by Anna Atkinson, Department of English, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Vancouver Island University
At this time of year—actually, at this time of term, no matter which term it is—the question of whether I’m actually a terrible teacher looms large. I’m tired, my students are tired, the workload has intensified, and for some perverse reason it always seems to be at exactly this point that all heck breaks loose either in my own personal life or in that of my students. Or (frequently) both.
I think we’ve all had the kind of class period where it doesn’t seem to matter what we do, we’re met with low energy and blank stares, even from students who are usually active and engaged. I tend to walk away from those classes feeling like my entire career is a complete failure, and I’m basically a waste of oxygen that some more talented person could put to better use. Perhaps I catastrophize too much.
Actually, for sure I catastrophize too much.
On the off chance that there are other catastrophizers out there, or that there are more sensible people who don’t catastrophize but do suffer from crises of confidence from time to time, I’d just like to share some of the things I’ve been meditating on as this term draws to a close.
The old saw, “when you lose, don’t lose the lesson” comes to mind. What can I learn from this repeated experience of low energy levels at term end? One of the things I’ve started to try to do is make classes toward the end of the term more active. This means more “games”: trivial pursuit, jeopardy, bingo—anything I can think of that delivers at least some information in a way that’s both positive and memorable: in a word, fun. It’s interesting how much resistance I felt to this idea when I first started trying it: can this really be educational? Well, yes—though not in the same way as other activities might be (at least, in my discipline!). But what’s the more important goal: serious study or student engagement? If I want students who are interested and engaged life-long learners, then I need to model the notion that learning doesn’t have to look standardized all the time. I have to sometimes let go of what I think “higher education” looks like, and instead look for better education.
I also think we learn better when we laugh. A class in which we’ve not laughed together doesn’t feel complete, for me.
A second thing that I’ve noticed about my own tendency to catastrophize is that I tend to begin to focus on the students who aren’t interested, and who don’t seem engaged—and then spend my mental energy trying to engage and interest them. That’s not an unworthy goal, for sure, but as a compulsive focus it has some limitations, the first of which comes from the fact that “engagement” and “interest” look different to (and on) different people. A professional storyteller told me once that she approached a person who seemed to have been entirely asleep during her performance, and apologized for being so boring. “Boring?” he replied, “how could you have thought I was bored?” It turns out that when he’s deeply engaged, he closes his eyes and breathes deeply. Who knew?
Another weakness is that in trying to draw in the student who appears to me to be unengaged, I tend to forget to look for the students who are engaged; I need to remember that I’m there for them, too, and that they have something to teach me. And the apparently unengaged student may have insurmountable reasons for appearing unengaged: family issues, health issues, work issues, a huge upcoming project in another class . . . Nothing I can do will help with those, and trying to engage someone beyond the limit of their own ability to be engaged at that moment may only add pressure to an already difficult situation.
So here is my work, this end-of-term: Listen. Don’t judge. Be kind, even to oneself. Smile. Laugh. Carry on. Believe. This is good work, and I’m doing it.
So are you. Thanks for reading!