Is Your Teaching Energy Jar Filled with Sand or Rocks?

The other day a student privately messaged me on Zoom and said “You look tired. Thanks so much for all that you do for this course. It must be difficult.” If you’re a teacher you might balk at the observation about my looks, but to be fair to the student, I did look tired! My allergies have been horrific these past couple weeks. Even medicine clearly isn’t working well enough to unpuff the bags under my eyes. But the truth is that I am not tired. Not of or from teaching anyway. That hasn’t always been the case especially in the spring semester which always feels harder to me than the fall. A few years ago, while I was still an adjunct, I learned how I could manage my energy to avoid total burnout. Often we treat semester-based teaching like sprints, but really it’s more like a triathlon. And managing your Teaching Energy Jar is key to making it through.

Wait, what is a Teaching Energy Jar, you might ask?

PSA: I am not a graphic artist, but you get the point

Well you’ve likely heard some version of the jar filled with sand, pebbles, and rocks analogy. The point of this analogy is to not fill your life with “sand” (or tiny things like obsessively cleaning your baseboards) because you need room for the rocks (or big things like love).

This same wisdom holds true for teaching. The jar represents the finite amount of energy we have for teaching. Understandably, most of us feel like we don’t have enough energy to successfully (let alone joyfully) meet the demands of our teaching. And for those of us with high classroom caps, larger teaching loads, and/or more labor-intensive course types (i.e. writing-intensive or community-engaged), the jar often feels too damned small to hold it all. *Much* of this is rooted in systemic issues plaguing higher education, but some of it is up to us.

My own light bulb moment came when I was an adjunct on the job market, teaching seven writing-intensive sections at three institutions. There is no jar big enough to hold the energy required to do this amount of work well. The only upside is that it forced me to reevaluate what I was jamming into that too-small teaching energy jar.

I’m not going to define exactly what is the “sand” of teaching vs. the “big rocks,” because it is complex and likely different for each of us. For me the sand is things like course policies or assessment practices that require a lot of my time and energy and provide little value in return. For instance I used to have a very strict (and somewhat arbitrary) attendance policy. I would check my roll after every class, send warning emails, track consequences. I hated every minute of it. It drained me and took time/focus away from my other students. I still take attendance but I don’t use it to drop students or punish them with grade penalties. Instead I consult it a few times per semester and use it to check in with students who might be struggling. Suddenly what was a draining policy that filled up my jar with “sand” became a “pebble” – a meaningful way to keep up with and encourage students.

Emails from students can be similarly draining, but in my experience they can also be “rocks” (for me a rock is a genuine learning experience). I used to wonder how I could both encourage students to communicate with me while, at the same time, cut down on the number of redundant and obvious emails that felt so exhausting. The two strategies that work best for me is 1) sending regular announcements and reminders which cuts down *substantially* on the number of basic question emails and 2) have students post any general questions in the Ask! Discussion Board so I can publicly reply (or sometimes they answer each other’s questions which is awesome). Now when I get an email from a student it’s usually to run ideas by me, to share a cool resource, or reply to a comment I left on their work. These kinds of emails energize instead of drain me.

Another example is feedback. For me the “sand” version of feedback would be to assign a qualitative grade for every discussion post and reply. If you read my blog post on the “Less is More” Feedback Model then you know I employ methods to prioritize certain kinds of feedback. The truth is I love to give feedback – but mainly to help a struggling student do better or to encourage students whose ideas inspire me. For me that looks like less of: “you got 5 points instead of 10 because I asked for two paragraphs and you gave me one” and MORE of: “I think you are on to something when you mention the diasporic subject’s experience of space as time. Next time try to find a quote from our reading to illustrate what you are saying. Paraphrase is fine, but using textual evidence will help the reader see what you see.”

I want to reiterate that what we consider to be sand, pebbles, and rocks will vary based on our circumstances, our teaching journeys, and our values. Take a moment, pull out a sheet of paper, and jot down what your sand, pebbles, and rocks of teaching are. Then consider how you might reduce the sand so you can make room for the rocks. In my experience, the more room we make for rocks, the bigger our jar becomes.

What have you done to reduce the sand and make room for more rocks? I would love to know! Leave a comment below or comment on Twitter @litambitions

Stay tuned for (hopefully) more posts this year about teaching, composition, digital literacy, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions

6 thoughts on “Is Your Teaching Energy Jar Filled with Sand or Rocks?

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