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Academic life

Teaching time! Keep calm and lecture on

It’s Labour Day weekend, and in Canada, that means the school year for everyone from kindergartners to university students kicks off on Tuesday. The long weekend is always a nice way to mark the end of summer. And what teacher doesn’t want an extra day to prepare, amiright?

Maybe I’ve been at this long enough or maybe I’m living in fantasyland, but this year I feel pretty calm about teaching. This feeling is probably a product of the fact that I’ve received some great advice about teaching over the years, and of course learned a few lessons myself. Today I’ll share a few of these tips; hopefully at least one of them will bring a little calm to the start of your semester, too.

Limit your prep time

During my new faculty orientation many years ago, a panel of profs in their second year were asked to share “what they wished they knew” when they first started. One spoke about the compulsion to spend hours preparing for each class. He had learned that it was ok to set aside a specific chunk of time to prepare, and whatever results from that time is what they get. It might not be perfect, but it will be good enough.

For the last few years I’ve blocked out Monday afternoons as class prep time. I also have office hours at this time but they’re not so busy that I can’t work in between the occasional drop in. I try to prep everything for the week’s classes during this period. If I need to tweak a little something right before class, that’s fine. But for the most part, what happens on Monday afternoon has to be enough. And you know what? It is.

Try it: Block off some specific and limited chunks of time in your schedule for prep, and stick to them.

Teach a new syllabus at least twice before an overhaul

A more senior colleague once shared this bit of his own hard-won wisdom, and it’s great advice, especially for junior faculty. When you’re new to teaching, you’ll likely have several “new preps,” as we call them, every year. This is when you’re designing either a new course or your own version of an existing course. Often you’re trying out readings, assignments, and class formats for the first time. It can feel pretty experimental.

Like any scientist, you’ll notice what went well and what went … not so well. The temptation is often to overhaul the whole syllabus before you teach the class again. But, it makes more sense to repeat the experiment at least one more time. You’ll be more comfortable with the materials. You’ll have a whole new group of students. And you can better judge whether there are actually major structural problems with the course that would necessitate massive changes. Of course it’s ok to make some tweaks in the meantime. You might adjust instructions for clarity, for example, or shift the timing of assignments. But don’t tear it down to the foundations.

Try it: Leave your syllabus alone until you’ve taught the course at least twice.

It’s ok to make your life easier sometimes

A couple of years ago I was coming off sabbatical and stepping into a new admin role where I knew I would have to devote significant energy to fighting for a new program hire. I was also teaching a large intro course. At a an undergrad institution where we don’t have grad students to grade and do the course admin work, these courses are a lot of work. I knew I would be busier than ever, so I had to make the work of this course as simple as I could. Although tests are not my ideal way to evaluate students, I decided that for this semester, a quiz, two midterms, and a final exam would make up the bulk of the grade.

Sure, I felt a little guilty for not including more creative, diverse, and engaging evaluations. But I wouldn’t have had time to give good, timely feedback on written work from 120 students throughout the semester. With tests, my undergraduate TA could help with more of the grading and I could essentially give group feedback to the whole class. Was it my most shining teaching moment? No. But it let me do all the parts of my job reasonably well without burning out completely.

Try it: Scan your syllabi and see if you can reduce the amount of grading or at least simplify it for one course. Or use a textbook instead of searching for individual readings. It’s ok to give yourself a break!

Innovate… but in small doses

There’s a lot of pressure to bring high levels of innovation to our classrooms. Whether the buzzwords are experiential learning, flipped classrooms, ungrading, service learning, or hybrid learning, you might feel like you need to try one or all of the newest trends in your classes each year. I’m here to tell you that you don’t. Yes, we need to show that we’re evolving and growing as teachers throughout our careers. But throwing a bunch of “innovations” at your classes every time you turn around is a recipe for exhaustion.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s great to try new things. But pace yourself. Don’t expect to be able to design meaningful community engagement experiences for every class, every semester. Experimental grading methods – even the ones that seem like they’ll save you work, like peer grading and self assessment – take a lot of work to administer effectively. In fact, most of these innovations can double or triple your workload for a given course. So use them judiciously. Take time to reflect on how they align with your teaching values and learning objectives. And give yourself time to sit with the results before trying it again.

Try it: Decide on one course where you’ll try something brand new and leave the others with a more traditional format. Reflect on the results.

Whatever your semester brings, be kind to yourself and don’t expect perfection. Burnout is common among teachers. Being patient with yourself and giving yourself a break from impossible expectations is more than ok: it’s the only way to make it through to another year. You got this.

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