Physical, Mental, and Emotional Taxation in the Classroom

I was in the middle of writing my post for this week when an exchange between another PALS writer set me on a different path. I guess we will talk Carson McCullers another time. In a brief exchange a PALS contributor joked, “Idea Pitch: A PALS post on an exercise plan that helps you stand for 5 hours.” I laughed. And then, I sighed. As the new semester is upon us, I am working on new strategies to keep my teaching practices in check. Specifically, I want to have energy left for my other responsibilities when I leave the classroom.

Teaching is a job with high rate of emotional labor that sometimes we talk about and other times we try to find ways around, but we have a lot of face time with students and that emotional labor is not separate from the physical or mental labor of teaching. Most of our posts here at PALS focus on different ways to engage students and approach texts, but the reason this site exists is to support teachers. So let’s step away from our students experiences for a minute and talk about the physical, mental, and emotional challenges many educators experience, while acknowledging that the ways we experience and cope with these challenges are distinct to our personalities.

Body Check

This is something I have been thinking about a lot recently. I am a fairly holistic person, in tune with my body and all that jazz. We often don’t discuss our physical experiences in the classroom, as though we are disembodied minds who have never gracelessly face planted in front of our class. I bring this up because this summer I engaged in two very different activities, and my body really told me what was up. I had a very Richard Henry Dana Two Years Before the Mast experience, minus the whole ship thing.

Utah Meadow

I began the summer with a four week NEH Summer Institute, which involved sitting for 6 hours a day and then more computer/book work in the evenings. I was in pain, like serious pain. My entire body hurt all day, every day. It didn’t even matter that I was swimming every evening; I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been otherwise. Towards the end of the institute, I became a contortionist in my chair. All public sitting etiquette was lost. My body was revolting, and I was just along for the ride. Fast-forward two weeks. I spent the following six weeks in Cali with my four-year-old niece and 16-month-old nephew; I often do some light summer nannying. I was again exhausted every evening, but physically I felt good. The difference was chasing little kids around constantly and only spending three-ish hours a day computing. My body recovered from the absurd state in which my intellectual pursuits had left it. As with most things, balance seems to be important.

This is why I need the balance of teaching with my research. Some celebrate summer because it allows for uninterrupted research. I celebrate the school year because I get to move around all the time. Whether our summers are spent splitting time between research and gaming or course prep and trekking through the great outdoors, returning to a physical classroom after three months requires readapting to that environment. I am not that person who can spend most of the day sitting, and this informs my teaching style. I learned early on that I am less suited for the popular (among newer teachers?) discussion circle classroom configuration because it means I have to sit relatively still for the entire class period. Class discussion and students’ agency wasn’t harmed by this decision; in fact, my constant movement tends to better pace the class and participation. We do circle up from time to time when it best fits what we are doing that day, and I also work in classroom activities that give students the opportunity to move a bit too.

Student-Centered Pedagogy and Mental Fatigue

The foundation of both my practical and theoretical training as a teacher was in the era of student-centered and feminist pedagogy. Much of the scholarship I encountered in this area didn’t talk about the role of the lecture in this classroom approach; it either was assumed we would have that part down or that there isn’t a place for lecture in student-centered courses. Does lecture undo the destabilization of authority that is supposed to happen in the student-centered classroom? Yes and/or No. The instructor in front of the classroom who is sharing their knowledge in the form of a lecture becomes an authority—this of course is a generalization because when we bring race, gender, sexuality, disability, age, etc. into the mix this assertion doesn’t quite hold up. On the other hand, if students do not get that foundational information, how can they be expected to take control of the classroom and direct their own learning?

While I am a huge advocate for student-centered pedagogy, what that pedagogy looks like takes a variety of forms. In some classes, my students choose our content. In others, they develop our discussion questions. And in others, they write our exams. I do, however, lecture in all of my classes, less in my writing classes for what I think are obvious reasons. In a literature course, I may spend as much as 70% or as little as 5% of the class period lecturing. Early on in my teaching practice, I never lectured for more than 25% of a class period, but I quickly realized students did not have enough information to do something substantive with the texts. Now, I lecture more at the beginning of the semester when I am setting up time periods and genres, and less in the second half of the semester when students have developed more to draw from themselves. My lectures are also not just me doing a solo act; I actively engage with students throughout them.

