May 4, 2017 11:47 am

Norman Eng

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:

  1. Having at least one professor who made the student feel excited about learning
  2. Feeling that professors cared about the student as a person
  3. Having a mentor who encouraged the student to pursue his or her dreams and goals
  4. Working on a project that took a semester or more to complete
  5. Having an internship or job that that allowed the student to apply what he or she is learning in the classroom
  6. 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:

  1. Physical: through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work
  2. Emotional: by feeling valued and appreciated for one’s contributions
  3. 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
  4. 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:

Physical Wellbeing
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

Emotional Wellbeing
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+

Mental Wellbeing
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-

Spiritual Wellbeing
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+

My Take-Away

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).

Safety (Volvo).

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.

  • Very useful! Never thought about teaching in terms of students’ wellbeing. Makes sense that if teachers take care of physical, mental, emotional, students will learn more.

  • You make several good points worth exploring. However, I think a good part of student success rests with the student’s level of what I call GAC, I’ll explain in a moment. Often students come to take my courses to fill an elective, or simply because it’s a requirement. Neither is bad, but neither indicates any authentic interest on the part of the student for the degree their enrolled in, or the careers offered after the degree.
    As a result, I sometimes find myself competing with their mobile devices for their attention in the classroom. Part of it is a lack of respect, part of it is a lack of interest for the topic or the degree. Fortunately, this isn’t a wholesale occurrence, and there are a very few who demonstrate an authentic interest (or they fake it well) in the topic, the degree, and/or the career beyond the degree.
    My teaching discipline is Criminal Justice, Security, and Homeland Security. The field of opportunity is deep and wide, but the pool of interested students is shallow. I know that part of this is also due to a lack of focus, search for self, etc., but as I shared at the beginning, I think a good chunk of their lack of interest which is reflected in poor classroom civility, is the lower level of GAC (give a crap).
    Not certain how to overcome apathy, but I’ll continue to try.

    • Thanks for your comment, EMatthews. I’m going to start using that term (“I don’t GAC!”)–just not in class haha. Anyway, you make a good point, because we’re all competing with their smartphones and their level of interest. Even more so when the course is a requirement.

      Criminal justice, security, and homeland security sound like a disipline rich with potential engagement. How do you teach it, may I ask? I’d love to get a dialogue going, if you’re open. You can always reply here or email me directly, at norman.eng@me.com.

  • I finished reading your book, Teaching College, last evening. And this provides the whipped cream, cherry on the top ending!

    I am a retired elementary teacher who is once again teaching at the undergraduate college level. I used to tell my colleagues that not one former 5th grade student ever came back to visit me and comment, “Thank you for helping me get high test scores, Ms. Harris,” or “I’ll never forget that worksheet on the schwa sound with that cute little apple up in the corner.” We are here to make memories. It’s those memories–those experiences–that motivate students to do their best…and maybe beyond.

  • This is some great info, Norm! Of course I teach in recreation and leisure studies so I feel I have a lot of leeway- like the time I wanted to make sure they understood various play theories. At the end of next class session I handed out those mini-bubbles (you get at weddings) and we walked up to the nearby bridge and blew bubbles…all 75 students were there and had a blast! I always leave comments on their papers, either on the page or on the online section in comments. Who else is going to encourage/mentor them? Shared on Facebook, Flipboard and tweeted 🙂

  • This politically correct coddling has to end or we will continue to breed people unable to stand up for themselves and solve their own problems. The love of learning should be instilled at a young age by their parents. If not, it is not the responsibility of either the professor or the college to be their parents. Caring about them as people is nonsense – that comes from within and their parents. It is up to the college to have an internship program with local companies to invest in the students and it is up to the students to join this program or not. It is not the colleges responsibility to see that students have extracurricular activities – clubs, sports, fraternities, etc,. – it is the students own responsibility. If they do join or not it is a reflection on them not the school as can not force a person to join. When I got to college I was secure in my own skin and acted and was treated like am adult not like a child.

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