Professors Get Tired of Teaching but a Gratitude Practice Can Offset Burnout

Posted September 6, 2017

By Jessamyn Neuhaus

One of the prerequisites for earning an advanced degree is being a pencil necked geek. In order to become an academic expert, you must sustain a monomaniacal fascination with arcane and highly specified subjects, coupled with an introvert’s ability to spend untold hours in intensive solitary study. Yet these same qualities that served us so well in graduate school often set us up for frustration and struggle as teachers. Intensely intellectual nerds who need a lot of time alone to research, write, and ponder are not natural-born classroom performers. Those of us who want to foster student learning have to constantly push ourselves out of our comfort zone and also continue to educate ourselves about teaching and learning. It can be exhausting. How do we cope? How do we maintain energy for and interest in effective teaching and learning? At my small rural state university, I’ve seen a wide range of strategies, from highly productive (attending teaching conferences, soliciting support from the Center for Teaching Excellence, mentoring junior faculty) to downright dysfunctional (bitterness, alcoholism, despair). I’d like to suggest another option: cultivating a gratitude practice.

Teaching Burnout as Occupational Hazard

A woman with an overwhelmed expression puts her hand to her forehead as she looks at a computer screen.
Negativity bias leads us to fixate on the things that go wrong in our teaching, and our personalities tend toward introversion and obsessive thinking exacerbating our teaching tiredness.

Most of us currently teaching college classes did not set out to become teachers. Rather, we were good students who fell in love with a topic and decided to become students of that topic forever and ever. But because the (paid) job of “Sitting in an Ivory Tower and Thinking Deep Thoughts” doesn’t actually exist, we joined the professoriate although we may well have received little training or preparation for teaching. Thus high-achieving Ph.D.s who are lucky enough to secure a teaching position find themselves, after years of academic excellence, failing as effective teachers—flummoxed by a room full of bored eighteen-year-olds far more interested in Instagram than in whatever high falutin’ thing you think they should be learning how to do.

When introverted bookworms emerge blinking and befuddled after years in the archive or the laboratory, we are ill-equipped to navigate the highly complex and psychologically messy set of human activities that comprise teaching and learning in college. As advances in brain science show, the learning process itself is inherently arduous, even painful [1]. Sure, we loved the mental rigor required to learn our subject but most students don’t. Moreover, college is an economic, emotional, and socially fraught undertaking for which many students are woefully underprepared. Throw in the complicated ways that identity (gender presentation, physical ability, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic class) shapes education, and the stage is set for burnout. Teaching and learning are fricking hard.

In addition to these systematic challenges, college professors often face another challenge when they set out to be effective teachers: working with, um, other human beings. As socially awkward dorks, we do not effortlessly interact with strangers, respond well to other people’s emotions, and often don’t make a good first impression. So we have to work our butts off to do things that effective teachers do. Being approachable, fostering a positive classroom environment, and showing enthusiasm for learning takes a lot out of us [2]. Don’t even get me started on departmental and institutional conditions. Sarcastic backstabbing colleagues, clueless bloodsucking administrators, byzantine tenure processes, teaching overloads, adjunct exploitation and so much more! All these things can contribute to teaching fatigue. Practicing gratitude as an educator is a practical way to counteract the burnout by training ourselves to see our teaching context fully, to notice and actively respond to the complete reality of our teaching lives.

 “Gratitude?” But I’m an Intellectual/Scientist/Scholar, Not a New Age Hippie

Look, I get it: “gratitude” sounds almost…anti-intellectual. Lobotomize yourself with “positive thinking” and Oprahesque affirmations and bury your head in the sand, right? On the contrary, a gratitude practice is nothing more or less than slowly training yourself to clearly see reality—reality as it is, not what you fear, hope, desire or expect but simply and only what is, without judgment or commentary. As Kerry Howells explains in her compelling book Gratitude in Education: A Radical View, gratitude can be a helpful strategy for educators facing workplace challenges and fighting professional exhaustion. Drawing on Buddhist mindfulness, the gratitude practices espoused by Howell never require ignoring negative situations or pretending everything’s always okay. Instead, practicing mindfulness and gratitude requires you pay attention to everything that is happening. Doing so doesn’t mean avoiding or denying the negative but it does mean acknowledging the positive by bringing a sense of curiosity to any situation and asking “What is really happening right now?”

That doesn’t sound too flakey, now does it? After all, hardnosed, scientifically-trained researchers have published numerous evidence-based studies demonstrating how gratitude practices reduce stress and enhance our mental and physical health [3]. Chances are that you’re probably pretty good at stuff like “observe” and “focus attention” because you earned an advanced degree by focusing on the minutia of your beloved academic subject. A gratitude practice just means using that focused attention to locate what Howells calls the “gifts” we regularly receive as educators.

