So. You’re a faculty member. Wow! You have the job of inspiring awe and cultivating competency in the thousands of students that you’ll work with throughout your career! The future of your industry rests upon the preparation you give your students. Awesome! That sounds super noble. And it also sounds like a lot of weight on your shoulders.
I’m a faculty member, too (a professor of practice at a large, state university), and sometimes that weight on my shoulders feels like the weight of the entire world (or at least a piece of the world that’s still very, very heavy). It can feel like each student’s future is in your hands. If you’re anything like me, you feel an overwhelming anxiety to have everything about your courses and your mentoring relationships absolutely perfect. If your slides or emails or white-board scribbles are less than your best, you feel like you’re failing the students and giving them a somehow defective education.
It’s a vicious school of thought, perfectionism. Even the more self-forgiving school of thought, “always do your best” is dangerous because there’s no context involved. If I judge all of my lectures, papers, grants, or student meetings on the best I have ever done, then literally NOTHING is going to measure up to my expectations. Nothing can beat the best. In real life, though, there’s context. “My best” is relative. Sometimes “my best” is really freakin’ awesome, like, knock-your-socks-off good. But sometimes, when I have a head cold and my computer has a virus and I have zero sleep and have just attended 6 straight hours of meetings, “my best” is just staying awake and continuing to function. My perfectionist brain, though, defies this logic and resorts to the negative refrain, “Well, I guess even my best isn’t good enough.”
This perfectionism was crippling for me, particularly when I was a really new faculty member in my first few months. I felt that I had everything to prove and the weight of the world on my shoulders. I was staying up super late at night to author/edit/perfect lectures, lab exercises, papers, letters of recommendation, and emails (don’t get me started on the pressure I still feel to phrase everything perfectly in my emails). Then, with very little sleep, my lecture the next day would be below my “best” expectations. My initial reasoning was that I must just not be a very good professor. It took me a few months before I realized that the amount of sleep I get the night before a lecture is directly proportional to the amount of learning my students do in class. It took me a few weeks longer to accept that as a truth, and not a challenge.
One day I was thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You know, the one that says you need food, water, and shelter, before you reach self-actualization? Food before safety, safety before belonging, belonging before esteem, and so on. I started doodling on some scratch paper about the additional things faculty need in each of those categories. For example, sometimes, a working printer is a physiological need. If I don’t have access to a working printer, there’s no way I can function. No printer = no exam. Period.
As my list of faculty needs grew longer and longer, I realized something powerful. You know, one of those “aha” moments that seem really insightful and life-changing to you, but to others seem like, “Oh, of course if you blow your nose instead of sniffling, you’ll need to cough less.” Anyway, my powerful realization that day was that if my physiological needs (food, sleep, printers, etc.) aren’t met, I can’t expect myself to perform at the totally-perfect, students-laughing-at-all-my-jokes, they-learned-everything-and-I-mean-everything, self-actualization level. I shouldn’t expect myself to perform at a level higher than I’m physically capable of achieving. That is not only unkind, but it is downright illogical. If my needs are met, then I can have higher expectations of my performance (both as a professor and as a human).
Let’s unpack that idea a little more: “met needs implies better performance.” I’m borrowing some concepts here from the fields of logic and discrete math. The word “implies” has a concrete, mathematical meaning. It denotes a contract. “A implies B” means that if thing A happens, then thing B will happen. If thing A doesn’t happen, it’s a crapshoot as to whether thing B will happen: it may happen, and it may not, there’s no way to predict it. So, when I say “met needs implies better performance”, I simply mean that if your needs are met, you’ll probably perform better. If your needs aren’t met, it could still go really well. Or, it could be a panic-attack-inducing disaster. Most likely, it will be somewhere in-between, but it’s still a crapshoot. This idea of “met needs implies better performance” gave me the vocabulary to practice the self-patience and self-generosity that I was so lacking.
I want to be careful, here, not to come across as though I’m passing the blame for performing poorly: “I don’t have the resources, so I don’t have to do my job.” That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m speaking to those out there like me – those that siphon their souls every day to do the absolute best they can and give their students everything they have. I’m trying to communicate a vocabulary to enable self-forgiveness when the pieces of your soul that you have left to give are not as glowing and excellent as you might wish them to be.
The bottom-line: it is unreasonable to expect perfection (a.k.a. “self-actualization”) when your needs aren’t met.
For the rest of this post, I’ll discuss my mental framework for assessing my which of my needs are met and how that relates to the level of performance I might expect from myself. If anyone out in the lovely abyss of the internet is feeling any of the anxieties I described above, perhaps my silly strategy of picturing myself within a modified version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will be helpful.
Each “level” in the hierarchy contains a list of questions. If you can answer “yes” to the question (or if the question just doesn’t apply to you), you can consider that need “met.” Generally, if you have most of the needs met in a particular level and the unmet needs aren’t really relevant to you, you’re probably in a higher level of the hierarchy. If any of the unmet needs feel really pressing to you, you should consider yourself in the lowest level with a pressing unmet need.
