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The Teaching Trap

The Teaching Trap
March 15, 2010

My first tenure-track job was extraordinarily teaching intensive. I taught five courses per semester at a community college while also writing my dissertation. As difficult as that situation was for me, I was delighted to have a job devoted to teaching because at the very core of my being, I AM a teacher. As someone who loves teaching, I threw my heart and soul into every class. And, as you can imagine, I quickly burned out! As I moved to different jobs (first at a liberal arts college and then a research-intensive university), you might expect that the time I spent on teaching decreased as my research expectations increased. But that wasn’t the case -- even when teaching two courses per semester I still spent the same amount of time as when I was teaching five!

I’m remembering what it felt like to spend so much time on teaching because I’ve been inundated the past two weeks by new faculty who are frustrated about how much time, energy and effort they are spending on teaching and service and how little is "left over" for research and writing. Given the consistent feelings of exhaustion and discouragement expressed, I think it's time for some honest discussion about Common Mistake #9: Falling Into the Teaching Trap.

Teaching can be a wonderfully fulfilling, intellectually stimulating, and enjoyable activity, so let me be clear what I mean by "the teaching trap." The trap is when new tenure-track faculty spend the vast majority of their time on teaching at the expense of their research and writing and then find that their limited research productivity endangers their ability to be promoted at their current institution, or move to another one. And if you are at an institution where your advancement will be based largely (or entirely) on teaching, the “teaching trap” occurs when you fail to manage your boundaries around teaching so that you have no time or energy for the other things that matter in your work and in your life. If you find yourself coming to campus early and staying late, if you’re spending every weekend grading and preparing for the next week’s classes, if you’re sacrificing sleep and/or pulling all-nighters in order to get ready for the next day’s class meeting, and – as a result -- you haven’t spent any time moving your research agenda forward or investing in your long-term success, then you may have fallen into the teaching trap.

TIME FOR SOME TOUGH QUESTIONS

While it’s important to recognize when you have fallen into the teaching trap, it’s even more critical to identify WHY you are spending such disproportionately large amounts of time on teaching. The first place to start climbing out of the trap is by asking yourself: why am I over-preparing and over-functioning in this one aspect of my job?

There are MANY different possible reasons including:

  • You love teaching (you find course prep and classroom interaction more stimulating than research).
  • You mistakenly equate "great teaching" with delivering enormous amounts of content in each class period.
  • You feel insecure about your job performance.
  • You are highly sensitive to students' evaluations of your teaching.
  • You believe it’s somehow possible to please everyone so if you just spend more time, you will teach better and receive unanimously positive evaluations.
  • You feel you have to be twice as good to be judged as equal.
  • You have unrealistically high expectations about teaching.
  • You often feel like a fraud or impostor, so over-preparing for your classes protects you from being discovered.
  • You have a profound fear of failure in the areas of research and publication (teaching becomes a form of procrastination from writing).
  • You have never thought about how you're spending your time and have unconsciously fallen into the teaching trap because of the built-in accountability that standing in front of a classroom full of students several times a week provides.
  • Your professors were poor teachers when you were in college and you’re trying to be different and better for your students (i.e., the professor you never had).
  • If you’re an underrepresented faculty member, the dynamics of racism and sexism in the classroom mean that you don’t get the benefit of the doubt from students, so you over-prepare in order to prove you deserve to be teaching in a college classroom.

Once you have pinpointed WHY you are over-preparing, you can begin to think about ways to teach effectively and efficiently. Here are a few ideas:

Write Every Day

If you're spending too much time on teaching and haven't set aside time for your writing, then consider rearranging your daily schedule so that you write for 30-60 minutes every day, first thing in the morning. Instead of preparing for class and “hoping” you have time to write, flip that upside down so that you write first and hope to have time to complete all of your course prep.

Try a Mid-Semester Course Correction

Last week, I suggested giving a mid-semester evaluation to your students by asking three simple questions: 1) What do you like best about this class? 2) What do you like least about this class? and 3) What suggestions do you have for the rest of the semester? Listen closely to what your students are saying, take some of their suggestions, and let them know you are doing so. This is a wonderful opportunity to eliminate some of the reading and writing assignments left in the semester and give yourself the chance to re-orient your time and energy toward your research.