Whoa, whoa, whoa—“gifts?” If you are dealing with a full blown case of burnout right now and/or if you work in a particularly negative teaching context, the word “gifts” might understandably grate on your nerves. Stay with me because even though it may sound counterintuitive, Howells is right and gifts are indeed always part of education work.

Go Ahead, Take the Gift

I say “counterintuitive” because as Howells points out, a lot of college teaching and academia generally fosters, well, ingratitude. Professors are trained criticizers, highly skilled in picking apart things and pointing out errors. Even in the best of departments, there’s a lot of complaining—about students, about colleagues, about publishers, about administrators, and on and on. The tiered teaching system with its grossly unfair compensation hierarchies creates a sense of burning injustice, not gratitude. And stressed-out students falling ever deeper into debt rarely bubble over with gratitude when they encounter educational challenges. “Golly Professor, I sure appreciate the chance to learn a valuable life lesson by reflecting on the hot mess I’ve made of my work for your class! I failed your seminar but who cares about grades when I’ve advanced my knowledge of how to do better in the future!”

Howells emphasizes that to say we receive gifts as educators isn’t to pretend that we don’t regularly encounter stressful situations and people, but practicing gratitude allows us to become more aware of our teaching realities. Those realities always contain gifts, along with whatever else they contain. For example, your 9:00 a.m. class is continually disrupted and derailed by Student X. Okay, yes, Student X is a complete jackass who deserves to rot in hell and you better figure out how to deal with him as soon as possible. When you are cultivating gratitude, you don’t ignore Student X. However, you also pay more attention to Students Y and Z. Wow, looky there, Student Y read your feedback carefully, applied it, and did much better on the next assignment! And hey, didja notice that Student Z always arrives early to class, wide awake and prepared to listen and take notes?

“But,” you splutter, “they’re supposed to be doing those things!” Okay, time to put that big brain of yours to use and hold onto two different ideas at the same time. Idea #1: students are merely fulfilling their academic responsibilities. Idea #2: students are giving you a gift. Both of these things are true and real. These students are enabling you to teach more effectively by taking responsibility for their own learning and showing respect for your efforts, thereby gifting you with the ultimate payoff for all those hours you spent preparing and assessing: they’re increasing their skills and knowledge. Climb down off your cross of professorial suffering (Lo, see how I doth suffer and toil over grading these papers that so suckth!). Go ahead and take the gift.

An instructor enjoys a discussion with a group of students during a class.
Training ourselves to notice the gifts we receive and to make a practice of cultivating gratitude can help offset burnout, no rose-colored glasses or meditation mat required.
[Image: Georgia Southern, https://goo.gl/HUPy6b, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://goo.gl/M7aEiP]

When you get into the mental habit of acknowledging gifts, you’ll see how many there can be. If it makes it easier for you nerds to digest, think of this in terms of physics. What makes energy grow? Energy. Black holes grow the more planets they absorb. Student X will easily absorb every ounce of your pedagogical energy if you let him, so why not let Students A-W, Y, and Z take up more space and energy in your teaching universe? Or try looking at it from an evolutionary psychology perspective. Negativity bias leads us to fixate on the things that go wrong in our teaching, and our personalities tend toward introversion and obsessive thinking exacerbating our teaching tiredness. Practicing gratitude is a practical, proven countermeasure.

Importantly, practicing gratitude isn’t just a mental exercise. It begins in your brain and in your senses as you work to be fully aware of the reality of any given moment. This is only the first step though, as Howells emphasizes. Expressing gratitude as an action is the essential next step in cultivating gratitude and building up a regular gratitude practice. For instance, you notice Student Z is always on time and ready to begin class so you say to Student Z, “Thank you for being on time and ready to begin class.” No strings attached. You’re not assessing Student Z’s work and giving positive feedback in hopes she’ll continue doing it. You are purely and simply saying “Thank you for contributing to a positive classroom environment today.” After you do that a few times (or many times because it feels weird at first), you can build up to regularly thanking everyone present in class because at the very least, they’re there, and you are taking the gift in that. Recognition of the gift leads to expression of gratitude for the gift leads to a gratitude practice

Practice Does Not Make Perfect

“Practice” is the key word here. “Practice” as in something you do frequently because you enjoy getting better at it and there are real-life payoffs for doing it. Not “practice” as in slogging doggedly towards some unachievable yogic Zen ideal. There’s no teaching nirvana waiting down the road if you do gratitude flawlessly. Nothing is going to miraculously transform the hard work of teaching and learning into rainbows and lollipops. Howells strongly cautions teachers against berating ourselves for not constantly “feeling grateful.” That’s not how it works. Sometimes it’s easy to spot the gift, sometimes it’s not, and nobody can do it every single moment of every single day.

