The quote “Stress blocks learning” with a pencil next to it.
The quote “Stress blocks learning” with a pencil next to it.
“Educational Postcard: ‘Stress blocks learning’” by Ken Whytock is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

We must stop using rewards and punishments in order to motivate our students.

I have believed this for years, but I have never felt it so strongly as last week, when I discussed intrinsic motivation with my community college English composition students.

My Zoom class of 27 understood and could vocalize the concept of intrinsic motivation, but when I asked for a specific example, the previously talkative class went quiet. In the chat, someone typed, “Professor, it’s too hard.” Someone else suggested that perhaps sleeping was an example of intrinsic motivation.

“No,” I replied. “It’s something that is hard work, but you love doing it. The hard work actually makes you happy and satisfied.” …

I used to have a folder on my computer called “rubrics,” which contained over a dozen variations of rubrics for each writing class I taught. Some were point-based, others descriptive, such as the one below. I worked hard to craft these rubrics, taking care to make the language accessible and precise. If I could bottle all of the time and energy I have spent over the years revising and retweaking these rubrics, I could probably power a rocket to Mars.

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The final version of my rubric, which I threw away.

About five years ago, I took that rubrics folder and dragged it into my trash bin on my Mac. The computer made that satisfying crumpling sound as it swallowed up all of those years of work. And then I sat and looked at my empty desktop, feeling definitely more free than I had previously. …

Like many teachers, I have spent countless hours trying to devise a perfect grading system, one that is equal parts fair and rigorous, that will reward students for hard work and punish certain behaviors that I saw as detrimental to my students’ progress. For twenty years I worked on this, tweaking certain policies, changing the weight of various assignments, assigning extra points for this or that. Sometimes, after revising my grading system, I ended up with a system much like the one I had scrapped two years before. Though it had long seemed to be a fruitless task, I kept working at it. …

A few years ago, the California State University (CSU) system decided to drop Introduction to Literature as a graduation requirement for its students. Shortly thereafter, our college and many other California community colleges followed suit. As a consequence of this change, students would go through their entire college education with no study of literature. Since our college dropped Introduction to Literature as a requirement, the enrollment for this course has been steadily declining, and most likely, the course will eventually go away.

I protested at the time, and wrote letters, and even had students write letters attesting to the value of studying literature. They wrote beautiful things about how literature had changed them, how certain stories and poems had impacted their relationship with family members and with themselves. But the curriculum committee at my school argued that we couldn’t have an extra requirement that the transfer institutions did not have. The idea was that we should not put up extra barriers to students seeking a degree. I suspect that beneath the CSU decision was the belief that the study of literature wasn’t really “necessary” — -that it was something nice but superfluous. …

I share this essay written by my wonderful student Elisa Castillo so that we can learn from her wisdom how to be happy in these trying times.

— Jennifer Hurley

We were created to be happy. The whole purpose of our life journey is to find happiness and peace within. Having control of our happiness is essential for our life. We dedicate our life to search for success and money, in order to be happy, but true happiness is beyond accomplishments or wealth; it is something we cannot touch.

True happiness is within, but most of us try to outsource it. If we stop and ask ourselves, can we be happy regardless of our circumstances?, most of us will find this question irrelevant. We concentrate on working hard to be successful and have enough money. But being successful and having money are the rewards of our hard work, which can give us commodities and enjoyment, but it is not a true happiness. I strongly believe that we can control our happiness, but yet we struggle to be happy. …

Perhaps I jinxed myself when, at the beginning of 2020, I announced to my husband that my word of 2020 was “slow.” Since the coronavirus, slow has become an inescapable reality. There is no traffic to battle, no hallways to rush down, no clutch of students waiting outside my classroom door. There is no yoga class to attend, no shopping to do (save for toilet paper), no events to plan for aside from the daily walking of the dogs.

So here we are in the land of slow, against our will, in opposition to our plans — and this unplanned slowness could go on for weeks, maybe months. Here is the true test of our patience, a type of enforced meditation that might help us rethink how we are living our lives in non-coronavirus times. …

The logic of student learning outcomes is so unimpeachable that I’ve hesitated to challenge it, even in my own mind. How could we possibly find fault with a system designed to help us set and evaluate goals for our teaching? There is something pleasingly tidy about the idea that we could do such a thing. But like most “good ideas” in education, the implementation of outcomes in a classroom of actual human beings is where things go awry.

In the community college English courses I teach, my students are all over the map in terms of their abilities and background knowledge. One student is comfortably using the word “divergent,” while another student, an English language learner, is puzzling over the dictionary definition of “damage.” Clearly, it’s impossible for both of these students to attain the same learning goals within a semester, and I would argue that if they did learn the same thing, it would be clear evidence that I was a terrible teacher. …

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that reading saved my life. I was born prematurely, with undeveloped lungs, and I was not expected to survive. In the middle of the night — this was February, in Maryland — I was taken by helicopter to a bigger hospital and put into an incubator. When I survived, I was not expected to develop intellectually. So my mother read to me. She read to me day after day, and I feel like all of this reading must have saved my mind.

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During my childhood, I read like a parched person seeking water. I read under the covers by flashlight. I read lying down in the very back of my parents’ Oldsmobile station wagon, in the era before seat belt laws. Once, a teacher caught me reading during her lesson and made me write “I will pay attention in class” a thousand times as punishment. …

A new semester is about to begin, and already I feel the overwhelm. I feel it in my body: a tightness in my throat and jaw. So many students, so many emails, so many tasks — giant and minute — to manage. As an introvert, teaching often feels to me like a maelstrom, out of which I emerge at the end of the semester drenched and shivering and in deep need of repair.

I think my students feel this way, too. My students often tell me that in school there is just too much to be done. Some have said that the workload of college creates paralysis, where the number of tasks is so daunting that the only thing to be done is to turn on Netflix and start bingeing. I admit that I have done this, too, when faced with over a hundred essays demanding my feedback. …

Recently, I’ve witnessed several beautiful teachers walk away from teaching. I felt very sad and also a little jealous. Imagine how free I might feel without teaching! And then there are the teachers who do not walk away from teaching but become more embittered with every year. I always swore I would never be like that. But I don’t blame any of these teachers or former teachers. Teaching is hard on the soul. And it’s especially hard in our culture of achievement, where so often learning is confused with performance.

I confused those two concepts for the first ten years of my teaching. I had expectations of how I thought my students should act and what they should do to be considered a “good student.” Such expectations only led me to overwhelming stress and exhaustion. There was a time about ten years ago when the stress of teaching actually made me physically ill, and during this time I remember a particular moment. I was teaching a class on Banned Books, and we were reading Lolita. The students hated the book, and I could not get them to engage about it. I tried everything I could to coax them into discussion. Nothing was working. It was 8pm on a Tuesday night, and I looked out into my class and saw that only a few students even had their books open. I felt a mixture of rage and defeat, and there was nothing to do but dismiss the class. I left the room in utter shame, my brain confused and my body consumed by its mysterious pains. …


Professor Jennifer Hurley

Jennifer Hurley has taught literature, composition, and critical thinking at Ohlone College since 2001. See more of her writing at

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