Resilient Teaching

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I contributed to a recent publication called Resilient Pedagogy. I was drawn to the call for proposals last year by the tone of the word resilient. Resilient comes from a Latin word meaning to leap or bounce back: like coils compressed and then released, we spring back into place after a time of tension or pressure. BOINGGG!

The multiple shifts in teaching context during 2020 were certainly pressure points, and my co-authors in Resilient Pedagogy highlight the creativity and determination with which faculty responded to that pressure. 

But as we near the end of 2021, I wonder: Have we sprung back fully? Or have the coils perhaps tangled a bit, thrusting us more sideways than back up? Has our resilience also exposed our breaking points?

It’s not the most encouraging of times for faculty right now. Just look at some recent headlines from The Chronicle of Higher Education:  “Why I Quit,” “Morale is in the Ditch,” “Tenure Under Threat in Georgia,” “Florida Is a Five-Alarm Fire for Academic Freedom.” I’m in Georgia, where issues of safety, masking, self-governance, and tenure protections have only added to the stresses of pandemic teaching. I have colleagues who—two years into a tenure-track position—talk about burn-out. This Tweet, reshared throughout social media feeds, captures the frustration: our assigned work and those ill-defined “extra duties as required” far exceed 100% of our available time.

We are tired. I am so tired I cannot “can’t,” much less “even.”

A quick Twitter search for “tired of being resilient” led me to many who share this sentiment. We aren’t necessarily bouncing back. We’re coping, getting by, and—in some cases—withdrawing. 

For me, resilience (even before the pandemic) is what occurs in an ongoing process of adjustment: strategy X is not working for students in class Y, so we tweak that strategy (or abandon and replace it). And on occasion, we redesign the syllabus from top to bottom.

But what happens when that complete redesign, the total overhaul, is needed in EVERY course AT THE SAME TIME?

In the past two weeks, I’ve had multiple no-shows for scheduled individual writing conferences, and over half of those who have made it to the office (or Zoom meeting) did not have the expected draft to discuss. In my introductory syntax and pedagogical grammar courses, students have scored well below our target benchmark of 80% on tests of key concepts. Something is amiss.

There isn’t much time to think about adjustments, much less complete redesigns. Yet something has to give. As I hear some colleagues talk about quitting, I know I need to ask some tough questions.

Question #1: Right now, do you enjoy teaching? At the moment, no—I don’t. Well, not as much as I used to. But I don’t want to quit.

Question #2: Then what (realistically) can you do about the situation? I don’t want a recipe: “three (or five or ten) steps to recovering joy in the classroom.” We can’t fix what is broken with three simple steps. And yes, the material support and confidence of our university systems would go a long way to inviting resilience and restoring joy, but I cannot make such support appear. 

So, I ask myself again, what can I do about it, realistically? Here’s what I’ve come up with, for my context:

  1. In those introductory grammar classes, I can flip the classroom. Each week, I’m recording six short videos (5-8 minutes), each addressing one key concept for students to review before class. During class, we are discussing, creating tree diagrams, and working through problems. No lectures. Students have been more alert the past two weeks, and have told me they love the short videos—quarantined students are keeping up, and the short content allows for easier test review. 
  2. In those same classes, I am offering opportunities for re-tests on critical material in the class, focusing on mastery more than the grade. I’ve seen students move from 50% or 70% mastery to 75% or 90%.  Their success—and growing confidence—brings me joy. 
  3. At the same time, I am sticking to deadlines (for my own sanity): in my first-year writing classes, draft submission times are absolute, at least if students want written comments and an initial grade. I will still discuss late drafts in conference, before the final portfolio submission. But I give written (or voice-recorded) comments only for drafts submitted on time.
  4. In short, I am guarding my time more carefully. For me personally, this has included recovering the practice of a weekly Sabbath—time set aside for worship in my faith-community, time with my family, and time for good reading (Dostoevsky and Dante). And I’m looking towards an extended time for vacation and personal research (recognizing the privilege inherent in this choice): I will not teach next summer.

This isn’t a rulebook or 4-step program. It’s an easing of tension: I am not necessarily “springing back” at this moment. But the coils aren’t breaking, either.

I would love to hear how my colleagues are managing resilience in these difficult days. 

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.