Teaching without Expending all of your Energy: A Pamphlet

At the end of a long teaching day, I tweeted about needing a pamphlet to learn how not to use all of my energy in the classroom.

I decided to write this pamphlet myself. (Well, this isn’t really a pamphlet, but it seems like the kind of information that could go on one. If someone gives me the budget, I will find some stock photos, print out this blog, and fold it in threes.)

I’m teaching four classes this semester, which is the most I have ever taught, but even when I have taught two, I have had trouble controlling how much energy I expend in the classroom. I don’t use too little energy in the classroom. I use all of my energy for the day. At the end of the teaching day, I can often be found draped over the couch. Feel free to imagine me resting on any of these couches.daybed_web6

My friend, Alison Rutledge, described feeling like a “puddle of goo” at the end of a long day. And, yes, that is exactly it.

Even if we weren’t also trying to be researchers and fulfill service requirements, we would probably not want to spend the early evening hours in a stupor. It shouldn’t be okay to use all of your resources on teaching, so how do we dial it back?

I want to talk about particular strategies I plan to work on in the classroom to combat some of my energy drain, but I don’t want to do so before mentioning gender and emotional labor because they are important factors in these feelings I am observing. First, some of the exhaustion from me and my friends (everyone who responded to me about feeling the same was a woman) stems from the fact that male professors get higher evaluations as a result of being men. At least a part of my extra hustling is to make up for that gap. Of course, men also work hard to be good teachers but starting with a group of students who already assume you have the authority to be doing what you are doing must be just a little less draining. Additionally, many men approach their roles in the classroom differently in terms of how they connect with their students. Women are often viewed as caregivers and nurturers, and this perception acts itself out in the classroom. Students seek their female instructors for different kinds of attention than they do their male instructors. An essay by Holly Ann Larson in the journal Currents in Teaching and Learning illustrates this emotional labor by describing the work of teaching and interacting with community college students. As an example of the energy she spends on her students, Larson details the anxiety of having to telling a struggling student that she cannot turn in a paper late. This example succinctly showcases how much the interactions with her students affect her personally. Larson writes from personal experience but cites other research on this topic, including what is considered the premier scholarship on the issue of emotional labor Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart

It’s important to address these larger issues, but I also want to note some strategies I will do in the short term to save my own classroom energy.

I know a few peo02RBF_COMBO1-master675-v2ple who have a quiet energy that draws people in. This kind of energy can work great in a classroom because it causes students to focus on you. I don’t have that energy; if I am being quiet, I look like Kristen Stewart, January Jones, and Victoria Beckham in these photos. I think they look fine, but we have been taught to read these expressions as “bitch face.” Partially for this reason, I have learned to use a more upbeat energy to engage my students. That energy is something I will maintain, but I am going to work on being quiet more. For me, this will take the form of 1) not over-explaining answers or directions 2) letting student comments sit for a minute before responding 3) generally slow down.

Since I sent that above tweet, I have been observing where my energy goes in the classroom and have noticed that I will over-explain directions or instructions. If my students are looking at me like they don’t understand something, instead of giving them a minute to absorb it, I will launch into several different alternate explanations for it. I think that this is helpful but honestly it just might be more confusing. A principle from one of the professors in my master’s program should be of use here. I’m not exactly sure if I am getting the phrasing right, but he used to say that he believed in “embracing the pause” in the classroom. He was specifically referring to the pause between questions that are asked of students and the time that the first person begins to answer it. I would like to apply this concept more broadly and use the pause to slow down the pace of my classroom a bit. I will also try to talk slower. I talk fast and move fast. Yes, I am one of those people that passes other people on the sidewalk. Just being more conscious of the pace of my talking will help expend less energy and probably lead to my students also following me a bit more. If I can maintain it, it looks to be a win-win for everyone.

Those are my energy-related ideas. I will let you know how well I follow through with them. What is your advice for yourself for better managing your emotional resources in the classroom?

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