By Doug Ward
A colleague pulled me aside this week and said she wanted my thoughts about something. She seemed apologetic.
She is relatively new to college teaching, having made the switch to academia after a distinguished professional career. Students rave about her. She pushes them to think creatively and to stretch their abilities through hands-on projects. She holds students to high standards, but she is also accessible and serves as a strong mentor. When we talk, I always leave feeling energized and hopeful.
This week, though, she seemed uncharacteristically down, and she wanted my advice.
“How do you, a teacher of teachers, feel at the end of the semester?” she asked.
I laughed before offering a brutally honest answer: Mentally and physically exhausted, I said. Morose and filled with self-doubt. I dwell on missed opportunities, worry about what I may have forgotten to teach, and wonder whether I have truly helped students.
It’s not, I said. Teaching feels like both a sprint and a marathon combined. Each week, we dash toward short-term goals, never fully able to catch our breath as the pace of the semester sweeps us along. I felt much the same way as a student, pouring myself into my studies, gasping toward the finish line, and wondering whether I had made the most of my opportunities.
I learned something then that I continue to draw upon now: Even though I felt exhausted and numb at the end of the semester, I had a chance to recuperate and rejuvenate. Academia, I found, had its own seasonal pace, its own cycle of depletion and rebirth. Every semester, I had a chance to start over.
I try to hold on to that thought at the end of each semester now that I’m a professor. I also remind myself that my class is only one of many that students will take. As I told my colleague this week, none of us can teach students everything. Seeing end-of-the-semester projects with sloppy writing, weak research, haphazard connections and faulty reasoning may seem like failure, but it’s not. Each of us has only a small part in the broader learning of our students. If we have done our jobs right, we have helped students improve their thinking and their maturity, helped them gain confidence in their ability to learn, and provided strategies for helping them learn in the future. The work we do will help them improve on their skills old and new in future classes.
I also remind myself that students are as tired as I am at the end of a semester and probably aren’t doing their best work or their best thinking then, just as I am not doing my best work or my best thinking. The end of the semester is a lesson in humility for all of us.
My main advice to all faculty members is to be kind to yourself at the end of the semester. Take time to reflect: What worked this semester, and why? Most certainly you had some successes. What were they and how can you transfer those successes into other areas? At the same time, what didn’t work? What parts of a course do you need to change? What can you do to improve overall student learning but also learning in smaller components of a class? What activities or assignments can you change to boost students’ confidence but also help them improve on weak skills?
After that reflection, take some time to relax and revive. Yes, you missed some opportunities this semester. We all do. No, students didn’t seem to learn as much as you would have liked. Do they ever? So give yourself a break. Do something that doesn’t require intense thinking. (I personally favor binge-watching “The Walking Dead.”) And remember that rare, magnificent part of academia: Next semester, you get a chance to start over.
Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.