Academic work is cyclical. There are seasons to the work. You need to account for those cycles when you plan.
Summer may feel like the research & writing part of the year. If you value teaching and being a good teacher, you are very aware that there is another cycle starting in a couple of months. It can feel selfish to set your teaching aside.
Teaching preparation is iterative. You are always developing your knowledge of the material, and your pedagogical knowledge and skills. There is more preparation involved when you are teaching something for the first time, or when the conditions in which you are teaching change radically as they did in the summer of 2020. Most of the time, you are iterating from an existing version of the course. You get to set priorities for what to change, and how radically to change it.
One thing that makes it hard to find and protect time for writing, is the ongoing mental space you are devoting to teaching, even if classes are finished. I started wondering about how you treat teaching in this transition.
- How do you do that work in a way that allows you to be confident about your decision to prioritize writing, research, and rest over the summer break?
- When is the optimal time to do that work in the cycle of your year?
The role of review & evaluation in preparation.
Thinking about cycles and iterations made me realize that reviewing the current iteration of your module is part of preparing the next iteration.
I suggest reflecting on how this particular iteration of this particular module met your own goals. You can pay attention to the specific dynamics of this year’s student group. You can assess which activities have become a bit stale. You can assess how well the new things you tried worked. This is quite different from the institutional infrastructure of teaching evaluation, which prioritizes criteria that are often vague, highly problematic, and possibly meaningless in relation to your own professional development as a teacher.
You might create a template for your review based on what would be most useful when you come to plan the next iteration. This helps reduce the brain capacity needed to remember to do the evaluation, delegates to auto-reminders and gives you boxes to fill rather than a daunting blank page. In particular, you want to take the time to notice what went well and to look for the positive in the things that were frustrating. Given how much you likely changed because of the pandemic, you also want to give some attention to what might have been out of your control and where the specific conditions of 2020-21 might be extreme. You wouldn’t draw research conclusions from an experiment done under unusual circumstances, even if it suggests useful hypotheses for future experiments.
Your teaching deserves the same consideration.
Memory is a funny thing. We often exaggerate unpleasant experiences and downplay things we’ve mastered in our memories. Combine those tendencies with the effect of fatigue on emotional regulation and you are probably being unduly harsh on your self-assessment of your teaching abilities at this point in the semester and academic year. Even in a normal year, you’d be exhausted right now.
Taking the time to notice, and take actual notes about, the details of your teaching affects your memory. It can recalibrate your overall sense of how things went. This is particularly important in relation to being able to put teaching on the back burner to prioritize your research. If you have an unreasonably negative view of how things went this year, your anxiety about next year will be heightened. You can be more confident about your planning if you have a more realistic view of how things went.
Furthermore, conducting your own evaluation of the course before reading the student feedback helps reduce the emotional impact of that process in 2 ways. The context of preparing the next iteration gives you something to do with the feedback. You are treating the student feedback as additional information to fine tune your overall assessment. You can also assess the quality of this data, especially in relation to the proportion of students who submitted feedback, and the relevance for the purpose of improving the next iteration.
Estimating how much time you need to prepare the next iteration.
Juggling your responsibilities always involves making difficult decisions about priorities and how much time to allocate to different aspects of your work. Calibrating your memory of how this semester’s iteration of this module went contributes to your confidence about planning the next iteration. Teaching preparation will take up all the time you give it. Over-preparing is a common response to anxiety about teaching competence. You want to limit the time you allocate to preparation without triggering anxiety that you’ve allocated too little.
A reflective review gives you both the confidence to avoid allocating too much time and the information you need to make better estimates of what might be required. Your review can also give you some wiggle room by allowing your to prioritise the most important changes so that if one of your planned improvements needs to be dropped due to time pressure, you are confident the module will still be good.
The combination of confidence and concrete information will also allow you to decide what needs to happen before the semester starts, and what can be done in the weeks immediately before a particular session.
I hope I’ve convinced you that it is worth thinking about your next iteration of this module as you finish up this iteration. I know you are tired. I know there are a lot of bureaucratic processes you need to engage in with hard deadlines. I know how much you’ve been looking forward to a period without teaching to really dive into your writing and research.
How much time would it make sense for you to devote to this review now? The answer will vary depending on your personality.
Everyone should use the course outline and your calendar to go through week by week, and look at each assignment. Make notes as you go:
- What worked well
- What was frustrating
- What ideas pop into your mind about changes
- What elements out of your control might have affected things
Also identify the most important things to address. If you only have time to fix 3 things what would you focus on? You could also note which things you feel okay about just repeating as they are.
This might take up to half a day for each module. It will recalibrate your memory of the whole module to put the frustrations in context. It will give you enough information to estimate how much time you need to devote to preparation before you teach this module again. These notes will refresh your memory when you sit down to prepare and help you keep the preparation in the time you’ve allocated.
Estimate how much preparation time you need.
This is also crucial. Be specific. You will be blocking this time in your calendar once you’ve decided which month you’ll do the work in. Your estimate can be a range but try to limit the range.
If you are struggling to feel confident about your estimates, make sure you have a clear sense of what prepared looks like. Again, be specific. You could always do more. More won’t always make your module better. “Excellent” and “best” are useless benchmarks. Your goal is to facilitate student learning. What is needed to do that?
Anything you could do as weekly preparation I encourage you to leave until later. You’ll need a plan for the first couple of sessions, and a rough outline for anything that wasn’t in your last iteration.
You are a good teacher. A good teacher takes into account the specific dynamic of the group, which you can’t know until you are into the semester. You have taught this before. You have reflective notes. Trust yourself.
If you struggle to limit teaching preparation without external pressure…
If you know that if you will struggle to stick to your estimated time, even if you allow yourself the top of your range, you might consider stopping with the minimum. Block time later in the semester to prepare knowing that you have useful notes and the actual beginning of semester will act as a firm deadline.
If that makes you feel like you’ve got too little time for writing this summer, you can reprioritize your list of changes to reduce how much you plan to do. You can also consider which changes need to be in the course outline, and which can be done as you go along during the semester.
Remind yourself that you are already a good teacher.
If you don’t like the feeling of things looming…
If leaving the bulk of the work until the end of the summer means your anxiety about next semester’s teaching will be a constant mental distraction this summer, then it might be worth taking the time to do at least some of the preparation now.
To limit the time you spend, focus on those things that must be in the course outline or that are required so you can do things like order books, or inform the library of readings. This might mean devoting several days to preparation now.
Your goal is to do enough to reduce that sense of looming unfinished work. That might include finishing your course outline. Or only leaving specific tasks that you can’t do until later and scheduling time for them right before the deadline to submit it for copying or put it on the LMS. Make it easier to resist the urge to tweak it at the end of the summer.
Teaching is not more important than writing & research.
There is a cycle to the year. Research and writing are also important parts of your job, and they often get much less attention during the parts of the year when you are teaching. You are transitioning from the teaching intensive part of the cycle into a research and writing part of the cycle.
What can you do as you finish up this semester’s teaching to help you feel confident about prioritizing research and rest this summer?
This post was originally sent out to newsletter recipients on the 16th April 2021. Click here to sign up to the newsletter and get first access delivered to your inbox. Newsletter subscribers can also download free PDF worksheets to help you break down your teaching preparation tasks and work out when to do them.