Pandemic teaching was only supposed to last a few months, but we’re now almost two years in, and this term seems to be particularly difficult. The years-long accumulation of extra work and stress has led many faculty to experience extreme exhaustion and negative impacts on their physical and mental health, motivation, and productivity—otherwise known as burnout.
You’re now being asked to make a transition to in-person teaching after starting the term online, and as you get ready to return to the classroom, I hope that these five reminders help you counter burnout and get through this challenging and uncertain term.
1. This term does not define who you are as an instructor
You have been given a very difficult teaching situation this term. Teaching during a global pandemic is challenging enough in itself, but being asked to start a course online and then pivot to in-person adds a whole other level of challenge, as these two formats require different teaching technologies, pedagogies, and approaches.
As you navigate this transition, you might find that you need to make some awkward instructional decisions that don’t completely align with your personal standards for teaching. As a result, students might not all have the same experience or the experience that you ideally want them to have—and that’s okay. Teaching this term is going to be messy, uncomfortable, and a bit chaotic, but this is not your fault. We are living in unprecedented times, and you are doing your best to deal with circumstances that are outside of your control.
2. Your own wellbeing is just as important as your students’
In the last decade there has been a growing call to pay attention to students’ wellbeing, as there should be. We’ve come to realize that students’ wellbeing is connected to their ability to learn, and this has been especially apparent throughout the pandemic. This emphasis on students’ wellbeing is great, but what often gets left out of the conversation is the importance of instructors’ wellbeing on their ability to teach and serve students.
Taking care of yourself and your own wellbeing is more important than ever this term. If not, then you’re going to burn out and your ability to be there for others, including students, will be diminished. Also, when you attend to your own wellbeing you are modeling this practice for your students and giving them permission to do the same. You are just as much a part of the course as the students, and your wellbeing is just as important as theirs.
3. You can change things as you go
If you find that something in the course is not working well or is resulting in too much work for you or your students, you have the power to change it. You’ve already been asked to make changes to your course this term with the initial pivot to online teaching and now to in-person, and it’s okay to make additional changes if they will improve the experience of you or your students. This includes adapting course policies and cancelling or modifying/scaling down class sessions, activities, or assignments if needed.
The key is to be clear and honest when explaining to students why you are making the change, and don’t be afraid to include your own needs in the rationale. So often we leave ourselves out of our course decisions, but our own experience and the impact on us as instructors is important and should be considered. Sharing how something about the course is impacting you could also be a way to connect with students on a personal level and build mutual empathy and rapport.
4. Perfect is the enemy of good
This was the guiding principle for the 2020 emergency switch to remote teaching, and this is still the case. In fact, this is always the case. Perfect is unattainable and striving for perfection is a recipe for overwork and disappointment. There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations for yourself, but it’s also important to make sure that your expectations are realistic and allow for a healthy work-life balance.
Tasks often expand to fill as much time as you’ll give them, so it can be helpful to decide how much time you want to spend on something before you start and then stop working on it after that time has elapsed. It’s also important to learn to recognize when something is good enough—at a certain point there are diminishing returns for the continued time and effort you put into working on something.
5. You can ask for help
If you find that you’re working an unreasonable number of hours, feeling overwhelmed, or are experiencing adverse mental or physical effects (e.g., excessive anxiety or sadness, headaches, insomnia), it might be a sign that you need some help. This could be in the form of an additional TA or peer tutor to help you with the teaching aspects of the course. It could also be having someone help you find ways to reduce the amount of work you have (e.g., streamline marking), manage your time, deal with a difficult situation, or just listen.
If you’re struggling, please reach out to the Associate Head or a trusted colleague to let them know—you’ll find that there are a lot of resources and support available to help you with your teaching, professional, and personal needs. I’m also always here to support you in case you’d like to talk though anything.
The big picture
If teaching is a marathon with each mile representing a term, then the last several terms have been a particularly challenging stretch of the journey. You may have many more miles ahead, and if you burn yourself out now you’ll diminish the energy and motivation you have for subsequent terms, ultimately hurting you and your students.
It’s okay to downshift a bit now during the difficult stretch so that you are able to maintain the energy and motivation needed to continue on when the path becomes more stable. This doesn’t make you any less student-centred; on the contrary, you’ll be better positioned to be there for your students if you’re doing well yourself.
So, please be kind to yourself this term, and when you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember: this term does not define who you are as an instructor, your own wellbeing is just as important as your students’, you can change things as you go, perfect is the enemy of good, and you can ask for help.
Looking for more information, guidance, and tools to help you counter burnout this term? Check out this self-paced course available to all UBC faculty and staff: Preventing Burnout: Managing stress, emotions and our tendency to give