Regroup and Refocus: Strategies to Avoid Professor Burn Out

Teacher lays head on arm on desk with colorful chalkboard behind him

It’s already the end of the semester! The shiny back-to-school dust has settled and we have all been rotating through our new COVID-complicated school routines. Most of the students and professors agree that it was better to be back on campus, even with the restrictions and quieter than usual hallways. For the most part, everyone is completing their daily COVID checks, wearing colorful masks, and trying to be more aware of their surroundings. The gears of college seem to be moving forward and learning hasn’t fallen off the wheels. But, if you pause and listen to the rumblings, there is a different message being shared.

Professors are burning out. Anxiety levels are at elevated levels, even among those who aren’t typically anxious. Planning more than a week out seems a risky undertaking. A disproportionate amount of time is spent searching for the best ways to engage students in Zoom sessions while also engaging in face-to-face sessions. We are forced to balance flexibility and understanding while maintaining high academic standards. We have to seek ways to foster student conversation both virtually and in person. This is difficult amongst the unusually quiet students; even the students who were chatty in previous semesters are more reserved now. We have restructured our course content to embed digital collaboration and authentic conversations. We’ve been tasked with checking on the mental health of our students—from seniors who are losing out on practicum experiences and questioning what their post-graduation plans will be to first-year students who are struggling more than normal to adjust to college life to commuters with hectic schedules and nowhere to set-up on campus.

Teaching isn’t our only responsibility. All the while, professors are dealing with research and service duties. Our research agendas have been adjusted to include COVID-related topics because publications have pivoted their focus. Journal articles that were previously accepted pre-COVID have been put on the back burner. In order to keep up with research demands for tenure/promotion, we need to pivot as well. Many of us have had to step up to teach more courses because university budgets are suffering. We join committee meetings via Zoom after a solid day of teaching classes that are larger than they’ve been in the past. It’s not just work that is stressing us out. Professors have family responsibilities, which may include taking care of sick loved ones and/or educating young children in some version of hybrid school or homeschooling. Balancing one’s schedule is more hectic now than it ever was. It literally feels like there is not enough time in the day. With every text, email, or phone call our stress levels grow exponentially higher.

So, the question is, “Now what?” Educators routinely rise to the occasion, adapting and excelling in high stress situations. One only has to glance back over the last eight months to see the art of teaching at its finest! The success stories are out there—you are one of them!  But educators are terrible at taking care of themselves. We put everyone else first.  As we move from the fall semester into the winter and spring semesters, we need to focus on our mental health. Below are some recommendations for moving from surviving to thriving:

  1. Collaborate. Identify a colleague who can be your support system. You need someone who you can complain with (for a brief period of time) and help motivate each other to keep going. We are reinventing the wheel, but you don’t have to do it alone. Maybe your colleague has already found a great fix for getting students to be more interactive in a Zoom session. Use your resources!
  2. Practice self-care. Carve out at least one afternoon where you don’t work—not grading, replying to emails, or planning lessons. Try to unplug altogether! Reclaim your weekend. Spend time with your family (and possibly friends in a quarantine-appropriate way).
  3. Gather feedback. Ask for feedback from your students. Even a quick poll in class can help you find out what is working and not working for them in this virtual or hyflex environment. They are on the receiving end and could have some good ideas that you hadn’t thought of. 
  4. Say no. If you are already spread too thin, don’t feel obligated to join every committee or additional activity. Be selective in which things you choose to commit. 
  5. Research. Although it is difficult, maintain your research agenda. Keep collecting data and carving out time to write. COVID will eventually end…but your tenure clock is still counting down. Adjust your goals—but keep fidelity with your vision.
  6. Exercise compassion. Show students and colleagues a little grace. Remember, we are all in the same boat. We are all overstressed and overwhelmed. You might not have all the information about someone’s home life.

It is too early for teacher burnout. However, it is here and it’s not going to get any better in the near future. Many of us have depleted our surge capacity in handling the stress around this ongoing pandemic. We have to adapt in this “new normal,” and we have to take care of ourselves so that we can prepare our students to be leaders in their field. 

Katie D. Lewis, EdD, is an associate professor at York College of Pennsylvania, formerly of Texas A&M International University. She teaches undergraduate education courses, and is the program coordinator for Secondary Education, Post-Baccalaureate and Transfer students. Dr. Lewis has five years of experience teaching in public schools where she served as grade chair, lead science teacher, gifted cluster teacher and mentor to student teachers. She actively serves on leadership committees for NAGC and TAGT.

Nicole Hesson, EdD, is an assistant professor of education at York College of Pennsylvania. She has been a teacher since 2004, first at the 6-12 level and then at the collegiate level. She has worked in higher education since 2012. She teaches undergraduate education courses, and is the program coordinator for the Secondary, Middle Level, and K-12 programs. Dr. Hesson has served as the lead science teacher when she worked in K-12 and mentored student teachers at various universities.