A long-time professor at the university where I teach once shared with me something we both had in common. I had thought for the first five years of my teaching that I was alone in my feelings of discouragement at this point in the semester. My life and my relationships are mostly fairly constant (to the extent that anyone's are…). The manic nature of the few weeks before finals left me exhausted and lacking a sense of purpose at times.
When I shared “the dip” that I had experienced in wrapping up each semester, he shared that he, too, had that pattern throughout all of his years of teaching. He has been teaching more than 25 years and said that every class he taught had the frustrating time toward the end of it, when it seemed like the end just couldn't get here fast enough.
Tuckman and Jensen (1977) describe the stages that a team encounters, as they develop together and tackle a common goal. Drexel University has a wonderful overview of how this process takes shape. The graphic below depicts the stages of team development.
Teaching seems to follow a similar pattern, though I've observed that there can be some additional storming that takes place before the adjourning stage arrives. There seem to be plenty of factors at play. Parents have often been convinced to remove the consequences of their children's choices, so these young adults decide to attempt the same parental archetypes with their professors. Students who tend toward an external locus of control look around for someone to blame for their poor grade. Sleep deprivation and stress take their toll and don't bring out the best characteristics of some students' personalities.
Just knowing that “the dip” is normal helps me to cope better with it. However, following are some other ways I have found help in maintaining the rewards that come with the vocation of teaching, despite the bumpy end-of-the-semester road:
Keep an encouragement folder
Start a folder where you keep letters and cards from students that help to remind you of the difference you have made in the lives of your students. Create a similar folder or tag in your email program, so you can review past emails that have encouraged you.
Ask students to inform you of the purpose of meetings they schedule with you
I use an online scheduling tool called TimeTrade, which is a huge time saver for me and also helps my students prepare for the business world in which the vast majority of appointments today are scheduled electronically. In it, I require that all students indicate the purpose of any meetings they schedule with me. This additional step also shapes their behavior toward more professional communication and allows for me to communicate more proactively with those students who are clearly attempting to negotiate regarding their grades.
My syllabi are clear about the lack of opportunities for extra credit or assignment “do-overs,” while attempting to pass one of my courses. I let students know that while I am willing to meet with them to discuss their status in one of my classes, or to discuss strategies for future courses (in the case of them failing), but that it is not a good way to maximize our collective time to discuss the desire that they may have to save their grade in the final stretch of a semester.
Use humor or some other means for providing the unexpected to lower everyone's stress
I recently showed this clip of the cutest 911 call you may ever hear, from the Bonnie Hunt Show in class.
It was great to watch the reactions of my students. They at first were not sure that I was truly showing them something funny (I assured them that the Dad was ok following this call). The initial tension then seemed to trigger even more heightened emotions, which quickly made the laughter that much louder when they heard the girl's conversation with the 911 operator.
One caution I have about using humor is to always connect it to your class content (or teaching) in some way. In the case of this particular video, I showed it in my Introduction to Business class and tied it in to how to know if they were at the “so far, so good” part of their business plan projects. I also discussed how easy it is in life to worry about what you're going to wear, as the ambulance is on their way to your house.
What ways have you found beneficial in minimizing the effects of “the dip” that can sometimes make us question our effectiveness in a particular class?