Start really small and really, really, really easy. Notice one thing, just one, during the day, which seemed like a gift. Make a list for yourself of those things. Notice something different every day and start with the simplest and/or most obvious: the class laughed at one of your jokes, your best student earned an award, a colleague paid you a genuine compliment, your department secretary did some extra work to straighten out a paperwork problem. These were all gifts, containing the roots of a potential gratitude practice: You routinely thank all the students in your classes for positive responses to your efforts; you regularly thank exceptional students for the pleasure of seeing them succeed; you often compliment colleagues; you recognize administrative staff for their support.

Maybe when you’ve built up your gratitude muscle and have spent a long time practicing how to recognize what is without preconception, fear, anger, or judgment and to see the gifts therein, you might even be able to see Student X’s disruptive behavior more fully. Maybe deliberately trying to drive you batshit crazy is not actually his sole purpose in life but rather part of a bigger picture in which students resist learning and act out as a way to cope with academic anxiety, unpreparedness, and a host of other issues unrelated to you personally [4]. Maybe then you can stop defensively reacting and instead start deliberately acting in order to productively address the situation—one of the important benefits of a gratitude practice, according to Howells. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll even see a gift in Student X’s incivility, like here is a good opportunity for you to do meaningful work in a world where most people don’t get that luxury. However, this is varsity level gratitude. For goodness’ sake, don’t set yourself up for failure by starting out with your most difficult teaching situation! The whole point is to cultivate a tool for counteracting educational enervation, not to add yet another overwhelming task to your already massive To Do list.

Professors get teaching-fatigue because we are intellectual introverts facing the inherent challenges of teaching and learning in the culture of academia. Training ourselves to notice the gifts we receive and to make a practice of cultivating gratitude can help offset that burnout, no rose-colored glasses or meditation mat required.

Notes/References

[1] On teaching, learning, and the brain, see for example James E. Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2002).

[2] See for example Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).

[3] See for example Robert Emmons and Michael McCollough, eds., The Psychology of Gratitude (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Casaundra N. Harbaugh and Michael W. Vasey, “When Do People Benefit from Gratitude Practice?” The Journal of Positive Psychology 9, no. 6 (2014); 535-546; Randy Sansone and Lori Sansone; “Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation,” Psychiatry 7, no. 11 (November 2010): 18-21; Martin E. P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being (New York: Free Press, 2011); Michele Tugade, Michelle Shiota, and Leslie D. Kirby, eds., Handbook of Positive Emotions (New York: Guildford Press, 2014); Philip Watkins, Gratitude and the Good Life: Towards a Psychology of Appreciation (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014); Philip Watkins, Jens Uhder, and Stan Pichinevskiy. “Grateful Recounting Enhances Subjective Well-Being: The Importance of Grateful Processing,” Journal of Positive Psychology 10, no. 2 (March 2015): 91-99; Alex M. Wood, Jeffery J. Froh, and Adam W.A. Geraghty, “Gratitude and Well-Being: A Review and Theoretical Integration,” Clinical Psychology Review 30 (2010): 890-905; Mark E. Young and Tracy Hutchinson, “The Rediscovery of Gratitude: Implications for Counseling Practice,” Journal of Humanistic Counseling 51 (April 2012): 99-113.

[4] See for example Rebecca D. Cox, The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011) and Anton O. Tolman and Janine Kremling, editors, Why Students Resist Learning: A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2017).

Bio

Jessamyn Neuhaus is a professor of U.S. history and popular culture at SUNY Plattsburgh and the author of Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America and Housework and Housewives in American Advertising: Married to the Mop, in addition to numerous scholarly articles. Winner of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, she frequently presents on pedagogy and has published articles in Teaching History and The History Teacher. Neuhaus is currently completing a book manuscript about best practices for nerds, introverts, and geeks who want to be effective teachers. 

Resources

In addition to her book Gratitude in Education: A Radical View (Boston: SensePublishers, 2012), Kerry Howells’ website http://www.kerryhowells.com/ offers an online gratitude in education course and has links to videos of her public talks. For more information about the proven benefits of practicing gratitude, see Robert Emmons’ research and The Greater Good Science Center’s “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude” project. A word of caution: There are numerous guides to cultivating gratitude but many of them do not offer much more than facile advice to “count your blessings.” Additionally, many resources for educators are aimed at K-12 teachers and discuss how to cultivate gratitude in students—a worthy goal indeed but as Howells rightly points out, a project that should only be undertaken after a great deal of careful preparation, research, training, and planning. If you’re interested in specific advice on cultivating a gratitude practice, I’ve found that researchers in the field of positive psychology are generally trustworthy. See for example “31 Gratitude Exercises that Will Boost Your Happiness.”