Designing a term with mental health in mind

It was the start of Week 9 of our 10 week winter term, and I found myself staring at a blank text editor page on my computer monitor, textbook open beside me, praying for some, any, inspiration. “I’ll post Problem Set 7 on Monday,” I told my students. It was Monday, already, and I had nothing.

I was so, so, so tired. Physically tired, from several weeks of not enough sleep. Mentally tired, from juggling an overwhelmingly overfull term containing a basically new prep and significant service responsibilities and hiring. Emotionally tired, from the hours I spent every day dealing with significant and difficult issues with one of my kiddos, who’s really struggling this year. But I had to suck it up. I had to get this written, and posted, so that….

So that what? I found myself thinking. Judging from my interactions with students in class, and the messages they’re sending me about class, they are also exhausted, and overwhelmed. Every class is piling on work. Seniors are finish up Comps. The course material is challenging, and the textbook is actually in many cases hindering their learning. Everyone is on edge.

Will that final problem set add to their learning? Is the added stress worth it, or will it be more conducive to their learning to ease off the gas a bit and let them catch their breath?

If I clearly didn’t want to write this problem set, did I think my students really wanted to do this problem set?

When I framed the problem that way, the answer was clear. I sent a message to the class, letting them know that there would be no Problem Set 7. The relief, and appreciation, was immediate and palpable.

I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that if students are not producing, they’re not learning. But there’s a time to produce, and a time to reflect, and it’s hard to produce when you’re tired and overscheduled and overstimulated. And judging from the student responses on the final exam on the topic that would have been the focus of Problem Set 7, the in-class only exposure to the material produced the desired learning outcomes anyway.

I thought about this experience a lot when planning out my spring term course. The end of spring term is traditionally even tougher than the end of winter term. We don’t get much of a break between winter and spring terms, and by early June we’ve been slogging away exhaustedly for months. And the end of the year brings All Of The Events. The department picnics. The awards thingies. The end of year celebrations. So. many. surveys. If I can give them just a bit of breathing room, some time to engage at a slower pace with the material, with more carefully curated “products” spaced more thoughtfully with the rhythms of the term — well, that’s a gift to them and to me (and my course staff!).

I thought about this from a personal standpoint, too, when planning out my term. While I still have significant service responsibilities that will only continue to ramp up, my workload is way more manageable and realistic than it was in the winter. (I might even be able to take most weekends off!) But. Spring term is when my depression kicks into overdrive, like clockwork. And I know that if I’m not on top of it, it can quickly derail my life and my productivity. Being kinder and gentler to myself by allowing time to engage with life and reflect and work at a slower pace, sets myself up for success. And setting myself up for success reduces the inevitable feelings of being a complete failure which come out in droves in the spring, driving me deeper into my depression.

If I know that slowing things down is good for my own mental health, doesn’t it stand to reason that it will be good for my students’ mental health, too? Particularly since a good number of our students manage their own private battles with anxiety and depression and other mental health issues?

I still need to move a few things around in my syllabus to make this goal a reality, but I’m excited to see how this revamp of expectations, and this kinder, gentler approach to teaching, goes. And I’m curious to see what impact my kinder, gentler approach to spring term has on my depression management during what’s for me the toughest time of the year.