When You Reach the End of Your Teaching Rope, Do This

Higher Ed May 19 / May 17, 2019

-Thomas Mennella–

Feeling burnt out? Out of gas and out of ideas? The remedy might be something you’ve never considered before. It just might be a trip to a conference! Throughout my entire professional career, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have great mentors. One of the best of the bunch was my doctoral advisor. He taught me how to be a scientist and shepherded me from a young, clueless recent college grad to the professor that I am today. Over the years, he gave me countless bits of wisdom and words of advice. But of those, the one that still resonates with me today is: “When you’re out of your own ideas, read a paper. If you’ve read all the papers, and you’re still stuck, go to a conference.”

In Case of Emergency

While these are simple words, they unpack into deeper meaning. If you have exhausted your own creativity and you have nothing but dead ends left, pick up a journal in your field and flip through it. Those peer-reviewed academic articles are teeming with the ideas and creativity of others. Yes, those articles include questions that have been answered, but while each successful research study answers some questions, it also asks a host of others. Those “next step” questions can be the fuel for your own creative juices. If you’ve browsed the journals, read the abstracts and still – nothing. If, in other words, you’re at the end of your rope and teetering on burnout, that’s when it’s time to pack your bags and get yourself to a conference.  

And don’t just take my — and my doctoral advisor’s — word for it. Out here on the web, there are blogs and blogs worth of anecdotes espousing the benefits of conferences. The Flyte New Media blog gives 12 good reasons to attend a conference, including some unexpected ones such as breaking out of your comfort zone and improving your focus (I’ll second that one; maintaining acute focus is a conference must). And, Janine Popick at Inc.com, makes the case for employers sending their employees to conferences. She identifies networking with experts as a primary benefit.  

Intensive Care

Conferences are like concentrated, pre-chewed, easily digested articles. It’s where leading experts in your discipline gather to share the wonderful ideas that they’ve had, the wonderful things that they’ve done, and the wonderful insights that they’ve gained. And what effort is required of you to siphon off from that well of brilliance? You sit there and listen. That’s it and that’s awesome! By just sitting in on conference sessions, you benefit from the wisdom and creativity of others, and it is rejuvenating. I remember attending an exclusive, discipline-specific, renowned scientific conference at the famous Cold Spring Harbor research labs. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my scientific life. When I got home, my wife asked me: how was it? I told her that I felt like I just read 700 papers in three days. And then I slept for a day and a half.

But conferences are not just for scientists, academics and dentists. There are many conferences geared and dedicated to educators. Many of these are for K12 teachers, but some are for dedicated educators in higher education, as well. Last year, I had a great fortune to attend the Higher Education Flipped Learning Conference held at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. In fact, this conference was so transformative for me, I wrote several pieces on my experiences there for FLR (such as here, and here). I networked with some amazing FL professors, stole more than my fair share of ideas and came home rejuvenated, refreshed and dying to implement all of those best practices in my courses.  

Preventative Care

And now, as this academic year rapidly draws to a close, and I’m drowning in grading, assessments, thesis reviews and close-out meetings, the one thing I am not suffering from is burnout. My relationships with my students — relationships made possible and fostered by FL — armored me against burnout all the way to the last day of classes. But now, as I write this, classes are done, students are gone, and yet still I am excited and full of zeal. Why? Because my proposal to present at the 2019 Higher Education Flipped Learning Conference was accepted, and my travel pre-approval authorization is nearly finalized at my home institution. Yes, I’m on my way back to Greeley where I hope to reconnect with old friends and make a whole bunch of new ones. Burning out is the furthest thing from my mind right now. All I feel is excited to get to Greeley, and I guarantee you that, on the plane ride home, all I’ll want is for the next year to start so that I can implement yet another set of best practices with my students.  

So let me amend those words of wisdom from my doctoral advisor: “When you’re out of your own ideas, read a paper. If you’ve read all the papers, and you’re still stuck, or when you just want to refresh, recharge and remember why you’re a teacher, go to a conference.” What are you waiting for? Go ahead and register today, and I’ll see you all in Greeley (I hope)!

Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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