Three years after we took up the chaos and challenges prompted by the pandemic, we are struck yet again by how all-encompassing teaching is—how it asks educators to engage simultaneously and sophisticatedly in “[an] intellectual, scholarly, and emotional labor.” We are not only responsible for creating courses and curricula but also for cultivating human capacity. Yet even though teachers are superheroes, and sometimes even pedagogical ninjas, we aren’t superhuman. Pedagogical exhaustion is all too possible, and it is only one aspect of a broader burnout impacting faculty members across higher education.
Students are tired, administrators are tired, the staff is tired and faculty members are most certainly tired. To address the challenges of burnout, many people in the higher education community are calling for more holistic faculty support. Indeed, faculty health and well-being need to become institutional priorities—the payoff of true systemic change and not mere lip service about it.
But while we continue to advocate for such change, what can we do now, immediately, to boost morale and build support for those who are burned out? We propose that we seek some relief in play. Plenty of research shows how valuable play is to children, yet we sometimes forget how meaningful it can be for grown-ups, too. In fact, play should be a more explicit priority for educators’ professional development, because it can help us put the fun back in function.
By definition, play is not frivolous behavior. It is engaging in something that is enjoyable. Play can certainly entail taking time off and heading to the beach, spending time skiing in the mountains, or going to a movie with a few friends. Those forms of play are important and a needed release from work. We can also find opportunities to play through building communities with colleagues, making measured meaningful changes in what we do or learning from peers and perhaps even national experts.
Here are a few suggestions to fortify your affective well-being through play—with your community, with change and with proven teaching and learning techniques.
Play with community. Nothing is quite like pedagogical community building, where educators come together intentionally to share teaching and learning ideas and inspiration. We have seen time and again the sheer excitement of faculty and administrators at conferences, talking to one another about innovative strategies and efficient methods to create valuable learning opportunities for their students. Conferences such as those run by the American Association of Colleges and Universities and the Lilly Conferences on Evidence-Based Teaching have, for many decades, helped educators build community and boost teaching energy. There is fun to be had while learning something new; there is joy to be found in playing together pedagogically.
That said, we also recognize that not every educator has access to those more formal—and sometimes costly—events. In those instances, it may be beneficial to harness the power of an asynchronous community by accessing places like the Scholarly Teacher and Feminist Pedagogy for Teaching Online. Such sites offer educators a chance to commune anytime, at their own pace, with other educators and to engage as desired in shared pedagogical efforts. Inspiration might be ignited by shared information, and thus, play in such places can be posterior. For example, publications in the Scholarly Teacher always invite questions and comments from readers, while Feminist Pedagogy encourages educators to share their own lived teaching and learning experiences through solicited blog contributions.
Play with change. Pedagogical change can be hard. Change takes effort and energy—often in the form of time and cognitive load, which are precious commodities for educators. Yet great rewards await us when we actively embrace teaching and learning change, particularly if we engage in making strategic, evergreen changes that are long-lasting or can be easily tweaked. The key is to start small: focus on bite-size changes that are fun and have the potential for significant return on investment.
One example of a strategic teaching change that promotes effectiveness and efficiency that one of us, Niya, has created is a two-minute teaching philosophy video. This short video communicates, in a condensed format, the vision she has for the teaching and learning journey that she will share with students—a vision that often differs from what students expect.
For example, Niya regularly uses this approach to build belonging in her online courses, letting her students know the foundational elements of the course are: enthusiasm, engagement and empowerment. To encourage even more of those three elements, you might ask students to respond using a program such as Flip, Zoom or LMS capture technology and to post short learning philosophy statements. Those interactions can then set the tone for a term filled with teaching and learning symbiosis. Playing with change in this way is a win-win.
Play with proven techniques. Trying out a new strategy to engage students can be a lot of fun—and positively transformative—for learners and educators alike, creating energy in the form of robust and rewarding teaching and learning interactions. But a certain amount of care and caution must accompany that change. Pedagogical experimentation, without intention, can potentially lead to teaching and learning interactions that are exclusive, uninviting, inaccessible and deflating for students. Ill-planned new teaching strategies may also be draining rather than fulfilling for the instructor. To avoid potentially problematic pedagogy, focus on teaching and learning change founded on evidence-based philosophies and practices. It also helps to turn to the experts who have cultivated such tried-and-true techniques.
Many faculty members have expertise that can help quickly and easily transform a course. Various organizations also have a compendium of material; for example, MERLOT has more than 100,000 resources and nearly 200,000 registered members.
Another newish group
Before concluding, we must also add that play is not a panacea. Rest, emotional support, reduced workloads and other strategies are crucial for healthy and supported faculty. That said, we feel it is important to not lose sight of the value of exerting a small amount of energy to engage in opportunities that create positive pedagogical play. It is possible to (re)engage and re-excite, to harness sustainable sparks of energy, especially as we encourage larger systemic changes that can combat educator exhaustion.
We believe in the value of putting the fun back in function. We believe in the power of coming together to support one another while learning strategies to enhance student learning. Small steps can lead to big teaching and learning wins. They can also lead to larger energy refills—recharging us personally and professionally as we build community, connect with students and embrace evidence-based educational experiences.