On the loneliness of teaching

A reflection on the loneliness of University teaching, and a call to share our pedagogical successes and challenges with pride

In my previous contribution to this blog I wrote about the joy of co-author friends. More recently I’ve been reflecting on the surprising loneliness of teaching. When I started my PhD, friends said ‘I could never do that, won’t you be lonely?’ Of course this was pre-pandemic, when office gossip and Friday drinks were an important part of my (then 20-something) friends’ social lives.

As it turned out, academic life suited me just fine. I was not lonely. I had a shared office in which to work, and the reliable support and attention of my supervisor. I came to know other PhD students working in my field and felt part of a community. This sense of community continued into my early academic career, and was bolstered by the inherent collegiality of academic writing and publishing. Attending conferences is a fundamental part of academic life. The editorial and review process means thoughtful and attentive communication with at least three people for every (reviewed) paper; or more if you’re working with co-author friends. It turned out that the least-lonely part of my job was the work I did sitting on my own.

Alone in a Room Full of People

Teaching, on the other hand, can be incredibly lonely. Within the traditional model of delivery the lecturer is alone in a room full of people. The students are great; they are entertaining, enthusing, challenging and absorbing. But they are not friends and they are not colleagues. After a particularly difficult or totally brilliant class there is no-one to turn to and say ‘wow, that was hard/amazing!’. There is no editor to encourage you and no reviewers to say ‘I attended your lecture with great interest, and while I have two pages of constructive feedback I am excited by the potential of your contribution’. If you’re lucky, you might run into a colleague-friend after a challenging class and tell them all about it. If you don’t run into anyone, or you have to rush to another class and then another and then you couldn’t speak another word even if you ran into your very best friend, lecturers must sit with their successes and (sense of) failures on their own. 

Emotional Support for Teaching Excellence

As lecturers we are routinely confronted with the needs and expectations of hundreds of students, and often encounter situations for which we are totally unprepared. Without regularly checking in with others in our profession we are left alone to decide whether or not we did OK. The burden of this is immense, as is the potential impact on our mental health.

The absence of more institutionalised teaching peer-support is also a missed opportunity for professional development; I have picked up many excellent tricks from colleagues after venting about a disastrous class. If I hadn’t run into them, I would not have learned from them.  I suspect I may also have passed on some good advice in my time, and doing so has given me the opportunity to reflect on and celebrate my own ablities.  

We know that at an institutional level teaching excellence is a prevailing concern; the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework in the UK in 2017 is evidence that government priorities for Universities are geared towards teaching quality. At the personal level however there is little reputational benefit to the excellent teacher, as compared to the successful researcher (Armstrong & Sperry 1994, Collier et al 2015). Many of the best academics are both, but the teaching does not come any easier than the research. There are historic, political, and institutional (and dare I say gendered) reasons for the difference in prestige between teaching and research, and they are unlikely to change any time soon.

Time to Bring Teaching Out Into the Open

However, I believe that bringing teaching out into the open may have a profound effect on how we perceive the value of our own teaching practice which may, in turn, affect how it is seen within academia. I would like to see us posting on LinkedIn after a session where a usually restless class paid close attention for 20 minutes because you found a way to relate a textbook theory to your own research, or when a student who has sulked in the back for 10 weeks asks a pretty decent question because you made them feel comfortable enough to do so.

But first, we need to talk to each other, regularly and as part of our working day, about what we do in the classroom. In doing so we will learn to notice when we did something difficult or ingenious, and learn to communicate this with confidence. To this end, I am soon to pilot a Teaching Discussion and Support Group in my department at Middlesex University. I very much hope that this forum will become a place where we can vent, complain and cry – but also where we can parade our incredible teaching work and get the fabulous peer reviews we deserve.

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