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NEA News

In Search of 'Thriving' in Higher Education

The pandemic and other factors have exhausted faculty. What measures can we take to thrive in the academy?
Illustration of tulip leaves with smiling computer screens on their stems
Published: May 23, 2023

Thriving in Academe is a joint project of NEA and the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education ( For more information, contact the editor, Larissa Pires ( ) at Georgia Southern University or Mary Ellen Flannery ([email protected]) at NEA.

Mays Imad, Bryan Dewsbury and Stephanie M. Foote are facilitators of the Teaching Learning Academy. Imad is an assistant professor of physiology and equity pedagogy at Connecticut College. Dewsbury is an associate professor of biology at Florida International University where he also is an associate director of the STEM Transformation Institute. Foote is the vice president for teaching, learning, and evidence-based practices at the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence and Undergraduate Education and Lecturer at Stony Brook University.

Over the past three years, we have asked hundreds of faculty to share with us, the facilitators of the Teaching and Learning Academy, their feelings about any aspect of their practices. Over and over, we have read the words “exhaustion” and “overwhelm,” and we commiserate. Given the ongoing challenges in adapting instruction to the new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, we understand how faculty have been feeling burnt out and overburdened over the last few years. In our roles as faculty developers, we feel the same way.

Bryan Dewsbury
Bryan Dewsbury

Yet, despite these difficulties, educators continue to show up and engage in professional development activities, like our monthly meetings, because they care deeply about their students and their profession. We celebrate them! Clearly, our colleagues in our monthly Virtual Community of Practice (VCOP) are pushing through, despite the many, and often traumatic, experiences they and their students have, and continue to, encounter. It is important to note that while the past three years were tough on everyone in higher education, the impact has disproportionately affected faculty and students from historically marginalized backgrounds (Njoku & Evans, 2022; Carrasco, 2022). 

With this realization, we ask ourselves: What can faculty do to move beyond surviving towards healing, growth, and ultimately thriving? Furthermore, what does it mean to thrive, why does it matter, and what is the relationship to teaching, learning, and wellbeing? 

Photo of Stephanie Foote
Stephanie Foote

In this piece, we begin to wrestle with these questions and reflect on the conditions that foster individual and collective growth. We ponder these issues because we believe that moving towards healing, growth, and thriving is a human right and should be the goal for all educators, especially those who have experienced trauma and challenges.


What is Thriving and What Does it Matter?

To thrive in life is not only marked by feelings of happiness, or a sense of accomplishment, or having supportive and rewarding relationships, but is a collection of all these aspects,” writes Su et al. (2014). That is, thriving is a holistic experience or process that encompasses various dimensions of our lives. It involves not just happiness and success, but also feelings of connection, purpose, and growth, and having meaningful and fulfilling relationships with others. 

Mays Imad
Mays Imad

In the context of teaching and learning, Schreiner (2010) describes “thriving students'' as those “who are fully engaged intellectually, socially, and emotionally.” When students are thriving, they experience community and psychological well being, which contributes to their persistence towards graduation, and “allows [them] to gain maximum benefit from being in college.” With this in mind, we posit that thriving educators are better able to create the kinds of environments in which students also thrive. 

To thrive we, like students, must establish connections and community, practice compassion, and find purpose (Pope-Ruark, 2022). We must move beyond focusing on barriers, and instead design learning opportunities that allow students and faculty to experience life and learning more abundantly. As we move forward, we consider the ways in which we can help ourselves and those we support. Here are some ideas we offer all educators who want to thrive in the academy:

  1. Thriving and emotional wellbeing are intertwined and possibly mutually reinforcing. When we are emotionally healthy, we are better equipped to pursue our goals, engage with our colleagues, and navigate the challenges around us. In turn, this contributes to a greater sense of thriving. Recognize that teaching and learning are not just intellectual processes, but also emotional ones, prioritize and look for support for your own emotional wellbeing. Finding sources for this type of support can be challenging but connecting (or reconnecting) with communities (e.g., professional or academic groups you have engaged with previously), former colleagues and mentors can be a place to begin. 
  2. Thriving in the context of teaching not only involves emotional wellbeing but can also involve innovative approaches to pedagogy and practice. Embracing innovation in practice can contribute to our own professional vitality, which, in turn, can help us avoid burnout (Pope-Ruark, 2022). To that end, we invite you to experiment with new teaching methods and technologies to engage your students and improve their learning outcomes. There are myriad resources to inspire innovation in pedagogical approaches, but one of the often-overlooked resources are our own colleagues, including VITAL (visitors, instructors, teaching assistants, adjuncts, and lecturers) faculty.  
  3. Thriving and celebrating success are also interconnected. Sharing your successes and challenges with your peers can contribute to the collective knowledge of excellence in teaching and learning. When we celebrate small successes, we are nourishing the emotional wellbeing of educators, which contributes to a life-long and growth-focused learning mindset, and enhances the overall sense of thriving. We are acknowledging the complexity of the journey which is important for a thriving educational experience.
  4. Thriving and advocating for others helps us feel a sense of purpose and connection and pushes us to look outside ourselves. When we engage in advocacy, we actively work to support and promote the wellbeing and rights of others, often in areas where they may be marginalized or disadvantaged. 
  5. Thriving requires rest as it allows our body and mind to recover, recharge, and function optimally, which is essential for personal growth and success. When we are well-rested, we are better equipped to process our experiences, emotions, and thoughts in a more holistic manner, promoting a more balanced sense of self. Moving forward, be intentional about making space for rest.


Darkness can be ironically illuminating. By attending to its causes, we learn the lessons needed to chart new futures. The journey we have taken in our work with faculty over the last three years emblemizes a pedagogy and education support structure that is not static and prescriptive in its framing. Rather, it is respectful and inclusive of the nuanced and ever evolving ways in which human beings wrestle with the barriers of our time. In this moment, we must remember that our everyday pedagogies are not divorced from our emotional beings, and in that vein, we focus, as educational developers, on creating conditions that will support thriving for faculty, and in turn, for students.


Carrasco, M. (2022). COVID disproportionately impacted Black and Latino students. Inside Higher Ed

Njoku, A., & Evans, M. (2022). Black women faculty and administrators navigating COVID-19, social unrest, and academia: Challenges and strategies. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(4).

Pope-Ruark, R. (2022). Unraveling faculty burnout: Pathways to reckoning and renewal. Johns Hopkins Press.

Schreiner, L. (2010). The “thriving quotient”: A new vision for student success. About Campus, 15(2), 2-10.

Su, R. Tay, L., & Diener, E. (2014). The development and validation of the comprehensive inventory of thriving (CIT) and the brief inventory of thriving (BIT). Applied Psychological Health and Wellbeing, 6(3), 251-279.

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