So it’s that time of the semester. The luster of your lectures has worn off, students aren’t even trying to hide their texting, and your class discussions are nothing more than moments of silence in between you asking and answering your own questions. Maybe this isn’t happening for you (good on you then), but for the rest of us I have some words of advice that may help you reenergize your students and spice up the class (I’m using a completely non-sexual connotation of this phrase).
Don’t “Believe Your Thoughts”
“My students this semester are the worst I’ve ever had!” one of the people I follow on Twitter said this week. While I don’t know them personally and I don’t know their teaching situation, I found myself asking, “Really? Is it really that bad?” Maybe it is, but whenever I hear teachers complaining they never say, “this is my 3rd worst class ever.” It’s always the worst ever. We are all prone to view the experiences we are currently living through as harder than previous and future situations simply because we have no perspective on the situation at hand. In two months from now most of you will no longer consider things as dire as they are now.
The “worst ever” language is also a common turn-of-phrase, but this hyperbole becomes dangerous when we start believing it as an accurate description of reality. Buddhists have this saying, “don’t believe your thoughts.”1 If you listen to your inner dialogue throughout the day you will notice that the majority of the things that cross your mind are things that if you stopped and really examined each one of them you would find that you probably don’t believe them at all. When I’m in front of my class I can convince myself that the student who is grimacing hates my guts, is going to give me a terrible evaluation, I’m going to lose my job, and I will end up homeless on the side of the road with a mouth full of the bitter ashes of my dreams. Then again, maybe the student just missed lunch or their partner just dumped them.
Try to keep things in perspective and guard against the siren’s call of negative thinking. In the moment, indulging your fears feels good, but it is a fast track to unnecessary misery2. Do some reality checking by asking your students to write a 2-minute paper about what you discussed in class or if you haven’t already, do a mid-term evaluation. Remember if “believing your thoughts” can lead you to hate your job, then the inverse is also true. So try on some positive thinking.
Mix It Up
It’s easy to find a teaching style that works for you and stick with it. Don’t. You should always try new ways of reaching your students. If you lecture all the time, surprise your students with a 100% self-directed in-class group project. If you do lots of group projects and their effectiveness is waining, try showing a short video and leading a large class discussion. Try getting a guest speaker to come in. If your class discussions are flagging buy a bag of halloween candy and toss it out to the student who answers your question right (Double Bonus: the danger of candy whizzing across the classroom will awaken even the sleepiest of students).
Play Some Music
Play some upbeat music before class starts. Ideally pick a song that relates to the topic you are going to talk about, but if you can’t, just pick a toe-tapping ditty. “But I don’t know what ‘the kids’ are listening to these days!” Ok, then play them one of your favorites or… wait for it… ask them for suggestions. I ask my students for suggestions all the time; with the proviso that the suggested song not have curse words, be derogatory, or reinforce oppression (kinda narrows it a bit). Also, you don’t even need to buy most songs because you can find almost anything on YouTube and play it for free.
Remind Your Students & Yourself Why You Are Teaching This Class
It’s easy to forget why you love teaching. It can be a tough slog at points during the semester, but remembering why you are passionate about your subject can rekindle your spirits. Take a moment and jot down why you were so excited for the opportunity to teach this course before the semester began, then go into your class and use your notes to rally the troops. One word of caution though, if you don’t truly feel it or you think you can’t deliver an impassioned speech, it may be better to skip sharing this with your class. A half-hearted rally cry can turn into a death knell.
I’m fairly sure that all of my readers “know” all the tips I am suggesting here. However, it is easy for all of us to get stuck in a routine, feel trapped, and forget that we have all the control we need to change things. There is a cruel irony that sociology teaches us that we all have the power we need to create change and overcome adversity and yet so many teachers can feel trapped by courses they have unilateral control over. If we can’t create change in the classroom what hope do we have to create change outside it?