Fifth year math grad student as of this Fall. ABD, currently on target for six years in total.

I have very strong feelings about the way courses should be taught, graded, and organized. I have thought extensively about this issue and experiment with my teaching every chance that I get.

I teach my own course, and spend lots of time on teaching it the right way (according to me). This includes designing my own course plans from scratch, planning engaging lectures, writing my own problem sets, projects, and homework assignments. I also tend to give too much individual attention to students, like holding extra office hours when students have schedule conflicts.

My teaching philosophy is fundamentally at odds with the majority of the lecturers in the department. It makes me feel like a pariah, and privately makes me feel incensed when I see others teaching in a way that I consider unethical. Though I'm not vocal about my disagreements, I have been consistently passed over for teaching awards, despite constant effort, innovation, and shining student evaluations. I wish I didn't care about this.

I know I'm being paid the same as other apathetic TAs who give every lecture off the cuff, assign whichever book problems are easiest to grade, and contribute as little to the education of their students as their contracts will allow. I'm not being paid to be a lecturer, but I'm giving at least a lecturer's effort to this job.

Most importantly, I know that putting this much time, effort, and emotional energy into teaching is taking away from my research. Sometimes I feel terribly guilty after a big exam or project because I realize I haven't even looked at my research in a couple of weeks. My advisor hasn't said anything negative about my progress, but I know I could be doing better.

Every time I try to pull back and adopt a more traditional model, I get depressed and frustrated, because my students aren't learning anything, I'm as bored as they are, and I wonder what the point of my existence even is if I'm just going to give up and be another trash teacher who goes through the motions all day. Especially when I have the ability to be the change I wish to see in academia. (Which maybe isn't my place, but then again, everybody passes the buck, that's why we have this problem.)

How do I get myself to step back and refocus my efforts onto research?

Please note that this differs from this question in that I am not asking whether or not it is possible to balance teaching and research, but specifically on how, emotionally, to scale back a focus on teaching for one who has begun to let it eclipse his research. I know I am making a mental error due to idealism, and I'm trying to figure out how to break out of it.

  • 38
    I wish I could answer 'don't!' We need more people who care about teaching. But sadly that could well harm your career. I was going to say I believe the mathematical community undervalues teaching, but I think the bigger issue is that it undervalues people. Things may be turning though.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 8:11
  • 38
    Have you considered that "caring too much" is merely an underlying symptom of being a perfectionist? While I find your commitment to teaching admirable, there are only so many things that you can do in life. Doing one of these things perfect means that you will have to neglect other parts of your life: e.g. research, relationships, health. There are trade-offs. Being a mediocre teacher means that you will also be a reasonable researcher, have good relationships and be in good health.
    – user74139
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 9:40
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    Make sure that you don't use your enthusiasm for teaching to hide from problems you encounter in your research. Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 10:55
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    I just want to let you know - I strongly identify and sympathize with your situation.
    – alexw
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 18:43
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    @Toby 100 times this. It very much seems like OP is not "caring too much", but is obsessed with things happening her/his way or not at all. This is not a trait that leads to a happy life.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 19:24

7 Answers 7


Superficial solution: Control your behavior with a time budget

Sit down and set priorities for your current life. Your research is probably more important in the long run than the joy you get out of teaching. If you agree with this, set a time budget for each area. E.g. assign 70% of your time for your research and 30% for teaching. Plan your teaching preparation accordingly. If according to this budget you can only spare 2 hours a day for the teaching but making custom exercises takes more, use prepared exercises. Also do not offer additional hours if your daily budget does not allow that. You can use a time tracker software. You may also try to do x hours of research related activities first before you "allow" yourself to spend time on teaching.

In-depth solution: You are not responsible for everyone and nobody will pay you back

It is admirable that you sacrifice yourself for other students. I also had mixed experiences with other tutors and when I became a tutor myself I wanted to do it better and often stayed one or two hours longer to make sure everyone understood the material. It felt like I had an effect on the world and could show them that there are people who care about them. It is a great feeling, BUT...

...will these students help you with your research? Will they give part of their earnings to you when they start working as a thank you for what you have gave them? Probably not. There will be no additional compensation for your excessive commitment. Nobody takes care of you, but you. This is sad, I know, but this is the hard cold reality. Few people care about you, unless they get something out of you.

Additionally the apathy of the tutors is the shared responsibility of the faculty, not yours alone. Don't let your ideals guilt you into feeling responsible for it.

