A recent New York Times article titled Why You Hate Work concluded that work is a depleting, dispiriting experience:
Increased competitiveness and a leaner, post-recession work force add to the pressures. The rise of digital technology exposes us to an unprecedented flood of information and requests that we feel compelled to read and respond to at all hours of the day and night.
In other words, U.S. employees feel overwhelmed. No wonder only 30 percent feel engaged. The consequence? Lower corporate productivity. Ultimately, how people feel at work profoundly influences how they perform.
That got me thinking about students.
Do they think college is a depleting, dispiriting experience? If so, how much does it hurt their learning and performance? Do we as instructors contribute to the negativity? And finally, what can we do?
According to a Gallup and Purdue University survey, six undergraduate college experiences affect work engagement and happiness after graduation:
- Having at least one professor who made the student feel excited about learning
- Feeling that professors cared about the student as a person
- Having a mentor who encouraged the student to pursue his or her dreams and goals
- Working on a project that took a semester or more to complete
- Having an internship or job that that allowed the student to apply what he or she is learning in the classroom
- Being extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending college
Graduates who experienced the first three are more than twice as likely to be engaged at work. Yet only 14 percent had them. Worse, more than 1 in 6 graduates aren’t thriving in any well-being category. And only 3 percent achieved all six.
[tweet_box design=”default” float=”none”]It doesn’t matter what kind of college students go to—public or private, small or large, very selective or not selective. What matters are the experiences.[/tweet_box]
Let’s look at the four core needs that increase employee satisfaction and see if we can apply them to the classroom:
- Physical: through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work
- Emotional: by feeling valued and appreciated for one’s contributions
- Mental: when employees have opportunities to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done
- Spiritual: By doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose.
People are more productive, engaged, and satisfied when the gatekeepers care. Managers and professors, are you listening?
Time to check myself. Do I ever think about students’ physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well being? Here’s my end-of-semester report card:
Other than short breaks in my 3-hour evening classes, students don’t have regular opportunities to renew and recharge.
Thinking about physical wellbeing is easier at the K-12 level. As a fifth grade teacher, I used to give breaks during “read alouds” that exceeded 20 minutes. Time for “Simon Says!”
Teachers in Finland give 15 minute breaks every 45 minutes of instruction. And students come back refocused. Here in the U.S., public school teachers regularly teach two hours without recharging. How can I incorporate breaks at the college level? Grade: D
A couple weeks ago, I thanked a student via email for “volunteering” to teach in front of the class. I hope she felt valued and appreciated.
Another day, a quiet student shyly raised her hand for the first time. I didn’t want to make a big deal, even though my brain was shouting, WOW! So I listened, responded positively, and moved on.
I wanted to email her along along the lines of, “I appreciated hearing your thoughts on ABC because XYZ. Please keep it up!” But maybe she’d feel more self-conscious. Did I blow a chance to connect with her? But a few classes later, she motioned me to come over when I asked a class question. She slid her notebook toward me as I walked over. The creme on top? Giving me permission to share what she wrote. Grade: B+
Do my students feel a sense of ownership in their work? Are they absorbed? Do they get chances to define the parameters of their work and their learning?
My students prepare questions, comments, and quotations from the readings, which shape the class discussion. In this way they own their learning. However, I could allow students to determine the parameters of the assignments more. What issue in child development, for instance, would they want to explore? Free play? Teacher-student interaction? Discipline? Grade: B-
Do my students feel connected to a higher purpose? Perhaps. My big thing is to connect abstract theory and concepts to their life and their future career. We will never, for instance, just discuss Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development without applying them to my students’ experiences.
I plan lessons by asking myself: Why should they care about this topic? How does it tie into their interests? Grade: B+
The point of this exercise is to focus on your students, not the content—a major premise of my book, Teaching College.
The best advertisements never focus on the particulars of their product, like the number of megapixels or the screen resolution. They focus on the benefits—the experiences—derived from consuming the product, like:
Friendship (the most shared ad of all time is Android’s “Friends Furever” campaign of cute and unlikely animal friends).
Peace of mind (Allstate Insurance).
Family time (see Apple’s iPhone Christmas ad from 2013).
Going forward, I want to do a better job focusing on ways to make students feel safe in the class. To feel joy. To just want to be there. To not feel like school is a job. Making sure learning isn’t a depleting, dispiriting experience is, after all, in our control.
How much time do you spend thinking about what students go through in your classroom? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.