teaching toolbox

By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

To stay motivated, try to get—and stay—in the flow.

Does this sound familiar? The end of the semester is approaching, and you're busy preparing your final exams. Your project-oriented class is sapping more and more of your time as the groups struggle to pull everything together, and students who should have asked for help in October are suddenly turning up in droves. You have a major grant deadline looming, and to top it all off, you haven't started your Christmas shopping. You're tired, you're frustrated, and you're wondering why you ever got into teaching anyway. Welcome to Burnoutsville.

Successfully treating professorial burnout can salvage careers and help improve the teaching, research, and service of a department. What you need to shoot for is the opposite of burnout: "flow," which in this context means having a sense of control and excitement about your work. In Mihaly Csikszentmihaly's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the author says that to achieve flow, a person needs realistic goals, meaningful rules, feedback from peers and superiors, and challenges that are appropriate for that person's skills.

illustration by Bob KaralusFor professors just starting out, setting up a research laboratory, writing proposals, recruiting graduate students, and teaching all involve the development of new skills, which often must be done very quickly. Burnout can occur when there are too many things to master in too short a time. More experienced educators can usually help the novice re-evaluate their goals and set realistic priorities, and perhaps even more important, they can offer encouragement. Attending a teaching workshop after the first year is another way to polish nascent skills, and make the second year immeasurably better and more enjoyable. Older professors may experience a deeper burnout with a continuing malaise or even depression—the "dark night of the professorial soul." In this scenario, all the joy is gone and classes suffer badly as you go through the motions. Since the basic job doesn't change much from assistant to full professor and beyond, professors should make a conscious effort to increase their challenges and skills to avoid boredom, and to avoid focusing exclusively on the small disappointments and rejections that are part of the job.

The key element in forestalling burnout? Change! Reignite your interest in teaching by using a new method such as cooperative group learning. You may find that nonstop lecturing will suddenly feel ineffective, and you'll get totally new reactions with a different method—possibly helping burned-out students rekindle their interest. Include new content in your course or ask to teach different courses. Volunteer to advise the student chapter of your professional society. Start writing a textbook. Teach in the distance education program. Implement an ABET-acceptable assessment plan. Do classroom research to determine if your teaching methods are effective. Write a paper and present it at the annual ASEE meeting or the Frontiers in Education conference. Even just attending one of these meetings can be invigorating. Try working in industry or a government laboratory during the summer.

Include undergraduates in your research. Try conducting research without any student assistance and write a paper without any co-authors. Serve a term as the department chair. Finally, even if you are still "recovering" from burnout don't forget about your burned-out colleagues. Be sure to recognize that burnout decreases energy and initiative, so the first reaction to suggestions for change is invariably negative. Start by chatting with them informally, perhaps encouraging some change by suggesting they teach a course they haven't taught for ten years, or offer to teach with them as a team. Be supportive and remind them of past successes. If they respond by bitterly attacking the department or school, listen respectfully but do not defend past actions. Move on to a positive discussion of future actions.

The change and focus needed to help others rediscover their motivation might be the best way to forestall your own burnout. By working together, educators can help turn Burnoutsville into a ghost town.

For more teaching tips, visit the Teaching Engineering page at www.asee.org/publications/teaching.cfm.

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