The Exhausting Job of Teaching

Wonder why you are worn out by the end of the semester? Shari Wilson explores the demands of being a professor.

May 15, 2006

As a purchasing agent in Silicon Valley, I felt challenged. I needed to direct sales staff, placate management, reroute angry clients, and above all, make sure that no production lines went down in northern California. It was more than a 40-hour-a-week job. I often came in one weekend a month to help with inventory. Wrangling semiconductors -- getting them from vendors at a fraction less of a penny than my competitor, divvying them up between deserving clients, and getting them to their destinations before a disaster could happen -- was exhilarating work. I often went out with co-workers after work to celebrate another "productive day." This, I thought, was living.

Years later, I found myself working as a graphic designer for a small advertising agency. Later I moved into art direction and copywriting. I worked for a large agency in San Francisco, providing campaigns to multi-million dollar corporations. I loved the work. I often felt pushed to do my best -- and per the industry standard, I often worked two full weekends a month. Creative directors would have dinner brought in from smart fusion restaurants. And we would work on. And on. More than a few times, my senior art director would find herself on the phone, trying to give away tickets to the symphony or opera as we worked into the night. I found that I thrived on deadlines.

In 1999, I made the switch. Intent on a career that provided more than a paycheck, I started tutoring high school students for success on the SAT; later I taught composition at a local business college at night. Finally I landed a string of adjunct work at several colleges in the
Bay Area. I quit my day job at the advertising agency, and by January 2000, I was supporting myself as a postsecondary teacher.

It is the most demanding work I have ever done. Yes, managing millions of dollars worth of semiconductors was challenging. Designing national advertising campaigns was tough. But these positions required less of me -- emotionally, intellectually, and physically. Teaching college was a whole new game. And one that would require me not only to use every skill I had to succeed -- but also force me to grow and change in ways I could never had anticipated.

What is it about college teaching that makes it so demanding? Why do so many professors suffer from fatigue so deep that only a summer off can revive them? The answer is complex -- and one that differs according to circumstance.

First, for most, the teaching load is overwhelming. Many of my untenured university colleagues work a 5/5 load. Some, like me, in English (or other disciplines with heavy grading requirements) work a 4/4. Add on to that the requirement to publish, to present at
conferences, stay current with industry publications, and do committee work and you have a recipe for a breakdown.

Colleagues who work for a university dedicated to research do get release time from teaching. Yet even graduate assistants and release time cannot balance out the energy required to succeed in research and teach a 2/2 load. Sometimes preparation for classes comes last -- which leaves professors feeling guilty and anxious.

The expectation to publish puts additional pressure on already-stressed professors. Today I met a colleague eating a sandwich in the faculty lounge, a staggering pile of paperwork spilling from his attaché. Exhausted, he is struggling to grade finals, conference with students, and figure final grades. He confessed that he has not written the paper he is to present at an out-of-state conference. The conference is in three days. He is not alone. Many of my professor friends have revealed that they, too, are strung out on work and unable to keep up. Knowing that publishing is crucial to promotion and tenure makes many
professors anxious and depressed when they cannot write when they are most productive.

Although rewarding, committee work requires effort. Attending biweekly meetings, studying materials, producing reports, advising colleagues, and being in constant contact with committee members can make it difficult to prepare for classes. Keeping administrators happy with up-to-date paperwork not only requires concentration, but the ability
to organize. Professors who don't log deadlines in a calendar they regularly consult may find themselves in trouble. Because so many committees' work affects things that are important, such as the curriculum, professors feel that they must invest the time -- if only to
uphold their department's goals. And that time must come from somewhere.

My colleague's office sports two full bookshelves of publications; yet not one spine is broken. Journals and magazines can be a great source of support and even inspire us to try out new teaching strategies -- but to find the time to pick one up, we must put something else down. Many of us simply cannot find time. One professor friend of mine in science does find time. A magazine holder in his bathroom is stocked with geology publications. Each of us knows that these publications can help us teach -- yet where will we find time to reconfigure our course materials to reflect these new concepts?

