February 19, 2021

Dear CNS Instructors,

Wow, a third of the way through what I hope is the last semester teaching during a pandemic. For this week’s teaching tip, I am re-tweeting a tip from Tom Dunn, the CLA MTI Coordinator.  I looked up some additional articles addressing Avoiding Teacher Burnout that I found in the Faculty Focus.  This week was fairly stressful for me.  I am feeling a bit behind on my grading and other non-teaching projects and my email client decided it does not like to play nice with the Exchange server.  I could make my life easier by just focusing on what I must do and not take on other projects.  On the flip side, these other projects and collaborations are really what keep me going.  The key is to find some sort of balance, especially with non-work relationships and endeavors. I hope I get there before I die.

Tom Dunn’s teaching tip is based on an article by regular Chronicle advice contributor Flower Darby in her article “8 Strategies to Prevent Teacher Burnout.” You can access it here with a subscription or sign-in using your CSU credentials through the Morgan Library.

The article has a few flaws–I’m not a fan of advice that says to both keep things simple and that asks you to completely reimagine your teaching–but if we cherry pick from the article, there are some gems that I hope will be of help. Some of the highlights of the article that I thought were the most helpful:

  • “Keep it simple. It’s easier on you and promotes equity. Last fall the move to remote and online teaching produced a frenzy of advice on how to engage students online. Many professors, however, ended up using new tools and techniques that were more complex — and thus, more stressful to use — than necessary. You can teach a good, engaging online class with low-tech approaches. Even better, low-tech and simple means a more equitable experience for students.”
  • “Hit pause, or build in breaks from the get-go. If, at some point this spring, you find yourself at wit’s end, call a timeout. Cancel Zoom sessions and plan only asynchronous online activities that week. That can work really well on the fly, if needed, but why not build in Zoom pauses in your course schedule? Once or twice during the semester, create asynchronous-only weeks. Alert students to those Zoom-free dates upfront.”
  • “Schedule wisely. Don’t plan a schedule for just your students; plan one for yourself — and stick to it. Block out time during your workweek for grading, sending announcements, creating class materials (PowerPoints, assignments, quizzes), holding virtual “office” hours, and responding to discussion posts. Try to keep teaching duties from bleeding into the evenings and weekends. Carve out time to unplug and recharge.”
  • “Be as candid as you can with students. Falling behind on grading? Did something unexpected come up? Tell your students, with an appropriate level of disclosure about the exact circumstances. Most important, tell them how you plan to catch up. Students know that life happens, and are often very understanding — assuming you explain when you expect to be back on track. This gives you some breathing room while supporting your students through open communication.”

These tips may just be enough to help ease up on the continual drumbeat of another weighty semester of teaching.

The first Faculty Focus article titled “Avoiding Burnout: Self-Care Strategies for Faculty” by Camille Freeman and Bevin Clare provides some additional means to focus on your own well being without compromising your teaching.  I particularly endorse eating dark chocolate.

Here are their top tips:
  1. Examine how you spend your time and energy: Which work-related tasks or activities leave you feeling energized or excited? Which feel like unnecessary chores rather than positive contributions? Next year, prioritize the aspects of your job that build you up or represent an important contribution to the field. Minimize tasks that drain or deplete your energy without commensurate benefit. Cultivate the art of saying “no” in order to focus on what’s important to you.
  2. Check your rhythm: Circadian rhythms allow us to anticipate and respond efficiently to environmental changes. Creating a degree of predictability in your schedule can help align your internal clock. While it’s rare for an academic to have a “normal” day, you can control some aspects of your schedule. Waking up and going to bed at about the same time each day will help to synchronize your body clock. Similarly, eating and exercising at predictable times both support this process. Many people feel more energetic and productive when they follow these basic guidelines.
  3. Rethink course design: While we all strive to have engaging and interactive courses, doing so can be quite time consuming. Use creative course design strategies and tools to provide engaging experiences for students without taking up a disproportionate amount of your time. For example, use a simple audio recording tool to provide feedback instead of typing your comments. If your school’s LMS doesn’t provide an audio feedback tool, Vocaroo and VoiceThread make great options. Students appreciate the personal approach, and providing verbal feedback takes far less time than generating written comments. Also, consider using peer-to-peer review with select activities to allow students to get supplemental feedback without adding to your workload.
  4. Refine your daily workflow: Are you getting bogged down with e-mails? Watching deadlines zoom by? Putting your own health on the back burner? The start of a new semester is the perfect time to change your default pattern. We suggest making one or more of the following small changes next semester. Consider using a service that delivers e-mails a few times per day rather than trying to work through the persistent interruptions of new emails arriving in your inbox. Some apps will also turn off notifications on weekends or after hours. Use an electronic “to do” list like Todoist or Wunderlist to organize reminders and deadlines. Many of our nutrition clients find that using Google or Outlook calendar scheduling and reminders is a good way to prioritize a daily walk, meditation, or a quick stretch.
  5. Evaluate your food and fuel: Food can drag you down or prop you up. Step away from your desk periodically for a snack and be sure to choose one that is nourishing as well as invigorating. Good choices include a piece of dark chocolate; nuts and seeds (especially walnuts); berries; or foods with spicy, sour, or tangy flavors. Preliminary evidence even suggests that chocolate may be associated with cognitive enhancement (Scholey & Owen, 2013). (You can thank us later.) As nutritionists, one of the most common things we see is unhealthy or mindless snacking. Avoid snacking at your desk while you’re doing other things. Use your snack break to get outdoors or connect with your colleagues while you nourish yourself.

The second Faculty Focus article by Scott Gabriel encourages building and partaking in teaching communities.  I feel CSU and TILT in particular has done a great job assembling venues for faculty to obtain professional development and collaborate on their teaching.  The author discusses lack of time leading to isolation as a key cause of instructor burnout.  Lack of resources can also lead to burnout.  However, Gabriel argues that misalignment of instructor and institutional values drives disengagement leading to the bulk of burnout.  For me, this circles back to approaches for developing a more inclusive environment at a research-intensive university for faculty focused on the teaching mission as well as the research mission of this land grant institution.

Take some well-earned time to pursue one of your other passions and stay warm.

Cheers, Paul

Paul Laybourn (he/him/his)
Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Director, W2R S-STEM Program
Director, NoCo B2B Program
Director, REU Site in Molecular Biosciences