By Ken N. Meadows, Educational Researcher, Teaching And Learning ServicesAnd Tom Haffie, Lecturer, Department Of Biology
Parker J. Palmer (1998, pp. 1-2)
Most days, passionate teachers find themselves somewhere between Palmer’s poetic extremes of experience. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could enjoy more time closer to the joyful end of the spectrum? What might we do to cultivate, defend and celebrate our well-being as teachers? Seligman’s (2011) theory of Flourishing, and related research from the positive psychology literature provide several tangible suggestions.
Seligman focused on how people can achieve high levels of subjective well-being; that is, how they can flourish in their lives. He suggests that there are five components that constitute well-being: positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Each of these components independently contributes to well-being; increasing any one of them will tend to increase overall well-being.
Positive emotions are simply the good feelings that we have, including emotions such as gratitude, joy, contentment, and enjoyment. Below are three strategies you may want to try to increase your positive emotions around teaching.
The next time you have a positive experience in your teaching, try to notice it in the moment; take the time to savour it fully and appreciate it deeply. After the fact, replay the experience in your mind. Try to distil the experience down to its essence. What, exactly, made that teaching moment so memorable? Maybe write it down or discuss it with friends or colleagues. Maybe create a physical reminder or souvenir. None of us have too many positive stories in our lives (Fredrickson, 2009).
Related to savouring the positive is recognizing and reflecting upon the blessings in your teaching. You might create a teaching gratitude journal and identify three things that went well after each class and why those things went well, with a particular emphasis on your contribution to that success. You could review the journal periodically to remind yourself of what “works” for you in promoting positive outcomes in your teaching practice. You might create a Sunshine File or bulletin board where you can collect those impromptu “Thank You” emails and notes of appreciation from students and colleagues (Fredrickson, 2009; Seligman, 2011).
The period just before teaching can be fraught with nervousness, anxiety or scattered attention on other matters. All of these challenges may be reduced by visualizing positive situations and outcomes related to the impending class. For example, before a class you could engage in a step by step visualization of an interesting, engaging and energized class with you as the dedicated facilitator. In particular, you might imagine your best self and inhabit that persona, even if you are not actually feeling your best in that moment (Fredrickson, 2009).
Engagement is the experience of being fully absorbed in the moment; it is often referred to as being in the “zone” or in a state of flow. Below are three strategies you may want to try to increase your engagement in your teaching.
You are more likely to be engaged when you are challenged. If you are teaching newer material, think about how to match this with a fresh approach – one with built-in measures to enhance your well-being. If you are teaching the same course for several years, maybe challenge yourself to develop new angles, new media, new examples or new facilitation plans. Or, maybe it is time to develop that new course you have been thinking about (Csikszentmihalyi,1997).
If you can create a teaching practice that draws on your strengths, this will also increase engagement. For example, if one of your strengths as a teacher is creativity, developing innovative class activities or assessments that support student learning will likely engage you (Fredrickson, 2009; McGovern & Miller, 2008; Seligman, 2011).
Mindful awareness, being fully present in the moment, will tend to increase your attention and engagement with any task. In your teaching practice you could do a short, five or ten minute, mindfulness meditation before class. This will help you leave any planning, worrying, or unrelated thinking aside and allow you to be more fully present and deeply engaged in your class (Fredrickson, 2009).
Each of these six strategies holds the potential to increase your well-being as a teacher; in fact, some of the strategies can have a positive impact on more than one component (e.g., using your strengths can increase both positive emotions and engagement). You may want to try them out to determine which combination works best for you. In the fall 2015 edition of Reflections we will address how increasing your teaching related positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment, can also increase your well-being as a teacher.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the 3 to 1 ratio that will change your life. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
McGovern, T. V., & Miller, S. L. (2008). Integrating teacher behaviors with character strengths and virtues for faculty development. Teaching of Psychology, 35(4), 278-285.
Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
Seligman, M. E. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.