of them were very creative.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 10:00 PM on September 27, 2006

Burnout sucks. Get some rest.
posted by flabdablet at 10:11 PM on September 27, 2006

I always got to this point in the semester. Particularly if I signed up to teach more classes than usual.

Acting like a crazy should help keep you and your students entertained. Oh yes. And more importantly, it keeps *you* entertained.

I taught at an art school, in a creative field, but when fried, I would switch things up for myself. I figure, if I'm not having a good time, they certainly aren't.

During a lecture on fear (and how it kills creativity), I leaped from desk to desk, panting as I gave the lecture. When I fell on my ass (hard), I used it to demonstrate that the thing you fear that holds you back from taking risks is usually better than doing nothing, even if your worst fear is realized.

Once, I made everyone crawl through a window to get on top of the roof and we had a lecture about the job hunt as we looked at all the people working late in all the office windows (and gazing at the Bay Bridge).

Once a semester, we watched a movie about people in our industry (Advertising) and I paused it frequently and encouraged people to MST3K it with inaccuracies and commentary on the work the characters did. ("And what do you think I'd say if someone brought *that* ad into class? Yep, borrowed interest.")

We'd have class off-campus. At a pub, at a park, at my (day job) office. We'd still do the lecture, the work, but the new setting made everything more groovy.

I made them take what they'd learned and apply it to other things completely outside of our area of expertise. "Write a creative brief for your favorite song. What is Iggy Pop's main point to this song? Who is the target market? What idea is he trying to sell? What are the support points? Functional benefits? Emotional benefits?"

I brought in guest lecturers from all over. I had told them the week before that everyone in advertising was either stoned or drunk and then I brought in my favorite stoner art director and watched them snicker and my friend get paranoid.

I wrote new articles based on my lecture material to give me a fresh perspective.

And then, eventually, I took a summer off, realized I liked not grading papers every morning, lunch break and evening and quit. I miss it about once every other day. I figure when it gets to once a day, I'll see if they'll take me back. Especially with the swearing, desk jumping and roof climbing.
posted by Gucky at 10:45 PM on September 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

Professor: (walking into class) Today, I would like to dedicate this class to Shakira. She can definitely shake her hips.

(Students stare, dumbfounded)

Professor: And as we all know, her hips don't lie!
I think there is something to be said for entertaining yourself.
posted by Famous at 10:46 PM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Though it might not work at all depending on the specifics of the courses involved, I want to second paulsc's advice to ask hard questions, and not to answer them immediately. Not just because asking hard questions is good for your students; it's also a way to remind yourself what is still alive and exciting in your field. If you can lead your students into a problem, explaining what's interesting about it and why the easy answers don't work, so much the better; if you can lay out various potential answers (or let them!) and explain what's attractive and what's flawed in each, then it's both good for your students and for keeping your own eyes open. In my limited experience, at least, teaching becomes dull when you feel like you have the answers to all the questions that are being asked in a class. Maybe sometimes you even need to go a little bit over students' heads, opening up an issue they don't yet fully understand, even confusing them a little, in order to keep yourself interested. It's still better than talking down to them, and you may be surprised how quickly they'll follow your lead.
posted by RogerB at 10:55 PM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

1) Try to be happy to see me if I come to your office hours for any reason. Be effusively happy, offer me cookies - I had a few professors who created such a positive buzz about their office hours that soon word of mouth got around the class and by the last few weeks of the course, there was a line of three or four people waiting for a chat. No better way to get to know your students than to talk to them, I think.

2) The best final exams are, in my opinion, just the cumulative scores of my assignments in your class. Without a curve. Show me you value my effort thorughout the whole term and I'll come to every class; give me two big exams and that's the only time you'll see me.

3) Mango smoothies are a great way to pep up before class if you're not digging the coffee thing anymore.
posted by mdonley at 5:19 AM on September 28, 2006

The worst college class I had (in my major at least) was one where the professor lectured the whole time. Literally. He asked no questions of the students, students didn't ask questions of him (we couldn't get a word in!), and it just sucked. There was no enthusiasm or feigned enthusiasm for what could have been a really great topic (stereotypes in american literature). The coasters loved the class, but those of us that were there for an education instead of a degree hated it.

As others have said, engage the students. Ask a question, and don't say anything throughout the entire, uncomfortable silence. Even if no one says anything the entire class period. If that happens, pose the same question the next class period. And so on.

I know it's hard to be engaging when you have courses to prepare for and teach, office hours to honor, and probably some committees to be on for the school you teach at.

One more thought: do you have any students that you're friendly with? I was friendly with three or four of my professors and one of them got 'stuck' teaching a suck class because the guy originally teaching it quit a week before the semester started. He didn't really know how to teach it and since I was in it, he asked me what he could be doing better. He took some of my ideas and used them until he got more comfortable with the subject matter. So, if you have a student friend, maybe ask him/her what he/she would like to see you do.

Good luck. I think it's great that you've recognized you're getting burned out and want to change that instead of just becoming one of the 'bad' professors no one wants.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:26 AM on September 28, 2006

I concur with the advice to fake it. Based on my experience teaching/training, if you've ever had enthusiasm for teaching the subject then coming in and behaving excited will often jump-start that excitement. If your students are at all capable of being motivated to enthusiasm by an enthusiastic prof (and I think most are) then you'll likely find their eagerness contagious.

Depending on the subject and lethargy of your students you could also try to snowball off what they like. How do you know? Ask. Why not open a class by asking some people what they find interesting in the subject? Hell, ask em what they find loathsome. Maybe you'll be astonished that they hate the thing you most love in the field. Maybe someone else will pipe up and say that's the thing they most love. Maybe you hate that thing too.

In that same vein - give them the assignment to come into class every week with one thing they learned or found out about in the subject that surprised, amazed, amused or disgusted them.
posted by phearlez at 11:33 AM on September 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

« Older How do I get drugs cheaper?   |   The drafting chair of tomorrow, today! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.