You are not a trash teacher if you do less

The other teachers might have realized the previous point. Sure some just don't care and are trash teachers but maybe some of them, in their hearts, are just as idealistic as you but realized that spending time on their research or with their families is more important for their life and happiness. They are not ascetic monks that devoted their whole life to the "holy cause of teaching". If you realize that they are not bad teachers but just have created boundaries and a healthy work-life balance you will not be afraid to become one of them because you will not be afraid to be seen as someone who does not care about students but just someone who also has limited his working hours to a healthy pensum.

Make small steps to improve your universities teaching standards

Identify the most hindering problem with the easiest solution. Try to focus on one at a time. I don't know how your department works, but maybe you can mention this in a weekly meeting or talk to the head. Unless you are the head of department you most likely can't change the department on your own, small steps is all you can do.

Think about a teaching career

Not sure if this already crossed your mind but would you consider a career in teaching? It may suit your passion, although it might be depressing if this becomes your profession and you are stuck in a apathetic institution that does not value your dedication.

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    I agree with the last part. I think the right solution is to finish your PhD and get a job at an institution where everyone cares about teaching and learning. Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 16:50
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    "There will be no additional compensation for your excessive commitment." Highly disagree. Sure, there's no monetary compensation, nor (necessarily) collaboration on research. Some people value the fact that they helped other people learn/mature/progress in their own lives; OP is clearly this type of person (as they describe themself). However, I do agree wholeheartedly with a teaching career advice. Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 4:46

I think this is an important question, in particular because there are many other math grad students in the situation of valuing their teaching more than their research and experiencing dissonance because of that. Let's try to take things in some kind of logical sequence.

1) It sounds like your goal is to be a faculty member at a college or university devoted more to teaching than research. If so, you should do what you need to do to achieve that goal.

As I said above, a lot of math grad students are in this position. It does not appear to be that confluent with the structure of a math PhD program, which emphasizes research more than teaching, but times have changed and are continuing to change: the amount that teaching is valued is on the rise. You certainly don't need to hide your intentions; on the contrary, you should express them to your mentors and professional associates.

One of the things you probably need to reach that goal is a PhD in mathematics: in the current job market, the number of "teaching jobs" you can get without a PhD is declining rapidly. So what impedes you from getting your PhD is not a path towards your goal. You need to remember that.

Most importantly, I know that putting this much time, effort, and emotional energy into teaching is taking away from my research. Sometimes I feel terribly guilty after a big exam or project because I realize I haven't even looked at my research in a couple of weeks.

The guilt is only productive insofar as it alerts you to something that you want to change. Indeed it does not seem likely that you can make sufficient progress on your thesis research if you drop it completely for two weeks at a time...but it is possible. More to the point, you need to have a concrete, realistic plan for division of labor between teaching and research. It is totally fine for you to devote significantly more time towards teaching than the average student as long as you still have a workable plan for your research. In my opinion (as a math professor who has supervised several PhD students) a student could get away with devoting, say, 15 hours per week to their thesis research...provided they used that time very productively and intelligently.

Another answer begins

Superficial solution: Control your behavior with a time budget

I wholeheartedly agree. It goes on to suggest 70% research, 30% teaching, which sounds about right on average, but for you might be way too little time on your teaching to make you satisfied. Better to do 30% research, 70% teaching and come up with a corresponding plan. (In case you don't know: there are many, many potential academic workplaces that will not care at all about what you proved in your thesis but will care very much that you wrote one.)

2) An important part of good teaching and good collegial behavior about teaching is flexibility. There are many, many ways to be an effective teacher. You write

I have very strong feelings about the way courses should be taught, graded, and organized.

This is a little worrisome to me: in fact you do not have as much teaching experience as most of your future tenure track colleagues, and it may be too soon to have such strong feelings. Much to learn, you still have.

I have thought extensively about this issue and experiment with my teaching every chance that I get.

And that sounds really great to me. In your interactions with others, I would emphasize your thoughtfulness, your experimentation and your willingness to change practices based on what you learned.

My teaching philosophy is fundamentally at odds with the majority of the lecturers in the department. It makes me feel like a pariah, and privately makes me feel incensed when I see others teaching in a way that I consider unethical.

