For most instructors, the Fall term brings a fresh start with our courses. It also tends to bring a sense of feeling overwhelmed with all the things we could be doing. As much as I enjoy and look forward to the HAPS annual conference every year, I usually leave filled with motivation and self-doubt in equal measure. It is all too easy to forget that every university, college, and department will vary, whether in funding, faculty to student ratio, program focus, or appreciation for quality A&P education. Many of us simply cannot execute a number of the innovations we see at HAPS. Some activities require a great deal of extra work on top of our already full plates, and at the end of the day, we can’t quite motivate ourselves to go those extra miles. Could there be a middle ground?
Over the summer, I was making a long list of new strategies to try in my courses, both in and out of class. Shamefully, I was “multitasking”, watching “The Crown” on Netflix at the same time. In the episode I was watching, the queen was feeling overwhelmed by criticism, and unsure how to address it to regain public favor. In an unprecedented move, she met with an outspoken critic to hear his thoughts on the public image of the monarchy. To keep things simple, he suggested “three things to start, and three things to stop.” Perhaps it is my obsession with British history, or maybe it was just what I needed to hear at that moment, but for whatever reason, I stopped writing my list. I realized that if I did all of the things I listed, I would never know what actually worked and didn’t work well in my class. I threw out that list, and pulled out two fresh pieces of paper. After some non-distracted reflection I wrote three things to start and three things to stop on each of these papers. Since I’ve always been the “bad news first” type, in this post, I share my three things to stop.
My Three Things to Stop:
“It’s in the syllabus” and other associated phrases
I have to admit, I never said these phrases often at all, but I’ve decided that they are all officially on my do not say list. Jokes, sarcasm and a variety of venting sessions abound in academia about this topic. We are easily frustrated when students bombard us with questions that we have already answered (often in obvious places), or questions they could have easily answered for themselves with a little effort. Other tempting phrases include; “as I said earlier”, “per my email”, or anything else referencing the fact that students should already know the answer to the question, or could easily find it. I encourage all teachers to take a moment to ask yourself four questions, before hitting that reply button:
- What harm does it really do to just answer their question?
- is using one of my phrases just going to embarrass them?
- Will it take me just as long to respond that they should have already known the answer, as it will to answer the question
- Honestly, how often do I carefully read directions?
I think if we are honest with ourselves, this simply stems from annoyance that we wasted our own precious time on something that was either unnoticed or ignored by the students. Or, perhaps this triggers a fear of what other questions are to come and an immediate assumption that the students will struggle in the class if they are this “helpless” already. This is making assumptions we have no business making. Instead, answer their question and simply add, “if you need more information later and I am unavailable….” while referring them to whatever they should have read in the first place. They’ll get the message and won’t be afraid to approach you again.
The candy shop effect
When treating a condition, the best course of action is to add one new medication or make one change at a time, see the effects, and gradually add another. Otherwise, any changes to your well-being cannot be attributed to any one new variable. The challenge I face every fall is wanting to add everything I think will help my students. While this sounds fine at face value, there are pitfalls. First, exhaustion on my part! Second, the risk of overwhelming my students. Third, I cannot attribute any changes in my students’ outcomes directly to one, or a combination of the changes I made. For example, in the 2017 school year, we decided to add weekly quizzes for retrieval practice that were open book, 2 attempts, highest grade kept. This year, we are also adding an adaptive reading assignment to increase metacognition. By waiting a year and doing the quizzes first, we will be able to see if that made a difference and if there is a need for any more retrieval practice. In an effort to remain a reflective teacher I will examine if these changes made any meaningful difference, or if they were just more work in a student’s already very demanding schedule.
“Just being grateful”
Just being grateful to have your job goes by many names. More and more often, it is being called by its true name: Impostor Syndrome. In the past year, I have seen more and more instructors in the A&P field be vocal about this. One of my favorite HAPS moments of 2018 was during the Women in Anatomy panel, when an attendee asked (the one and only) Dee Silverthorn, “How did you deal with impostor syndrome?” and her response was “stay tuned” (or something to that effect). The rest of the panel then chimed in that this is a very real feeling, no matter what stage you are at in your career. In all of my work positions, I spent years not standing up for what I felt was best, or changes that should be made, because I thought I needed to just be agreeable. I was afraid to rock the boat because I was just “so grateful” to have my job. In truth, I am very grateful, but not that someone gave me a job; I am grateful that in all my years of teaching I have never questioned whether or not I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to do with my life. However, my “just so grateful” attitude was conveying that I didn’t believe I deserved or earned every opportunity I had. We all have to be our own biggest advocates. While external validation and recognition feel wonderful, at the end of the day, if we don’t own our accomplishments, who will?
Fellow A&P educators, I urge you to consider this exercise, especially if you are feeling like work-life balance is always out of reach or you’re never quite sure if your actions and outcomes line up. It might help you become a more balanced educator, family member, and friend. Your three things to start and stop will certainly vary, but feel free to steal mine! The most important thing is that the “three things to stop” addresses the behaviors you do or choices you make that most often that lead to undesirable outcomes. Be on the lookout for the next post, “three things to start”!
Krista Rompolski is an Assistant Professor in the Health Sciences Department at Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA. She is an active member of the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society and the American Academy of Anatomists. Her teaching interests include pathophysiology, gross anatomy, and anatomy and physiology.