If you have taught before, then you are familiar with the grumpy time of the semester. This is when the semester starts to feel long. It is usually about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through the semester when we (and our students) start to feel a little grumpier. We believe there is value in acknowledging this eventuality, naming it, and then proactively and intentionally devising plans for what to do when we get into the grumpy time of the semester. Generally speaking, we advocate for the infusion of empathy (one’s ability to take on the cognitive and emotional perspective of others; e.g., Elliot et al., 2011) into all parts of our courses (see Saucier et al., 2022 for a discussion of the empathetic course design perspective). This ranges from our syllabi to our course structures and policies, to our assignments and assessments. We work hard to proactively and intentionally infuse empathy in our courses and to understand and help our students through the challenges they may be facing. We also believe in making reasonable accommodations to support their learning and their success. This empathetic course design perspective is important to us.
But during the grumpy time, we may be feeling some compassion fatigue (e.g., Raimondi, 2019). Consequently, we may be a bit more unwilling or unable to be empathetic to the issues that arise for our students. We may be worn down by a drop in attendance in our courses. We may feel demoralized when our students who attend via Zoom have their videos off. Although we generally tend to view the classroom as the oasis away from other personal and professional challenges and responsibilities we may be facing (Saucier, 2019), the classroom itself may be more challenging during the grumpy time. However, these challenges are not insurmountable. Below, we share five things that we do to reduce our grumpiness during the grumpy time to make our teaching more engaging and fulfilling (see also Engage the Sage, 2022a):
1. Recommit to infusing empathy in our classes
During the grumpy time, we remind ourselves why we infuse empathy into our classes in the first place. Being empathetic benefits not only our students (e.g., having a more inclusive, safe environment for learning) but also ourselves (e.g., having a supportive course structure that allows us to enjoy teaching more). We also remind ourselves that students have other professional and personal responsibilities outside of our classes. We do not know what challenges our students are facing and we probably cannot resolve these challenges. Ultimately, we acknowledge that we can continue to support students’ learning and success in our classes by recommitting to being empathetic.
2. Teach some amazing content
When designing our courses, we intentionally schedule content that will be inherently more engaging during the grumpy time of the semester. In our courses, there is natural variability in how interesting the students find the various topics we teach. Because we acknowledge that the grumpy time will likely be a time in which energy is lower and engagement wanes, we introduce content that is especially likely to engage our students (and us) during the grumpy time. In line with this reasoning is our notion of “Trickle-Down Engagement,” which states that as our engagement increases as instructors, our students’ engagement will consequently increase, as will their learning in the course (Saucier et al., 2022). We contend there are simple strategies to increase our own engagement in our courses (see Saucier et al., 2019 for examples), and that these strategies are particularly important during this time of the semester.
3. Use engaging and efficient activities and assignments
Building on our previous suggestion, we also intentionally schedule engaging and compelling activities and assignments during the grumpy time of the semester. These activities and assignments give us something to look forward to as instructors and provide our students with opportunities to demonstrate their learning in creative and powerful ways. When possible, we recommend facilitating activities and/or assignments that inspire students to make connections between course content and their own lives. This invigorates our students about the value of the content, empowers them to demonstrate their learning in personalized ways, and fulfills and inspires us as teachers to see these wonderful applications of their learning.
4. Provide catch-up days and mental health days
We also anticipate the grumpy time when creating our course schedule and include days that support our teaching, our students’ learning, and the collective well-being of our students and ourselves. This may include catch up days in our schedule that allow us to space out the content, slow the pace, provide reviews, etc. These catch-up days help us support our students’ learning while reducing the pressure on us to stay on an ambitious content schedule (see Engage the Sage, 2022b). This may also include mental health days by which we cancel a regular class session to allow our students and ourselves to have a minute to breathe amidst the chaos of the semester. Sometimes we incorporate mental health-related assignments by having students engage in meaningful and fulfilling well-being activities and having students submit them in the form of low-stakes brief reports. In any case, this deviation from the normal class pattern can help all of us recharge during the grumpy time.
5. Invest in self-care
During the grumpy time, we believe it is important to prioritize our self-care. If we are not attending to our own needs, we cannot attend to our students’ needs. Anticipating the need for emotional support, we recommend proactively engaging with our social support systems (see King-White & Rogers, 2018 for self-care recommendations). We can and should acknowledge (and name!) the grumpy time, use this common experience to commiserate with colleagues, and crowdsource ideas about how to deal with the teaching and learning challenges that the grumpy time brings. As always, exercising, going outside, spending time with family and friends, and looking for levity in the world around us will benefit our well-being. These self-care needs are easy to ignore, and we highly encourage making time to address these needs when the grumpy time comes.
The grumpy time of the semester is when we all feel the pressures of the semester build, which may result in fatigue and disengagement. We believe that by acknowledging this reality and intentionally enacting strategies to promote engagement and well-being, we can better navigate this grumpy time. If we can re-engage ourselves in teaching during the grumpy time, we will help re-engage our students and better support their learning and success.
Donald A. Saucier, PhD (2001, University of Vermont) is a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar and professor of psychological sciences at Kansas State University. Saucier has published more than 80 peer-reviewed journal articles and is a Fellow of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the Society for Experimental Social Psychology, and the Midwestern Psychological Association. His awards and honors include the University Distinguished Faculty Award for Mentoring of Undergraduate Students in Research, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Teaching Resource Prize. Saucier is also the faculty associate director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Kansas State University and offers a YouTube channel called “Engage the Sage” that describes his teaching philosophy, practices, and experiences.
Noah D. Renken is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kansas State University. His research interests often center around masculine honor ideology and the manifestation of attitudes towards stigmatized events (e.g., sexual violence, trauma). Renken also works in the Teaching and Learning Center at Kansas State University, where he collaborates with Saucier and Schiffer on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) projects.
Ashley A. Schiffer is also a doctoral student in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kansas State University. Her research often pertains to morality in relation to masculine honor ideology and/or military settings. She also works at Kansas State’s Teaching and Learning Center with Saucier and Renken to promote teaching excellence and contribute to the scholarship of teaching and learning.
Elliott, R., Bohart, A. C., Watson, J. C., and Greenberg, L. S. 2011. “Empathy,” In J. Norcross (ed.), Psychotherapy relationships that work (2nd ed.), 132-152. Oxford University Press.
Engage the Sage. (2022a). Engage the Sage: Five things to do during the grumpy time of the semester [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/ZwRla2jVZc0
Engage the Sage. (2022b). Engage the Sage: Teach less better [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/CSO9A2P-vTE.
King-White, D. L., & Rogers, E. E. (2018). Promoting Self-Care and Work-Life Balance among
Practitioners in Higher Education. Adult Higher Education Alliance.
Raimondi, T. P. (2019). Compassion fatigue in higher education: Lessons from other helping
fields. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 51(3), 52-58.
Saucier, D. A. 2019. “‘Having The Time of My Life’: The Trickle-Down Model of Self and Student Engagement.” ACUECommunity. https://community.acue.org/blog/having-the-time-of-my-life-the-trickle-down-model-of-self-and-student-engagement/
Saucier, D. A., Jones, T. L., Schiffer, A. A., & Renken, N. D. (2022). The empathetic course design perspective. Applied Economics Teaching Resources, 4, 1-11.
Saucier, D. A., Miller, S. S., Martens, A. L., and Jones, T. L. 2022. “Trickle Down Engagement: Effects of Perceived Teacher and Student Engagement on Learning Outcomes.” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 33(2), 168-179.