Teaching Tips

Make Your Teaching and Your Life More Enjoyable

This job is miserable; the workload is unbearable, there are too many students, and there are not enough hours in the day to do all the things I need to do. I am so tired and burnt out I can hardly get up to go to work in the morning! Have you ever heard anyone say something along these lines, or worse, said something like this yourself? Well, we are government employees, and we are here to help you. There are steps you can take to make your work more satisfying and your life more enjoyable.

It seems like over the years many faculty members do roughly the same thing semester after semester while continually undertaking additional responsibilities— a recipe for stress and unhappiness. We are all familiar with the conditions in academia that help to siphon the joy and meaning out of our lives: things such as teaching the same classes over and over, too many needy students, too much committee work, insufficient resources, piles of paperwork, and time pressures and deadlines. We cannot solve all of your problems, but we do have some suggestions accumulated over our nearly 75 (combined) years of teaching, and we hope some of them will help you to increase your enjoyment of life and academia, so you have more to give to your teaching and students.

Try a New Approach to Your Teaching
Teaching the same class or classes can become repetitious, even if you love the subject. If this is happening to you, you may just soldier on, continuing to try your best in the same old ways. However, to make the next semester more enjoyable you might try one of the following ideas.

Include something in each class period that is fun for you and your students. Doug Bernstein (2005) says that when he is ready to talk about obedience to authority he asks his students to give him a standing ovation, has them keep trying until he gets a sufficiently gratifying response, and uses this activity as an example of the subject at hand. That satisfies our definition of fun. The use of cartoons or various types of active learning should work, too.

Experience life as a student. Attend a lecture or presentation on a topic you know little about and take notes as if you had a test the next day, or try writing one of the papers you have assigned to your students. This should refresh your memory of what life is like on the other side of the lectern, and as a result you may find yourself writing more on the board, speaking slower, or reemphasizing major points.

Rearrange your teaching schedule. Teaching at different times of the day or changing to longer or shorter class periods or a night class is a simple way to add variety to your life.

Change your assignments. Assign your students to give presentations or engage in group work, or ask them to write papers on new or different topics.

Change your mode of delivery. Change the proportions of PowerPoint presentations, overheads, lecture, or discussion in each class period, or try a day with no technology and just lecture. Move around the room more and lecture from different locations, or change how you teach a particular topic.

You also might:

  • Ask students for specific feedback on your teaching;
  • Review syllabi from others who teach the same class;
  • Invite guest lecturers to your class, or volunteer to do the same for a colleague;
  • Attend a teaching conference, or read some teaching journals or books;
  • Team-teach a class with a colleague;
  • Teach a new course;
  • Try a field trip;
  • Get your students involved in service learning;
  • Teach an on-line class;
  • Change your textbook;.
  • Keep a teaching journal.

Take Advantage of New Opportunities
If you are in a rut, there are any number of alternatives you might consider trying outside of the classroom to add something new and different to your academic life.

Take a sabbatical leave or attend an interesting short course. Sabbaticals are a tried and true method of getting away from the normal routine, completing research or retraining, and recharging your batteries. Auditing a course you have always been interested in is another option. Dr. McCann has found the Chautauqua Program of short courses run by the National Science Foundation a pleasant way to see and learn new things that can enhance his teaching. Consider applying to grade Advanced Placement Psychology exams. Although grading essays does not sound either interesting or stimulating, it is — as hard as that is to believe.

Collaborate with colleagues on a research project. Getting two or more people involved in the same research activities can make the work easier, better, and more interesting. We know from experience that two heads are better than one and that working with someone will improve your experimental designs, stimulate you to get the work done since your colleague expects you to do so, and suggest new variables to consider.

Attend conferences. Attending a conference can be counted on to suggest new teaching or research ideas. Consider attending presentations in areas you normally might avoid, or going to a conference you have not been to before. Some years ago we decided to attend a teaching conference rather than the more research oriented gatherings we normally visited. Our lives have not been the same since.

You also could:

  • Temporarily exchange positions with someone on another campus;
  • Seek new committee or administrative assignments;
  • Try a new area of research;
  • Become active in a professional or national organization;
  • Get more involved in your community.

Take Better Care of Yourself
Teaching can consume larger and larger portions of our lives, often to the degree that we cannot find enough time to take care of ourselves as we should. If you take care of yourself, your mental CEO will work better and more efficiently, and you should get more work done in less time.

Get regular exercise. We once had a dean who appeared in the gym at noon nearly every day, even though he had endless responsibilities and meetings. When asked how he managed to exercise so consistently, he said, “Exercise is the first thing I put on my calendar.” This is about the best advice one could receive on how to make the time for an activity that is known to reduce stress, improve nearly every aspect of health, and create more energy for our other daily tasks.

Get enough sleep. This is easier said than done. However, health experts are starting to say that sleep is as important to health as exercise and diet. The current research suggests that insufficient sleep decreases cognitive efficiency. We heard a presentation where the speakers maintained that getting enough sleep increases your efficiency and accuracy so much that you can do more in less time, and accomplish at least as much during a shorter work day as you would in a longer day following insufficient sleep. As an added bonus, you will feel a lot better.

