Small Teaching Tip #9

Self-Care Strategies for Faculty

For most faculty (and students), the end of the semester is an exhausting race to the finish.  Endless cups of coffee, maybe even a Red Bull or two, sustain you through grading marathons and conversations with students that begin with “I really need an A.”  Once you surface for a breath of fresh “I just submitted final grades” air, I encourage you to think seriously about instructor burnout and self-care.

Self-care is not limited to expensive spa retreats, Pilates classes, and bubble baths.  It simply refers to practices that enhance your physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing.  This may mean snuggling with your pet or child, baking 6 dozen cookies to give to colleagues, going for a lunch-time run, or playing Dungeons and Dragons when you get home from work.  Self-care also means implementing rituals and practices that make your life easier, such as time-management strategies.  Here are a few ideas for the overworked and exhausted faculty member.

Examine how you spend your time

Have you ever kept a log of how you spend your time each day?  I know what you’re thinking (“No, Jessica, I haven’t because I don’t have time!”) but since many of our habits are both unconscious and unproductive, it’s actually a useful exercise to determine where your precious time goes.  For example, how long are you really spending scrolling through Facebook in the evenings on the couch?  After completing your time inventory, you may be surprised by how many pockets of your day could be better spent.

Brainstorm ways you could eliminate those time-sucks or reimagine them.  For example, if you have a weekly meeting with a colleague, would it be possible to go for a walk rather than sitting in an office or conference room? (read about the benefits of a walk-and-talk)  For those who are easily distracted while using your computer, try an application that monitors your time, such as Rescue Time.  If you’re watching too many cat videos on YouTube, this app will tell you.

After completing an inventory of my own time, I started setting limits on how long I could spend on mundane tasks and setting a timer on my phone.  When that timer goes off, I must wrap up what I’m doing and move on.  I also find it useful to use Steven Covey’s time management grid, which characterizes tasks based on urgency and importance (refer to the image below).

Whatever the results of your own time inventory, make it a priority to reduce tasks in quadrants III and IV, delegate what you can, and create rituals that will help you stay focused on quadrants I and II.

Stephen Covey's Time Management Grid

Stephen Covey’s Time Management Grid. Image via Bruce Mayhew


Give the Pomodoro Method a try

As a chronic procrastinator, I have the bad habit of allowing grading to pile up until it becomes so overwhelming that I actually move through the stages of grief.  One of the contributors to procrastination is facing a task so large or complex that we don’t know how to start.  Feeling overwhelmed prevents us from taking action.

The Pomodoro Method seeks to remedy this by asking practitioners to break down tasks into manageable chunks and take regularly scheduled breaks.  When I first heard about this technique, I immediately thought it could make the grading process less painful.  So how do you begin?

First, set specific goals for what you want to achieve.  In the case of grading, maybe it’s “by Friday, I will grade 20 of my 40 research papers.”  Given your goal, how many pomodoros do you need (pomodoros = 25-minute segments)?  Perhaps you typically devote 15 minutes to each student’s paper.  That means you’ll need 12 pomodoros to reach your goal.

Next, set your timer for 25 minutes and work in a distraction-free setting.  When the timer rings, you must take a short break.  It’s required.  Get a cup of coffee; walk a loop around your neighborhood; play with your pet.  When you return, set the timer for your second pomodoro.  After four pomodoros, you must take a longer break (30 minutes is recommended).  Go for a run; cook dinner; watch an episode of a favorite TV show.  Maintain this cycle until you reach your goal.  If you have tasks remaining, set a new goal and determine how many pomodoros you still need.

Although not revolutionary, this technique can result in greater productivity by encouraging us to set concrete goals, commit to short segments of concentration, and take regular “brain breaks.”

Respond to students efficiently

One of the constant complaints faculty make about students is that they don’t listen.  They repeatedly ask questions that have been answered in class, in OAKS, in the syllabus, etc.  Thus, faculty waste a lot of time answering the same questions again and again.  It’s time to end this madness!

My first suggestion is to establish an “ask three, then me” policy.  This policy states that students should consult three sources before contacting the professor.  Those sources could be the syllabus, OAKS, classmates, the textbook, etc.  Explain to students that you will not respond to emails if the answer to their question is readily available from other sources.  As long as you have clearly explained this policy to students (and remind them of it multiple times), this isn’t as cruel as it may sound.  It has worked wonders in my own classes, promoting student self-sufficiency and initiative.

One way to encourage students to help one another is to set up a “course lounge” discussion board inside OAKS (for those who have taken our Distance Education Readiness Course, this should sound familiar).  This discussion board serves as a space for students to ask questions related to the course, such as due dates, clarifying instructions, and logistical issues.  You will find students are often willing to jump in and answer one another’s questions.

If a student asks you a question via email that the rest of the class could benefit from hearing the answer, tell that student to post their question and your reply in the discussion board.  And if you receive multiple emails about the same problem, rather than replying to each student individually, post the answer in the discussion board (or in the News tool).  If you’re not a fan of the OAKS discussion tool, there are countless other ways to facilitate the “course lounge” concept, including Slack, Realtime Board, Trello, and Facebook groups.

Make self-care a priority

When we’re facing a giant stack of student papers or a looming manuscript deadline, it’s easy for us to abandon self-care practices.  But when we’re stressed and overwhelmed, self-care is essential.  Make your mental and physical health a priority and schedule it like you would a dentist appointment.  It’s non-negotiable.  This may require you to say “no” to people from time to time (easier said than done, I know. But your health comes first).

Remember that self-care practices don’t need to be expensive, time-consuming, or elaborate.  For example, when writing, set a timer to go off every hour and walk around the campus (when was the last time you realized how beautiful CofC is?).  Or, establish a policy of not responding to emails past 9:00PM (and stick to it!).  Or, keep healthy snacks in your office to prevent you from either going too long without sustenance or stress-eating Cheez-Its by the boxful.

Self-care isn’t all-or-nothing.  Every practice makes an impact on your health.  Start small and work simple techniques into your daily life.  When one practice becomes habitual, incorporate something else.  While self-care will not eliminate stress, it will set you on a path towards greater vitality and job satisfaction.

If you’re interested in more productivity tips and apps, check out our session “Tips and Tools for the Busy Professor” on February 15th at 2:00 PM

This post is part of a series which presents low risk, high reward teaching ideas, inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.

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