This really concerns me. I find it unlikely that you are really surrounded by people who are ignorant or uncaring about teaching. I find it extremely unlikely that others in your department are teaching in a way that is unethical: that is a very strong accusation. You seem to yourself feel that you are putting too much time and energy into your teaching, perhaps almost to the point of burning yourself out a bit. That cannot be the ideal state.

3) You portray yourself as an unusually excellent teacher. That's great...if you have corroborating evidence.

Though I'm not vocal about my disagreements, I have been consistently passed over for teaching awards, despite constant effort, innovation, and shining student evaluations. I wish I didn't care about this.

Well, I think you should care. Why haven't you won any teaching awards? This is a tough question, but a key one for someone in your position to ask. I would bring it up with your teaching mentor -- I hope you have a teaching mentor -- or with some other trusted faculty mentor. Are there faculty members in the department who think that you are the best, or one of the best, graduate student teachers? You really need to find out. (That your evaluations are "shining" is evidence in that direction, but not definitive.)

Let me say that I have known students who throw themselves into their teaching to the point of getting a bit lost in it and neglecting their research. I had one colleague in grad school for whom I always saw students at her office. I asked her what her office hours were, and she told me that they were M-F 9-5. And she was certainly a good teacher rather than a bad one, but so far as I know she was not one of the top teachers in the department, and she may not have won any teaching awards. This brings me to my last point.

4) Just because you are devoting more time to your students does not guarantee you'll be a better teacher in any sense. Part of being an effective university teacher is dealing successfully with students in the relatively limited interaction time you have with them.

Every time I try to pull back and adopt a more traditional model, I get depressed and frustrated, because my students aren't learning anything, I'm as bored as they are, and I wonder what the point of my existence even is if I'm just going to give up and be another trash teacher who goes through the motions all day.

This really concerns me. "Traditional" teaching is certainly effective if done well. When I teach freshman calculus I do so in a quite traditional way, and the time I spend with students is rather limited. Still they are learning something, and in general neither they or I are bored. I know very few teachers who are "trash" or just "go through the motions."

I strongly suspect that there is some middle path between burnout and trash. I suggest that you search for it (with help from others) and try to walk it. Good luck.

  • 4
    I've come across people who consider chalk-and-talk to be unethical, since research shows that active learning produces better outcomes.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 23:21
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    @Jessica: Even granting that to be true (I think there are many variables in play here), I think that's quite a sloppy use of "unethical." Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 1:24
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    @JessicaB You'd consider anything that isn't optimal unethical? (Or those people would?)
    – sgf
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 9:45
  • @sgf I presume not. I'm not them. But I think the point is knowingly taking actions that potentially have long term negative implications for someone else when you could do otherwise.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 16:45

Some parts of your "caring too much" might be harmful -like getting incensed by the way others teach- but most of it is great, although you need to solve the practical problems it poses to you.

For the "bad" part: Don't worry for issues you can't solve. If you thought you could do something to improve your colleague's teaching, you would be faced with the decision of deciding if it is worth trying, but from your question I guess you think you can't do anything about it. Then worrying about it is not going to do any good to anybody, so you can just stop worrying about what others do and focus on the useful things you can do.

The remaining of your "caring too much" about teaching is great. That is what should be expected from any teacher, although your institution doesn't seem to be encouraging it.

Your problem here is not how to stop caring. Your problem is how to be more efficient to get the good work done in less time. My advice would be to reuse more. It's tempting to start from scratch when preparing a course, but it's a lot more time consuming than reusing some material. Of course, there is still a lot of work in selecting different materials, adapting them, binding them together in a meaningful way, and supplement them where needed. As a comparison with industry, to start making the best possible cars, factories don't need to reinvent the wheel from scratch; they just need to select and improve the technology they use.

In addition, if you are going to teach the same course another year all that work will get reduced to just updating your material, that will be a very smaller work, even if done very properly.

