We are almost at the end of an incredibly unusual year, one that caused no small amount of stress, exhaustion, and sense of loss, but which we hope also engendered creativity, agility, and a heightened sense of empathy. All of these by-products of the sudden and persistent changes we have experienced over the past year—whether negative or positive ones—can lead to burnout. It takes an incredible amount of effort to push through exhaustion and loss; it also takes an incredible amount of effort to be continually creative and empathetic with others.
In her Temple Talks video, Self-Compassion (It Feels Weird, Right?), Dr. Annette Willgens from the College of Public Health reminds us of the importance of practicing self-compassion, especially in times like these. Professor Willgens points out that it takes practice - and stillness - to become aware of our own self-criticisms and then to become more compassionate with ourselves. I like especially how she emphasizes that, while we may continue to strive for excellence, perfection is not attainable, and exhorts us to “make the ordinary the new extraordinary.”
This past year, we’ve understood even more clearly how imperfect teaching can be, perhaps even should be. When done well, responsive teaching requires that we constantly assess how our students are learning, make adjustments and then tweak our approaches yet again. I often tell faculty that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for teaching, because the situational factors of each class—things like class size, time of day, modality (online, hybrid, in person), type of course (required, intro or capstone, honors), chemistry of the students in the class, whether there is a pandemic going on—affect us and our students, sometimes changing the dynamics of a class in profound ways. This is why the course you have taught successfully a number of times can suddenly feel harder than it ever has, even in “normal” times. Add to that the unexpected switch to online learning this past year. You were learning how to teach online, continually trying new things, refining ideas that almost worked, and seeking solutions for failed experiments, all while ramping up support for students grappling with their own uncertainty and inexperience in the online space.
So give yourselves a pass if you’re exhausted and you can’t wait for the last day of the semester to come. My greatest wish for you, my dear colleagues, is that you are able to find some time to practice self-compassion, breathe, and regain the energy we all need to move forward.
After you have regained some of that energy, an important next step is to take time to reflect on the past year’s teaching experiences with a critical eye and then to ask yourself: “Where do I go from here?” Resist the urge to fall back onto old ways of doing things in your classrooms and letting everything you have learned fall by the proverbial wayside, even if you are going back to in-person teaching. These reflective questions will assist you in discovering how to forge a new way forward that leverages the best of old and new experiences. If you are teaching this summer and feel that you have no time to carve out time for this exercise, consider that even a few minutes to reflect in this way before planning your fall semester can make a difference in decisions you’ll make about your course.
If you want to join a group of colleagues to discuss questions like these together, join the CAT this summer as we host roundtable discussions (Hopefully) Post-Pandemic Pedagogy: Where Do We Go From Here? in June and July. And remember that we are here all summer to talk through your ideas with you in one-on-one consultations. You can also get timely help with educational technology questions at the Virtual Drop-In Ed Tech Lab.
A final word from all of the CAT staff to you. We admire the work and thoughtfulness you put into teaching this year, and the care for your students that we observed time and time again. We also appreciate the collegiality you have shown to us this year as we worked with you to navigate uncertainty and constantly changing needs. This connection with faculty is the foundation of the CAT’s mission, and helped us to keep going in sometimes overwhelming times. Here’s hoping for some moments of rest, reflection, and connection this summer for all of us.
Stephanie Fiore is Assistant Vice Provost of Temple's Center for the Advancement of Teaching.