Preparing for lectures and creating assignments demands time. Even when colleagues teach a course they've taught before, many invest considerable time retooling the course outline, revamping handouts, and creating new assignments. I change textbooks every two or three semesters -- if only to find a new way to teach decades-old information. Workbooks and companion Web sites often help me feel refreshed, too. But in some disciplines, preparation doesn't take the biggest slice of the time pie.

For many, grading feels like the anti-teaching tool. The bulk of my time is spent in evaluating and marking up students' work. No matter how many positive comments I make on a student's paper, I feel as if I am using the stick rather than the carrot to motivate. And the sheer number of hours it takes to grade a stack of papers is intimidating. It's no wonder that many in my discipline have trouble getting to this perilous task. It's one that will steal a professor's weekend more quickly than any other teaching requirement.

Before each semester, I mark my calendar -- not only for my teaching dates, but for the weekends after I collect papers. I know that in addition to nights, I will spend six or seven hours each on Saturday and Sunday grading. This is part of my job. I anticipate it and plan
for it. Yet somehow, when I collect any one of the four papers I require (or the midterm or final essays), I feel the weight of them in a box on my front seat. It may take two trips for me to get them upstairs. After days of reading, making individual comments on papers and filling out a grading sheet, I will transport these essays back to campus, plug students' grades into my grading software, and bring them to class to hand back to students. And so the process begins again.

Even those in disciplines that require more standardized testing may find the grading process daunting. With trained graduate students, a mathematics professor I know must still review students' grades before moving on to teach another assignment. He cannot build on a shaky foundation; if students are doing poorly, he must find time for review. And that will take away from other more advanced concepts he was planning to teach. Yet every instructor knows to check for retention of knowledge; a somewhat flexible course outline will allow them to adjust for learning. This, too, requires more thought.

Managing a classroom is difficult work. Professors gradually become more adept at identifying the psychology at work in these groups -- but each class provides its own challenges. Many early morning classes can be terribly quiet; students literally have not yet woken up. Night classes can be stimulating -- or quiet, depending on students' level of
confidence in the subject. Student population may not reflect the campus demographics reported. After teaching for several years at a large community college in California, I realized that my classes were crowded with Asian-American students. After attending workshops in diversity, I found teaching strategies that encouraged participation from this population. Later I found myself at a small private university that catered to athletes; this forced me to find another set of skills to reach this specialized group.

In many general education courses, students may come into the same course with wildly different expectations and abilities. And a good instructor's job, of course, is to somehow bring all these minds to the same place -- so that they can not only succeed in this course, but also go on to the next course in the sequence. Students often disagree about class topics. They may even argue with a professor about an assignment. These conflicts, much less conflicts among students, cause professors much anxiety.

On many campuses, professors report that they feel more like security guards than instructors. Telling students to sit down, separating students who are shouting and fighting, taking away cell phones and electronics, and confiscating notes during exams not only tire
professors, but make them wonder why they got into this field. Although not all classrooms are as chaotic, even the occasional argument among graduate students can cause instructors to lose their composure. Carefully timed lessons can become a piecemeal experience. Overachieving students may feel cheated out of necessary instruction. A
professor may have to take time from another well-planned class recapturing information lost during a discussion that got out of hand. And so more thought needs to go into the next lesson.

Being "on" in the classroom is draining. Many introverted friends told me that they collapse in their offices after a 50-minute class. If they are lucky, their schedules allow breaks between each class (or between every two classes) to re-energize. One colleague told me that she now understands the life of a comedian. After grueling preparation, they go onstage, deliver what they have, look for feedback, and then slink back to a dressing room to either drink, sleep, or cry. Instruction is not so different.

With a VH1-influenced culture, many instructors feel compelled to "edu-tain" rather than educate. With iPod and MP3 Players in hand, many students have come to expect to be entertained in class; anything less may result in grade review and tenure denial. Even for extroverts, teaching demands everything we have. While delivering a lecture, we are
constantly checking for understanding. Constantly switching teaching methods can be tiring for instructors; yet we feel compelled to keep students' attention. Seeing students as an audience to be entertained can also give an instructor the false sense that students are indeed "getting it," when they are actually just responding to new stimuli in the most basic sense. Smart professors constantly check for retention; tools for assessment need to be adjusted for each course -- and in some cases, for each class.

