Why You Should Be a Selfish Instructor

Sign says "Relax, refresh, recharge," with cup of coffee, phone, pen, paper and plant surrounding it

With coronavirus vaccines now approved for use, there is finally some light at containing the COVID-19 tunnel that has been restricting activities for the past year.  But in the early days of the pandemic, we all did what we had to in order to flatten the curve, and that meant quickly switching to online instruction.  As the pandemic raged, teachers everywhere were bombarded with information: strategies for moving in-person classes to online platform, tricks to make online classes more engaging, and a plethora of tips on how to support stressed students (Izenberg, 2020; Gewin, 2020; Anderson 2020; Field 2020).  Everyone had ideas about how to teach during a public health crisis.

Since the start of the pandemic, faculty have experienced an exponentially increased emotional load. Not only were we charged with delivering engaging online instructions after a crash course in technology, but we also saw students face more stress than ever before while also dealing with other issues, like trying to care for sick family members. Throughout this, we all tried to be flexible and show compassion, which often meant extra work for us in order to help students who were sick or in quarantine keep up with class material and make up missed assignments and exams.  As many universities face budget cuts because of lost revenues and declining enrollments, the only thing that is persistently climbing is faculty workload. 

As well-meaning administrators recognized that faculty were feeling isolated and overwhelmed, we received an onslaught of articles, trainings, and webinars on work-life balance and self-care. But, these trainings, webinars, and self-care procedures all took time, a commodity that instructors have precious little of in these uncertain times.  As educators, we are deeply invested in student success and frequently go the extra mile to ensure it.  However, this effort can be physically and mentally draining.  If you find you are getting snippy in communications with students and your excitement about education is giving way to irritation, then you are probably getting burned out.  It is okay to acknowledge it.  You are a human being, and you are sensitive to prolonged extreme stress just like anyone else. We wouldn’t trust an airplane to a sleep-deprived pilot, and we can’t expect faculty to operate at their best when they don’t have time to rest and recharge.  We recommend that it is time to become a selfish instructor! Consider adopting some of the following strategies. Each takes less than 30 minutes to implement but will contribute to decreasing some stress in your life.

  1. Use Your Learning Management System (LMS) effectively.
    No matter what system you use (Blackboard, Canvas, Google classroom, etc.), you should be able to create an introductory home page for your course.  We like to call it “Start Here,” which provides an overview of the course, explaining where to find material and when new things will be posted.  If you tend to get the same questions a lot, consider repeating policies from your syllabus here to reinforce them.  This will help reduce these extra communications with students.
  2. Be clear on communication.
    Write an email policy in your syllabus defining the times you will be available to answer email.  It can be within 24 hours or between 8 am and 6 pm, whatever works best for you.  Setting up an automatic reply reinforcing this message will reduce your urge to respond to emails right away, and it will also let students know when to expect an answer.
  3. Spell it out in the syllabus and test on it.
    Give an open book quiz on the syllabus as a prerequisite to your first course module. We all spend a lot of time ensuring that the course policies are clearly explained in the syllabus, listing assignments and learning outcomes so students know what to expect.  Unfortunately, students don’t always read it.  A few points for a syllabus quiz will go a long way. Making the quiz is a minimal time investment, and even if students only use the “find” function to locate answers to the syllabus questions, they will still absorb something. Giving a syllabus quiz will not eliminate your “It’s in the syllabus” communications, but it will greatly reduce them.
  4. Use your calendar wisely. 
    For activities like grading or making up exams, block off what you think is a reasonable amount of time on your calendar.  Stop when time is up!  This will prevent burnout and also help you learn to budget a more accurate or realistic amount of time the next day.  Don’t feel guilty about it. Your time is valuable and using your calendar will help you track and use your time wisely. 
  5. Give the gift of time. 
    Consider letting the online assignment or exam be “available” for a few days after the due date (perhaps with a reasonable penalty per day).  You can simply change the LMS setting for dates on the assignment or exam. Most students will complete the work on time, but for the ones that don’t, keeping the assignment open a little longer will tremendously reduce requests for extensions.
  6. Give the gift of time – to yourself.  
    Schedule breaks for yourself on your calendar. If possible, walk away from work during that break. Physical activity is a great antidote for stress, and a change of scenery will allow your eyes to rest while stimulating your mind. Walking, especially outdoors, has been shown to increase creative output and restore cognitive capacity (Heffernan, 2015; Oppezzo & Scwartz, 2014).  If the only escape you can find is in the bathroom, then consider taking longer showers to allow your mind time to wander and process things.  Set time limits for evening and weekend work and follow them without guilt.

Be selfish! If getting enough sleep and giving yourself permission to have a life outside of work makes you a selfish person, then please, be selfish.  Go ahead, create mental space and time to care for yourself.  Even when we are not teaching through a pandemic, these strategies can help you streamline communications and make the most of your time.  A happier, well-rested instructor is a kinder instructor, and kindness is the medicine we all need in these stressful times.

Shazia A. Ahmed, PhD, is a clinical professor of biology at Texas Woman’s University and Senior Fellow of Higher Education Academy (HEA).

Juliet V. Spencer, PhD, is a professor of biology at Texas Woman’s University and also serves as the Chair of the Biology Department. 


Anderson, G. (2020, September 11). Mental Health Needs Rise With Pandemic. Retrieved December 26, 2020, from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/09/11/students-great-need-mental-health-support-during-pandemic

Field, K. (2020, July 22). 10 Tips to Support Students in a Stressful Shift to Online Learning. Retrieved December 26, 2020, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/10-tips-to-support-students-in-a-stressful-shift-to-online-learning/

Gewin, V. (2020, March 24). Five tips for moving teaching online as COVID-19 takes hold. Retrieved December 26, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32210377/

Heffernan, M. (2015). Beyond measure: The big impact of small changes. New York, NY: TED Books, Simon & Schuster.

Izenberg, I. (2020, December 07). Using Breakout Rooms with Less Stress and Better Results: Faculty Focus. Retrieved December 26, 2020, from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/using-breakout-rooms-with-less-stress-and-better-results/

Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). APA PsycNet. Retrieved December 21, 2020, from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2014-14435-001