Decrease the work you take home. Working at home grading papers, creating lectures, writing papers, or doing committee work makes you feel (correctly) that your job is taking over your life. Rescheduling your day to allow some time to actually work with your office door closed will decrease the work you take home, and help separate “life” from work.

Enjoy your accomplishments. Pat yourself on the back when you complete a task, clear off your desk, or accomplish something significant. Take a minute to relax and enjoy the pleasant feelings you deserve. You might even reward yourself with a short break, walk, or visit with a colleague. Another idea is to develop specific short and long-term goals for the things you want to accomplish in your career and life.

Get away from it all. Set aside time for light reading, a play, movie, concert, sports, or hobby. A vacation or just a short drive can give you a change of environment and some relaxation. Even an occasional walk around campus can clear your mind. Some people recommend REAL leisure, finding time to do absolutely NOTHING.

Spend More Time With People
Create a network of people with similar teaching or research interests, or with whom you simply enjoy spending time. Having someone to talk with, to discuss your common interests has a variety of benefits, including access to new ideas and useful advice, evaluation of your own work and plans, and an opportunity to relax and escape the normal routine. Schedule in time to see friends more often — perhaps a weekly lunch. Make it a point to get to know new faculty in and outside of your department.

Improve Your Work Environment
Minimize clutter. A disorganized or cluttered work environment makes tasks appear more numerous and adds to the difficulty of doing them efficiently. While some of the following may not seem worth the time, remember that we are looking for long-term efficiency, not an immediate solution for the problem du jour.

  • Clean out your office;
  • Clean off your desk at the end of each day;
  • Get small things off your to-do list ASAP;
  • Do the most unpleasant task on your to-do list first;
  • Do not procrastinate;
  • Concentrate on whatever you are doing — do not multi-task;
  • Empty the trash can and remove ancient files from your computer;
  • Look at e-mail only once or twice a day;
  • Take time to do it right;
  • Plan ahead. Look to see what is coming on your calendar and in your classes for the next week or two and avoid the rush to get tasks done at the last minute.

Say no more often. Academics get many requests to serve on committees, advise independent study projects in areas where they have little interest, and attend social functions. An unattainable, ideal approach would be to try to do only things you like to do. Failing that, you can at least try to decrease the number of activities in which you really do not want to be involved.

Enhance your office. Spend some time and a little money to make the place more pleasant. A small stereo, soft lighting from a new lamp, a nice rug, and comfortable chair can make your office much more pleasant, and more welcoming for students.

Hire student help. As you probably recall with painful clarity, students often work for minimum wage. If you can manage it, hire a student a few hours a week to do filing, organizing, or run errands to free up your time for more important tasks.

Minimize Negative Experiences
Avoid negative people. Avoid constant contact with the discontented. Recreational gripers may have entertainment value, but they keep your attention focused on the negative side of life and the negative interpretation of every event. Likewise, minimize contact with people who annoy you. Life is too short to endure this form of water torture.

Learn how the system works. When they need to interact with the dark side of the force (administration), many teachers drown in the resulting red tape. The next time you need to wade into this swamp ask a wise old head for advice on how to proceed effectively and efficiently. Over time, if you take some of this advice and get around the campus a bit more, you will become familiar with the system, and save a lot of time and annoyance. Learning how the system works is not a waste of time.

Save your silver bullets. There are things that might be changed with varying degrees of effort. Pick your battles, and spend time only on important issues. Charging every windmill in sight will take a lot of time and emotional energy, generate stress and unhappiness, and undermine your credibility when you have a legitimate complaint.

Do not worry about things you cannot change. There are occasional irritations in academic life (believe it or not), and dwelling on these major or minor stupidities will not improve your mental health. If you cannot change something, staying annoyed is not a good solution. Do not try to solve every problem yourself; call attention to it and if nothing happens, move on. Some things simply have to be endured, ideally with a good dose of humor, bemusement, or sarcasm. Remember that administrators and rules come and go, this, too, shall pass — in the fullness of time.

Don’t just sit there — take more control of your academic life and your surroundings, and make your life and work more satisfying. There is nothing better than a job you like doing. Most teachers got into teaching because they loved it. Do what it takes to keep it that way, and make the remaining years of your professional life as satisfying as they can be.

References and Recommended Readings

  • Baker, E. K. (2004). Caring for ourselves as psychologists. Retrieved September 21, 2004, from http://www.e-psychologist.org/module1.pdf
  • Bernstein, D. A. (2005). Was it good for you, too?: Keeping teaching exciting for us and for them. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, & W. Buskist. (Eds.), Voices of experience: Memorable talks from the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology. (pp. 111-118). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.
  • Lloyd, M. A. (1999). As time goes by: Maintaining vitality in the classroom. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, & S. H. McFadden, (Eds.), Lessons Learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology. (pp. 7-10). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.

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