The one quality that professors value most about their jobs can also be the one that causes them the most fatigue: intellectual challenge. Even though I had to use many strategies to sell semiconductors in Silicon Valley, it was nothing compared to the brain power I've had to use to teach a subject to college students well. A decade ago, I found advertising challenging. Dreaming up new ways to sell a product or service to corporate executives was exhilarating; still, it was nothing compared to finding ways to reach a student population of incredibly diverse abilities.

And professors do not "clock out" at 5 p.m. As one online colleague posted, "The work is infinite. There is always one more thing you could, should, would like to do." The industry encourages workaholism. Professors that "do it all" are promoted and given tenure. Those that buckled under the need to publish, teach, do research, serve on committees, and do informal public relations work are pushed out of this tremendously competitive business. For many, it's exhausting. Although tenure can provide some relief, I know of two dozen colleagues who do as much as they did when they were seeking tenure. These seasoned veterans are even more in demand by others in the discipline. Now mentoring younger faculty, they find themselves presenting at campus functions as well as at academic conferences. Retirement may be their only hope for much-needed relaxation.

The professors I know are not rich. In fact, many are not even considered upper middle class. In this Midwestern town, many are labeled "middle class" only because the cost of living here is so low.

Yet with student loans in tow, many of the my Ph.D. colleagues have found themselves working not only a full-time position, but also summer and overload assignments, just to get out from under. For many of them, it will be 10 years or more before they pay off their educational debt. Yes, some professors in research do very well. Yet these are the
exception -- not the rule. Most professors, especially those without at terminal degree, find themselves barely paying the rent. Those in the first few years of teaching may accept any position just to fill out their CV. And full-timers on contract find themselves not only working
for 70 percent of what their colleagues make -- but with no guarantee of work past that academic year. Many have made great financial sacrifices in order to teach.

Accountability at so many levels can place further pressure on professors. Not only do professors answer to students and their parents, but to administrators, colleagues, their discipline, the state -- and ultimately the nation. Education has never been the simple task
of passing information on to students. Preparing students for real-world jobs has been one goal; finding ways to assess students them has been another concern. Retaining students when local blue-collar businesses are paying double the minimum wage is a battle.

At every turn, we hear that a college education is worth less and less. In Declining by Degrees, editors Richard Hersh and John Merrow explored lowered academic standards, an increased focus on research instead of teaching, and an administration interested in rankings rather than high academic standards. The move from liberal studies and general education to specialized education (and a focus on technology) has challenged
traditional professors' values.

Most professors I know feel impotent. They may be forced into either coddling students, watering down curriculum, or passing students who have not earned a passing grade. Those who do not give in may find themselves labeled as "outdated" or, worse yet, a political outcast. In today's consumer-driven world, holding the line is becoming more and
more dangerous -- not only for institutions, but for individual professors as well.

In their book, Supporting Beginning English Teachers: Research and Implications for Teacher Induction, Thomas McCann, Larry Johannessen and Bernard Ricca have suggestions to assist secondary teachers in English; these can also be applied to postsecondary teachers in any discipline. After recognizing the pressures of teaching, administrators can seek to assign reasonable workloads. Asking a new instructor to do
five different preparations for five different courses will not produce a positive outcome. Evaluations that focus on professional development rather than taking a punitive stance is valuable. Mentors and peer coaches help not only newcomers, but those already teaching on campus. Compensating instructors to attend orientations -- either comprehensive,
or dedicated to a discipline -- can result in less concerns during the academic year. Campuses that invest in statewide or national organizations help instructors see themselves as professional educators.

Ultimately, dedicated professors will find that they will need to find their own way in balancing workload, family and personal life. Many will find phases of their career where everything else takes a backseat to education; the foundation that they are building will guide later efforts in academia. As in any industry, overachievers will often land the best jobs. Those who cannot make the ultimate investment for their career may find a place in postsecondary teaching -- or eventually move to a profession with much more reasonable demands. What was once a soulful business has become more and more businesslike. The end result is that many qualified professors may find themselves in private industry -- rather than make the sacrifices necessary to succeed in education.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


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