Flourishing in Your Teaching (Part 2) - Fall 2015
By Ken N. Meadows
Educational Researcher, Teaching and Learning Services
Lecturer, Department of Biology
Many of us became teachers for reasons of the heart, animated by a passion for some subject and for helping people learn…but many of us lose heart…in part, because teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability. To reduce our vulnerability, we [may] disconnect from students, from subjects, and even from ourselves.
Parker J. Palmer (1998, pp. 17-18)
How can we be resilient in the face of the vulnerability inherent in teaching? How can we remain connected to our passion for our teaching and our students’ learning? Research from the positive psychology literature provides practical suggestions to help us be resilient and thrive in our teaching. In the first article in this series, we outlined how increasing teaching-related positive emotions and engagement can increase well-being among teachers. Below we outline strategies for increasing the final three components of Seligman’s (2011) Flourishing model: positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.
Positive relationships are close and satisfying connections with other people (Seligman, 2011). Below are three strategies you may want to try to increase your positive relationships associated with teaching, whether those relationships are with your students, your faculty colleagues, or other people related to your practice.
1) Initiate positive interactions
There are, of course, a variety of opportunities to initiate positive interactions with your students on a daily basis. Starting with your course outline, you could ensure that reading this document leaves students feeling like respected members of a welcoming academic community rather than feeling like untrustworthy reprobates needing a long list of rules. You might facilitate an icebreaker during the first class so that you can get to know more about your students, they can get to know more about you, and they can get to know each other. You might regularly arrive early at class to chat casually with some students about their experiences. You might introduce an element of reflective writing into the course as a venue for interaction with students at a deeper level than is usual in class. These activities can provide a very generative environment for connecting with your students, with benefits for all concerned (Hazelton, 2013; McKeachie & Svinicki, 2006).
2) Develop supportive communities
You could develop a community of colleagues around teaching; which could serve as an opportunity to exchange information but also serve as a support group of sorts. This could be as informal as inviting a colleague or two out for a coffee to discuss teaching. One step up in formality would be to initiate regular meetings of a group of colleagues interested in teaching. This might be a book club or a monthly brown bag lunch to discuss interesting articles on teaching and learning. Perhaps there are faculty or students who are interested in collaborating with you on educational scholarship projects. If you would prefer not to create your own communities, one of the goals of offices like the Teaching Support Centre is to support the development of such communities through programs such as Teaching Squares and Communities of Practice. With these programs you would simply need to sign up and show up (Hazelton, 2013).
3) Use positive language
Using positive language in your teachingrelated interactions will also help to develop positive relationships. Who does not want to engage with someone who is authentically encouraging and supportive rather than someone who is critical and disapproving? Even when delivering what might be difficult feedback to your students, you can do so in an encouraging and supportive manner that will help them learn (Hazelton, 2013).
Meaning is having a sense of purpose coming from something beyond the self; this meaning may come from something spiritual, it may be about making a difference in the world, or it may be about having a particular calling in life (Seligman, 2011). Below are three strategies you may want to try to increase personal meaning for you in your teaching.
1) Discovering meaning
Some academics may derive deep meaning from their roles as researchers and scholars but have difficulty finding a comparable depth of personal purpose in their teaching. If that is the case for you, you might find it helpful to reflect on questions such as: Which aspects of your teaching practice do you, or others, appreciate? When have you felt a deep sense of satisfaction associated with your teaching? Which features of these experiences promoted those feelings? How might you modify your work, and/or your thoughts about that work, to increase meaningful aspects of your teaching practice (Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010; Wrzesniewski, LoBuglio, Dutton, & Berg, 2013)?
2) Shaping what you do
To increase meaning in your teaching, you can shape aspects of your teaching so that they are more personally meaningful. Specifically, you can change the tasks in which you engage or the time and effort you dedicate to those tasks. For example, if you are passionate about making a difference in your community, you can integrate community servicelearning into your courses and/or join a departmental curriculum committee working to integrate community service into the larger curriculum (Wrzesniewski et al., 2013). 3) Shaping what you think about what you do You can also modify the way you think about the value of your teaching; emphasizing the meaning that it has for your life. For example, you could reflect on the impact of your teaching on other people’s lives; how it is benefiting your students, your teaching assistants, and perhaps even your colleagues. You may also want to reflect on your teaching in terms of its impact on you; what you are learning through your teaching, what skills you are developing, and how this enhances your own growth (Wrzesniewski et al., 2013).
Accomplishment is a persistent drive to achieve something for the inherent value of achieving it (Seligman, 2011). Below are three strategies you may want to try in order to increase your sense of accomplishment in your teaching.
1) Set your goals
To increase your sense of accomplishment, you can explicitly set goals that you want to accomplish in your teaching (Van Zyl & Stander, 2014). Perhaps you would like to revise a familiar but dated syllabus? Maybe you would like to employ technology that enables you to be more effective with larger class sizes? What about that specialized grad course that you have always wanted to offer? Although you likely already know what your goals are, you also likely have not made them concrete by writing them down. During your next coffee break, you might try brainstorming a list of goals, without editing. Once you have listed everything that comes to mind, go through the list and revise as needed (i.e., add, delete or otherwise edit goals). Then you can prioritize, start the process of realizing your most important goals, and hold yourself accountable (Hazelton, 2013).
2) Visualize the process
Visualization can be a very powerful tool for increasing your sense of accomplishment and your well-being (Van Zyl & Stander, 2014). In this case, it is important to visualize both the achievement of your goals as well as the process you will employ to achieve those goals, including the obstacles that you might face and how you will address those challenges. Visualizing both the outcome and the process is more likely to result in that outcome being achieved (Hazelton, 2013).
3) Celebrate your successes and learn from your mistakes
When you have success in your teaching, even a small victory, recognize that success and celebrate it. This will increase your positive emotion and your sense of accomplishment, both of which increase your well-being in your teaching. On the flip side, when you make a mistake or try something in your course that fails it is important to be self-compassionate (e.g., recognize that we all make mistakes) and try to learn from the mistake; reflecting on why the mistake happened and how the mistake can open a door to future success (Dweck, 2006). Each of the strategies above, as well those outlined in first part of this series, holds the potential to increase our well-being as teachers. In fact, a number of the strategies will have a positive impact on more than one component (e.g., using your strengths can increase positive emotions, engagement, meaning, and a sense of accomplishment). We hope you will try out one or more of the strategies to increase your flourishing as a teacher.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.
Hazelton, S. (2013). Great days at work: How positive psychology can transform your working life. Philadelphia, PA: Kogan Page.
Kahn, W. A., & Fellows, S. (2013). Employee engagement and meaningful work. In B. J. Dik, Z. S. Byrne, & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Purpose and meaning in the workplace (pp. 105-126). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
McKeachie, W., & Svinicki, M. (2006). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
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.
Van Zyl, L. E., & Stander, M. W. (2014). Flourishing interventions: A practical guide to student development. In M. Coetzee (Ed.), Psychosocial career meta-capacities: Dynamics of contemporary career development (pp. 265-276). New York, NY: Springer International Publishing.
Whitney, D. D., & Trosten-Bloom, A. (2010). The power of appreciative inquiry: A practical guide to positive change. San Francisco, CA: BerrettKoehler.
Wrzesniewski, A., LoBuglio, N., Dutton, J. E., & Berg, J. M. (2013). Job crafting and cultivating positive meaning and identity in work. Advances in positive organizational psychology, 1(1), 281-302.