Self-Preservation: Combating Burnout
- A reminder about time management and limits
- Continuing Education
As with face-to-face teaching, most online teachers are enthusiastic and full of energy when they first begin their online teaching experience. It’s a fresh challenge with new learning and growth opportunities, and they’re excited about the possibilities. Burnout, however, is a major issue for online teachers. The nature of the environment means that you spend an incredible amount of energy in tightly-focused bursts, without the advantages that come with face-to-face teaching, and if you don’t take some preventative measures, you’ll find yourself burning out in a hurry.
A reminder about time management and limits
At the risk of sounding like I’m harping on the subject, let me reiterate how terribly important it is to organize your online schedule and establish limits. If you do not, then you may well find that your online teaching consumes the rest of your life, and there is no faster way to guarantee burnout. There will always be something more you can do for an online class, always be new software to explore, new assignments to consider, new pedagogies and methods to consider. Just remember that while your teaching is important, so too is your own mental, physical, and emotional health. If you do not protect those other aspects of your life, your teaching will suffer, and ultimately your students will pay the price. Take time for yourself, meet your other professional and personal obligations, push away from the machine and reintroduce your body to a regular exercise routine, spend quality time with your family and friends. Don’t neglect your other interests and aspects of your identity; hold your online work to a comfortable and appropriate percentage of your life.
As online programs grow, online teachers are increasingly becoming as distant as their students. The increased percentage of part-time teachers and adjuncts in face-to-face programs is reflected in the online programs, and a growing number of these instructors are not located on or near their school’s campus—some even operate from the other side of the globe. Many of those who are near their institutions do not have office space, and are not necessarily included in departmental meetings or workshops. While face-to-face teachers have the opportunity to renew energy in a host of different ways that are not easily accessible to their online colleagues—they meet that colleague in the hall, participate in departmental and university meetings and workshops, and naturally gain energy from the face-to-face interactions with their own students—most online instructors have to gain the same input through more limited means, and usually with more effort. It can, therefore, be terribly easy for an online instructor to feel as if she’s operating in isolation, and a sense of community is just as important for the online instructor as it is for the online learner.
There are ways to combat the problem. If you happen to be located near your campus and have access, make a point of participating in as many departmental and university programs as possible. Utilize the training opportunities, participate in workshops and symposiums, attend those departmental meetings which are open to you and in which you have interest. If you do not live near campus, then your task is much more difficult. Work at establishing professional relationships with colleagues teaching similar subject matter and with similar interests, touch base with your department leadership now and again. Participate in whatever way you can given the handicap of distance. Regardless of where you are, consider finding professional list and online communities in your field so you at least have access to the current discussions and dialogues. If you’re able to attend conferences, symposiums, and workshops, do so. If there are none in your area and you cannot travel, consider the possibility of holding a workshop, symposium, or training session at a local school or university, and don’t forget the possibility of holding those sessions online.
In short, regardless of your proximity to your institution, it’s absolutely essential that you create your own academic community—online or face-to-face. You need the same exchange of ideas, inspiration, and opportunity to share war stories as your face-to-face counterparts—if not more so.
One of the drawbacks to online teaching is that the environment in which you teach is changing at a frantic pace. Face-to-face teaching environments have, in essence, not changed dramatically over the centuries; the key component is still the instructor before a body of students. Naturally, changing pedagogy and technology have modified how teachers present themselves and their material, how students physically gather in the classroom, and how ideas and information is exchanged, but the fact remains that the primary component has not changed and the teacher still stands (or sits) at the front of the classroom before a group of students.
Online teachers lack that stability. The online teacher faces an ongoing change in basic teaching practices in ways the face-to-face teacher does not, and while that means she must be flexible and quick-witted on occasion, it also means she has to do a considerable amount of homework not required of her face-to-face counterpart. For the face-to-face classroom, learning how to use in-class tools such as a whiteboard, PowerPoint presentation, computer projection system, or traditional overhead (and generally not learning all those tools at once) generally constitutes the extent of her classroom technology training. For the online instructor, however, the shape of the classroom itself changes every time the software is upgraded or replaced with an alternate package. Tools are constantly being upgraded or exchanged for others, and pedagogy for the online classroom is exploding with the development of better and more sophisticated tools and equipment. She cannot afford to settle for what she knows; what she knows will have become outdated and potentially unusable in a frighteningly short period of time.
The solution to the problem is simple: approach technology in the same way you do your specialty and teaching pedagogy studies. Just as you keep tabs on teaching pedagogies and the developments in your own field, keep an eye on the changing nature of your classroom. You should not feel a need to learn how to code a program unless you’re interested in that aspect of the technology. For that matter, you shouldn’t feel a need to learn all programs. But you most certainly should investigate those programs that offer potential for your area of teaching or teaching methods, if only to learn if they’re viable alternatives to what you’re using now. Many won’t be, and some of those which are won’t be better than what you have (and therefore not worth changing to), but it is inevitable that you’ll find tools which are more effective. Read the distance education literatures and technology reviews; browse your favorite PC magazine at regular intervals (and if you don’t have one, find one if only so that you have a working knowledge of the equipment you’re using!); browse through some of the computer users and technology news groups’ postings. If you find a colleague who has set up a software in which you’re interested, ask permission to explore a little; it’ll save you time setting up your own only to find it’s not something you can or should use.
The learning process need not be a drudgery, however. Most online teachers find the exploration of new software, applications, and pedagogies interesting, and that’s as it should be. Explore. Have fun with the learning process. Make notes of the things you like or want to watch, as well of the tools you aren’t comfortable with. Feel free to giggle about some of the fascinating little oddities you’ll stumble over, and take no small measure of satisfaction in knowing that your eyes don’t glaze over the way your face-to-face colleagues’ may when someone mentions things like wikis and MOOs or different aspects of CMS (courseware management software) packages.
Again, keeping yourself informed about the different and changing technologies is not an option for the online teacher; your world is drastically changing with each new innovative breakthrough and each new pedagogical application, and if you don’t keep an eye on your environment, you may find survival difficult.