Happy Professor? Successful Students!

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin toddlers, Dylan and Escher.


I hypothesize that the link between happiness and success is greater than many of us can imagine. On the one hand, this is obvious. Doing laundry doesn’t make me happy; when I put it off, it makes me less happy. I then have even less motivation for completing the task and less success. Relatedly, I could have 15 assignments that I do not enjoy grading take three times as long to grade as the 60 larger assignments that I’m excited about grading. For me, happiness creates energy. Importantly, I have found that my own happiness can give students energy as well: Quick feedback is energizing; a smile directed at a student can be invigorating for them;  saying “I love x topic” creates a boost that often makes students dig into the reading sooner. There are a million small ways that our happiness can rub off on students and help them succeed.

I do not think that teachers need to jump up and down excitedly at the front of the classroom or ignore the vast array of other human emotions and mental health issues that are parts of our lives. I am a happy teacher who also struggles with anxiety and often feels a sense of sadness, especially in the times we are living in now. The kind of happiness I’m advocating for is a sense of joy and centeredness in teaching—the kind of happiness that, most simply put, allows me to look forward to my job more often than not and the kind of happiness that reminds students of my commitment to them.

One way to achieve joy and centeredness is through activities that nurture the mind and body. For some of us, these may be self-care activities like swimming, massage, meditation or yoga—all wonderful but sometimes costly experiences for a profession that for many does not pay well. There are other activities like browsing library shelves, working on sleep hygiene, and chatting with friends about daily life challenges on a walk. Great also! When I engage in some of these mindful practices, my body is much more centered and ready to teach. All this is to say if your academic institution is having a free ten-minute chair massage, do not inadvertently forgo the opportunity as I did today! And yet, there is something simpler that can be done to increase professor happiness. It is to ask yourself, when lesson planning “do I like this activity?” or, to use the language of Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “does this lesson ‘spark joy’”? If your lesson plan does not spark joy for you at least half the time, you may consider selecting an alternate approach.

One moment when I realized my lessons were not sparking joy related to subject and verb agreement. I love teaching sentence boundaries and created an acronym to help students remember the parts of sentences, linked the acronym to Philly pharmacies, and even created a scavenger hunt activity where students look for run-ons and fragments on bulletin boards throughout the campus.  I genuinely believe that being able to know where a sentence begins and ends is a huge step toward literacy and success—and a form of my own cultural capital that should be shared. However, subject verb agreement…not so much. Correcting students’ use of third person singular verbs (i.e., she knows rather than she know) frankly felt racist to me, especially because it lacked any regard for or mention of Black English. How did my unhappiness about this topic translate to the classroom? Instead of speaking about my true belief that what I was about to teach was racist, I would apologize for a lesson that was about to be “boring” but was part of the “student learning outcomes.” I would stumble through lectures and give out worksheets for practice—a far cry from the way I like to teach. Eventually, it dawned on me that because of my perception that teaching subject/verb agreement was racist, it was not sparking joy. And yet, I couldn’t really stop because this was a student learning outcome. I’m sure many of us can relate to simply being required to teach something that we may not want to teach. However, I felt that there had to be a way to spark more joy.

I changed the subject verb agreement lessons so that they discussed power dynamics imbedded in language, and I made explicit that I felt uncomfortable teaching this grammar concept as it was originally being presented. I was interested in students’ perspectives. I found some other voices on YouTube on similar issues related to language and power, like an amazing TED talk by Jamila Lyiscott and a clip from a lecture by Ta Nehisi Coates. Then I learned that my colleague, Alexine Fleck, had been doing these kinds of lessons for years and years--far before I came to them--as had a whole host of faculty at Community College of Philadelphia, where I teach. Feeling more connected to my colleague made me happy; hearing student voices about these ideas made me happy; not feeling locked into a certain requirement made me happy. Students no longer glazed over when we went over this concept. They too were energized.

If you find that a lesson is not sparking joy for you, do not throw it out completely. Instead, try to figure out why and what can be done about it. It is often only the slightest modification that can make a difference. Maybe it’s just a brief discussion question about the topic—a planned tangent or a walk outside with students for 10 minutes to think more about an idea. I used to think I was beholden above all to institutional requirements, and now, thankfully, I also feel beholden to my own judgement, my own joy, and above all to my students’ success. In terms of getting my laundry done though, I would welcome suggestions.