Do you have a stable house or apartment in your new city?
Do you have internet installed?
Do you have an office at work? Do you have a desk? A chair?
Do you have an office at home? Do you have a desk? A chair?
Do you have a university-issued computer? Is it working?
Do you have a parking permit?
Do you know which classes you’ll be teaching?
Do you have the tools you’ll need to teach that class? (Textbooks, clicker hardware, etc.)
Do you have access to a working printer?
Do you have access to a grocery store with foods that suit your tastes/dietary restrictions?
Are you getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night?
Do you have a primary doctor? Do you have the specialist doctors your situation might require?
Do you have a pharmacy for your (or your family’s) prescriptions?
Do you have your LMS set up (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.)?
Do you have TAs? Do you have consistent TA meetings scheduled?
Do you know how/when/how much you are going to be paid?
Do you have materials for the lecture you need to give in an hour?
Do you have the tribe knowledge of your peers?
- The time and location of faculty meetings?
- How to file for travel reimbursement?
- How to order equipment and/or use your startup funds?
- Which students would make the best TAs?
- The curriculum requirements for the students that you mentor?
Do you have enough grant money to pay your graduate students? To send them to conferences?
Do you have health insurance?
Do you have car insurance in your new state?
Do you know your way around campus?
Have you had a physical lately?
Have you had a dental cleaning lately?
Does your car need maintenance?
Do you have a list of resources you can use when you’re overwhelmed?
- Materials by other people who taught a similar course?
- Assignments written by other people who taught a similar course?
- Successful grant applications by other professors?
- The email address for and a personal relationship with the IT Helpdesk?
- Understanding of how to navigate the library?
Do you have a part of your schedule when you can be calm and relax your thoughts?
Do you know how to contact campus security?
Do you know emergency procedures at your institution?
- When are the tornado/fire/lockdown drills scheduled?
- What to do if violence occurs in your class?
- Who to call if a student is having a psychotic episode?
Do you know where the student counseling center is?
Have you been trained in mental health first aid?
Do you have a backup plan if ever you’re sick and need to miss a day of work? Do you know who will cover your class? What activities will the students complete in class?
Do you know if your campus allows the concealed carry of weapons?
Do you know where to go in case an active shooter enters your building?
Is your workplace/home life free from stalkers, abusive relationships, or sexual harassment?
Belongingness and Love Needs
Do your students treat you with the respect afforded to your position of authority?
Do your students acknowledge and respect your authority as a knowledgeable expert in your field?
Do you have the ability to follow in the footsteps of someone who is like you and has already done the thing you’re trying to do (e.g., another African American female professor in Computer Science)?
Are you included (in email lists, in professional gatherings, etc.) in the chain of communication in your department?
Do you know the admin staff in your department?
Do you have a mentor to talk to about research?
Do you have a mentor to talk to you about teaching?
Have you met with your mentor lately?
Do you have an advocate outside the university who can knowledgeably listen to your experiences without judgment?
Do you think your peer professors view you as a true colleague?
Do you have a group of professors like you with whom you can share your experiences and expect empathy in return?
Do you have the support from your spouse and/or family to handle the workload you’re facing?
Do you know where to find the professional development opportunities to gain the skills you need most?
Does your course evaluation feedback reflect your own opinion of your teaching?
Is your curriculum designed using evidence-based backward design?
Do you have learning outcomes defined for each class/lecture/mentoring meeting?
Are you exercising multiple pedagogical techniques to facilitate active learning?
Is your research following industry-accepted methodologies/statistics?
Do your colleagues respect you for your teaching and/or research strategies?
Have you had a peer-reviewed paper accepted lately?
Have you been recognized lately for exceptional teaching/research/etc.?
Are you contributing positively to your department in terms of curriculum, policy, admin, and decision-making?
Self-Actualization Needs (I haven’t actually reached this point, so these are just guesses!)
Do your peers consult your advice when starting new projects?
Do you easily see areas for improvement and actively engage with improving?
Do you routinely find opportunities to share your knowledge with those more junior than you?
Have those who are more junior than you had major successes because (in part) of your feedback/mentorship?
Are your teaching evaluations glowing?
Have your students and/or peers thrown you a surprise party to show you their appreciation?
Once you have assessed the level of the hierarchy to which you belong, you can use that information to help set reasonable expectations for your performance. These are the expectations I use in my own self-talk, but if you think another expectation fits you better for a given level, feel free to change it! You do you!
Note that you may – strike that, you WILL – transition between levels frequently, though hopefully, your trend line is always positive. You can plummet down to the physiological level from something higher, if, for example, your university-issued computer is stolen or if your child is sick and you stayed up all night playing nurse. You can also rocket up a few levels (for a short time) if something extraordinary happens, like your students throw you a surprise party just because. Okay, that sounds like a dream, but it actually happened to me. I felt like a mess, but there was overwhelming evidence in that moment that “I was enough” so the unmet needs didn’t really matter.
The moral of the story: You are doing the best you can, and you are enough. I hope that this provides you a vocabulary for convincing yourself WHY.