Take the Long View of Your Career

If you're like me and spend too much time on teaching because you LOVE teaching and LOVE your students, try to think of your career as a book with many chapters. If research is a significant component of your tenure review, then the pre-tenure chapter must focus on research and writing in order for there to be subsequent chapters. You can invest in becoming a master teacher in one of the post-tenure chapters of your career. But for now, you must figure out a way to teach that doesn’t preclude publication.

Align Your Teaching Standards With Your Department

If you are a perfectionist and have very high standards for your classroom, consider visiting some of your colleague's classrooms. This can be a tremendously liberating experience and help you to put what goes on in your own classroom into alignment with your local context. Now if your colleagues are apathetic or mediocre in the classroom, I’m not suggesting you become apathetic or mediocre. But, if you are assigning twice as many essays as your colleagues (which then requires you to spend twice as much time grading), there may be room for adjustments.

Hire a Grader

If you have the funds, hire someone to assist you with grading. Having a grader forces you to construct grading rubrics for assignments, which is both an excellent teaching practice and a time-saving technique.

Ask Your Local Faculty Developer For Help

Many institutions have a Center for Teaching Excellence that is staffed with faculty development experts. These folks would love nothing more than to help you improve your teaching! Not only do they want to help you, they know all the empirically documented best practices. Find these people on your campus and ask them how you can become a more effective and efficient teacher.

Delete RateMyProfessors.com from Your Bookmarks (and Your Consciousness)

If your over-preparation is an effort to make everyone happy, if you are driven by a fear of negative evaluation, if you find yourself devastated by what a few angry students wrote about you on RateMyProfessors.com, and/or you consistently focus on the small number of negative reviews (to the exclusion of the overwhelmingly positive majority), it’s time to re-orient your perspective. First and foremost, stop checking this website: it’s neither representative nor helpful. Instead, use that time to ask yourself: does it make sense to focus on the broad pattern of comments in my formal student evaluations or the outlying data points as reliable feedback for my teaching? If the broad pattern is negative, it’s time to visit your local faculty developer. If the broad pattern is positive, release yourself from the idea that it’s even possible to please everyone. It that doesn’t work, try asking some of your senior colleagues (whose teaching you admire) to share their evaluations with you and provide some perspective on yours. This will open your eyes to the fact that even master teachers receive a few negative evaluations each semester. The difference is that they have learned to focus on the big picture and work towards continual and incremental improvement each semester instead of dwelling on a handful of negative comments.

Consider Working on Your Core Issues

If you find that the reasons underlying your over-functioning are deep and profound feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, anxiety, and fear, then why not consider taking one hour out of your week to unravel those issues with a therapist. Psychological obstacles tend to persistently re-emerge across various areas of our lives and relationships so why not pro-actively start the process of self-reflection and growth now?

Create Accountability for Your Research and Writing

If you spend too much time on teaching because it has a built-in accountability mechanism (you have to stand in front of class several times a week), then create an equally powerful accountability mechanism for your research and writing. You can join the monthly writing challenges on my discussion forum, you can join the Academic Ladder's Writing Clubs, you can hire a Professional Nag to call you at the beginning and end of your writing time each day to make sure you get your work done, or you could start a support group of new faculty who hold each other accountable for meeting their weekly writing goals. I've done all of these at different times of my career to create accountability for my writing that rivals a classroom full of students for my teaching, and each one has been effective in keeping me on track.

I'm NOT suggesting you should run out and do ALL of these things today. Instead, I'm presenting this list of ideas to stimulate your thinking about how many different options you have available to help you climb out of the teaching trap.

THIS WEEK'S CHALLENGE

  • Evaluate whether your time spent on teaching is in line with your tenure criteria.
  • If not, gently ask yourself: WHY AM I SPENDING SO MUCH TIME ON MY TEACHING?
  • Once you know the answer, develop one concrete step forward you can take this week to change the distribution of time and energy towards the activities that matter most to your tenure and promotion.
  • Write every day for 30-60 minutes (just try it!).

I hope this week brings each of you the honesty to assess whether or not you have fallen into The Teaching Trap, the strength to ask yourself WHY, and the joy of consciously making changes that will allow you to move in a new direction!

Peace & Productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore

 

 

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