When we talk about student-centered pedagogy, we focus on the students and what it means for them. But what does it mean for us as facilitators of that learning? After tracking the days I experienced mental fatigue, I found that they all correlated with classes where I was primarily facilitating discussion. Facilitating discussion in student-centered classrooms where students’ interests are directing the conversation is highly dependent upon improvisation. And on most days, this is what I spend at least 50% of the class time doing. Mental fatigue in my sense of the term does not equal burnout as my Google search suggested. Mental fatigue comes and goes daily depending on my activities. For me, lecturing is easy. I was never taught how to lecture. It intimidated me for years. And, then I started doing it more and more. I discovered that lecturing doesn’t take a mental toll on me. On days I lecture more, I am focused and ready to write, grade, or research when I am done teaching. I gauge my mental fatigue by my ability or inability to find the right words. On days I facilitate more, particularly when it comes to literary analysis, an inability to construct coherent sentences follows my post-teaching adrenaline crash. This means my writing, grading, and research become subpar.

This doesn’t mean that I am going to change my teaching philosophy and switch to a predominantly lecture model. Student-centered pedagogy as active learning is more work for students and a very significant kind of work. It is essential to recognize that when students do more work, instructors do more work, even if that work isn’t tangible in terms of papers to grade. This really gets to the crux of mental labor: How is it quantified?

Teacher, Life Coach, Therapist, Parent, etc.

There are plenty of debates about what our role as educator is or should encompass. The whole concept of a teaching persona acknowledges that many teachers hold something of themselves back from their students or craft themselves as someone entirely different in front of the classroom. My teaching persona is very professional, in the sense that my students know nothing about my life outside of the university, not even that I have a dog. I was 23 years old when I taught my first college course, and many of my students were also 23 years old; I needed to create distance between us and it worked.

Despite my professional persona, my students find me extremely approachable. My approachability means I know a lot of personal information about the majority of my students. I do a lot of listening, and when they are having an issue, I direct them to the appropriate campus or community resources. I don’t internalize it. I don’t take any sort of responsibility for it because my degree isn’t in counseling. I’m not callous about this. I do make sure they get the resources they need, and I do follow up with an email to see if they are doing better. As much as I like to just think of myself as a compassionate human being as opposed to the whole mother or bitch dichotomy that still plagues female professors, I am concerned for the entire well-being of my students because they can’t learn if outside factors are keeping them from focusing in the classroom.

This past fall, in addition to all of the personal life issues my students were dealing with, the Umpqua Community College shooting reminded them that their learning environment is not necessarily secure. The moves in some areas to make college campuses concealed carry zones increased this stress. I gave my students a class period to talk about this issue and I discovered that they hadn’t discussed it at all in any of their other classes and that they had A LOT to say about it. Following this, there was a shooting threat directed at Mizzou where I was teaching that mimicked the Umpqua shooter’s warnings. Within hours I was staring at dozens of email in my inbox, trying to figure out what to say. The content of three of my courses focused on race, so students had already been bringing events on campus into the class as course material. Since my courses had already opened up the space for these issues, after that, all I did was experience my students’ emotions, all 75 of them at the same time. It was over whelming. I did more yoga and snuggling with my cats than usual. All that professional distance didn’t matter one bit.

Talking Self-care

Over the past few years, the concept of self-care has become more visible in part due to the work being done to de-stigmatize mental health issues. Self-care has also been framed as a feminist practice. In December 2014, Tenure, She Wrote’s regular contributor Acclimatrix wrote a post titled, “I get by with a little help from myself: making self-care a priority when times get tough.” While she gives several ideas for what self-care may look like, my advice is not to wait until “times get tough.” Take some time to figure out what self-care means for you, and then make it as important as your writing time, research time, and class prep time.


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