  • 1
    I have created material from scratch when I taught. Students complained they couldn't find the solutions to my problems anywhere, and I think in some way it wasn't as helpful as I meant it to be. Creating from scratch is only worth if there is a substantial benefit to students and whatever was created can be reused.
    – user21264
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 13:31
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    "Students complained they couldn't find the solutions to my problems anywhere" You say this like it's a bad thing...
    – Mangara
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 14:40
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    @Mangara Yes, lazy students will just copy solutions to speed through homework, but the students who actually care will use solutions to double-check their work, find mistakes, and actually learn. When no solutions are available, then you're relying on your TA's... and my experience is that TA's are 50-50 at best for explaining things. My mentality here is that homework isn't the place to check learning - it's the place to learn.
    – Jeutnarg
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 16:58
  • 1
    @Jeutnarg: It depends on what exactly the homework is used for. If it is used for grading, then in my opinion it is indeed a bad thing that some students cheat while others submit only honest own work, and the students have no reason to complain about not finding the solutions anywhere. However, if the homework is ungraded, then I agree that it should be a place to learn, and not just check learning, but I don't see why you say this relies on TAs! Just put out solutions!
    – user21820
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 8:43
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    @Chill2Macht: Did I ever say that students should be asked to submit ungraded homework? I believe the best purpose of homework is for students' optional practice, that they can choose whether to submit or not to get feedback. In my time I have had a few good teachers who did just that.
    – user21820
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 14:56

As a student who has had really terrible professors and amazing TAs, I personally benefitted much more from the TAs. They were enthusiastic and very caring about students' learning and understanding; I was inspired to be a teacher and became passionate about academia as a result.

The way that I think about it is that one really good teacher can inspire a generation of innovators and people who will do good for the world. So for me, that reward is worth the additional effort to do a good job. It sounds like it's worth it for you as well.

So my advice is don't stop caring! Your actual problem is efficiency. Motivational stuff aside, here's some practical information to help make you a more efficient teacher.

Use existing course/lecture materials and adapt them to your needs

I can't emphasize this enough, because this will save you the most time. People have likely been designing course materials around what subject(s) you're teaching for years, and have learned what works and what doesn't. Designing course materials from scratch is admirable and fun (I personally love making unit plans). However, it's a huge waste of time in most cases, as you're reinventing the wheel (something that you should try to avoid in life in general). Instead, take a solid, existing set of materials, and adapt them to be more interesting, engaging for lectures, etc. Bend the materials to your teaching style, and you will save yourself quite a bit of time.

Moreover, writing your own problem sets is also generally a huge waste of time. What's worse, it's actually error-prone! You wouldn't believe how many hours I've wasted answering homework problems, hand-written by my professors, that actually ended up having some small error that made the problem unsolvable or have a non-trivial solution. Please, unless students are asking for additional practice, use existing problem sets!

Some of your colleagues have probably also taught the same course or a similar one, and may have existing materials you could adapt to your course. They may also have very sound advice on what worked and what didn't when they taught the course. Even if they aren't great teachers, you can use their experience to your advantage. Ask around!

Lastly, you'd be surprised how many good Youtube tutorials/lectures there are on all sorts of topics (especially in mathematics). You could link to a few after giving the lecture yourself. A lot of students are too busy taking notes to really let the content sink in and learn it, so providing additional tutorial videos is something that I found very useful. I had one professor make a few Youtube videos on particularly complex aspects of Japanese grammar. It was incredibly helpful because I could rewatch it as many times as I needed to. And, if you're feeling up to having an online presence, you could even make the videos yourself!

Allow students to be self-sufficient - don't baby them

As much as you want to hand-hold students through their learning, you need to allow students to struggle, to make mistakes, and to find solutions on their own. I know it sounds sort of silly, but students are still growing up. When you spoon-feed them what they need to learn, you make it harder for them to be self-sufficient, not only in academia, but in their life in general.

For this reason, interacting with individual students can really be a time-killer, especially for larger classes. Having extra time for office hours can be great, but if you have large classes you will most likely cause more inconvenience to yourself than convenience for the students. So have a little extra time, but don't be the ultra-flexible TA that I get the impression you are, or else you will constantly be swamped with student visits.

Poll students about what they're struggling with, if you sense they need help

I always loved when my professors asked the class what general topics they were struggling with. For example, at the end of each unit, you can ask the class (via email, Google Form, SurveyMonkey, whatever is most convenient) what two things they had a hard time with. Then, based on popular vote, you can revisit the top two topics quickly or give supplemental material (you can make this from scratch if you want).

When professors did this, it was so helpful. In this fashion, you don't hand-hold the students that understand the concepts, while simultaneously providing additional support for those that don't. You also save time preparing materials that half the students won't use.

Use an online forum to allow students to ask questions - to you and their classmates

In a computer science course I took at university, our professor used Piazza. It's gaining quite a bit of popularity, and it's incredibly useful.

Basically, students who are enrolled in the course will have access to a private Q/A; they can ask questions, and other students and you can answer them. You can wait for other students to respond to questions before you do - that will allow students to strengthen their knowledge of the topic by explaining it to someone else, as well as save you time answering every single student question.

While it may take away from the Personal Touch™, you will have far fewer students visiting your office hours, enabling you to work on your research.

I hope that you find this advice useful. This comes from my experience as a student for what helped me the most, as well as some experience teaching students and designing curricula.

  • 1
    Careful with the existing problem sets. Some students like them too much ;) Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 11:51

I empathize with you, because when I was a TA, I also put in a significant amount of extra time and work into being a good TA. For example:

  • I wrote down extra notes to give clear and step by step explanations to the solutions to homework or assignment problems.
  • I even made a few videos on YouTube explaining problem solutions.

I agree with Toby's comment that the root of the problem is that you are a perfectionist with regards to your expectations of yourself as a teacher. In my opinion, it is a big problem if your "teaching fantasy" leads to conflict with other lecturers and TAs. From what you have written in the question, it is clear that you feel angry towards other teachers in your department. You will need to find a healthy way to handle your emotions, so that you can be a warm and friendly colleague, even to teachers who are lazy and "unethical".

To address your question:

How do I get myself to step back and refocus my efforts onto research?

As a first step, I recommend that you think over the words of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

I'm assuming that as a TA, you are responsible to assist a lecturer in teaching a class, but you are NOT responsible for running the class, that is the lecturer's responsibility. If what I assume is correct, then you are taking upon yourself a responsibility that is not your own. Naturally, this leads to conflict, and is a lot of work on your part. If you recognize what is your responsibility, to be a helper and not to be the person in charge, and just strive to do a reasonable job, I think that you will not find yourself to be too busy.

As a second step, I encourage you to make it your goal to be "good enough", rather than trying to be the "best" teacher you could be. No matter how many hours you put into preparing a lesson/tutorial, it will never be perfect. However, it doesn't need to be perfect. The meals that I cook for myself are not the best tasting or most organic meals they could be, but as long as they provide me enough calories so that I don't starve to death, that's good enough. As long as you cover the material that helps students to be adequately prepared for the exams/homework/projects, you've done enough.

Third, I recommend that you direct your motivation for improving your teaching into making small changes each year to what has be done before, rather than trying to make huge changes like reworking the class from scratch. If you can change one or two things from each year to year, your teaching will be getting incrementally better over time.

Finally, spend a lot of time and emotional energy on your research. You really do need to do that in order to do your research well, so that you will be teaching at university for the long haul.

I wish you all the best!

  • 1
    Wanting students to actually learn something is not being a perfectionist.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 23:15
  • 1
    @JessicaB If the class is not really poorly designed, I think that say 2 hours of preparation time is enough to give a "good enough" 1-hour tutorial, such that students will learn something. I get the impression that the OP wants to help students to learn as much as is possible within their class time, rather than just "learning something". Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 5:30

Get a Hobby

To add a somewhat different answer and opinion. If you want to care less about your students and teaching, or even simply be able to step back a little, I found that the best way is to care about something else.

It's perfectly acceptable for anybody and everybody to spend time and effort on something else than your job. At the end of the day, no matter how passionate you are about it, being a teacher is just your job. You should try to find something other than math that you can care, be it a sport, a game or even spending more time with your family and friends and caring more about their lives.

You will probably stay very passionate about maths and teaching because that just seems to be the kind of person you are. However every time you start feeling "depressed and frustrated", don't hesitate to take a break from it all and do something totally unrelated.

On a side note I would like to mention that you may teach and get closer to some students or teachers through hobbies. I've had great interactions with some teachers through our mutual passion in chess.


I agree with your issues with academia. Hate the US college system with all emphasis on fluff and prestige and research rather than on TRAINING students. I think things are much better in the military, sports, or business. When you are teaching someone carrier landings, it matters that they learn.

But all that said, you are NOT a teacher. You are a student. You need to accomplish the primary mission. Your research.

And in addition to caring about the students too much, you are not caring about your research enough. With teaching you get immediate rewards and have immediate tasks. With research it is much easier to spin your wheels for weeks and do nothing and no one can tell immediately. But you need to take control and get it done. Remember the Ph.D. is a pass/fail grade! Just get the sucker done. You are at five years. Write up your results and graduate.

  • If you have a class to teach, you are a teacher. If you don't want to be a teacher or don't have the time to teach properly, you should stop teaching.
    – Pere
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 16:22

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