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Reimagined Series: Addressing Faculty Burnout and Professional Development 

  • 8 MIN READ

In our Teaching Today Reimagined webinar our guests discuss faculty burnout and some suggested ways to tackle it in higher education.

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Faculty burnout is on the rise in higher education. It’s time to start asking ourselves why faculty are being pushed to their limits and what can be done to rectify and prevent it. 

In the D2L webinar Teaching Today: Reimagined, moderator Dr. Cristi Ford, vice president of academic affairs at D2L, dug into these questions and more. 

Over 300 attendees listened to panelists—Dr. Ken Bain, president at Best Teachers Institute; Dr. Angela Gunder, chief academic officer at the Online Learning Consortium (OLC); and Crystal Mallner, associate dean of the Online College at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College—discuss how to address faculty burnout in higher education. 

Defining Faculty Burnout 

As the webinar kicked off, Ford asked Mallner to help define what she sees as burnout at her institution.  

“We often confuse the symptoms of burnout and depression. A lot of people who actually have burnout because of their job situation, they think they have depression, and it’s not quite the case,” explained Mallner. “You have difficulty concentrating, exhaustion, lack of motivation, but it’s caused by what’s going on in the workplace. A lack of control maybe.  

“You don’t have the ability to influence decisions about your workload or your schedule, [and there are] unclear job expectations and generally just a lack of support. And that’s what we are seeing across the nation, maybe even across the world. And especially, I’ve noticed it personally in my own institution, where we have faculty that are just experiencing a lot of exhaustion due to heavy workloads, and they feel like they’re not being listened to.” 

Mallner also noticed that at her institution, after the pivot to online learning, many faculty were expected to go above and beyond their duties to solve problems they experienced. Accessing the needed technology and internet connections was a problem faced by faculty and students, something many instructors had to navigate on their own without any guidance.  

On top of this, “We’re expected to be teachers, administrators, academic advisors, but I’m also noticing an increase in instructors being social workers and therapists. And they’re definitely not qualified to do that,” said Mallner. 

Gunder noted that solutions to faculty burnout need to reflect the importance of care. “What we’re finding really focuses on how burnout comes from a place of looking at how we center care,” she said. “That can be at the institutional level. It can be at the system level. But it also can be at the micro level in terms of how we build, facilitate and support the educational experiences that we’re creating for our students and how equitable and inclusive that care is, not just for our students but for our faculty and staff.” 

Gunder noticed a shift in topics of interest among leaders when it came to planning conferences. At the beginning of the pandemic, conversations were about faculty helping students. During the pandemic, instructional designers began to bring up how they care for faculty who support students. 

“Most recently, and most compellingly, we’ve shifted to administrators now wondering about how they can build a foundation of care,” said Gunder. “Looking at what types of institutional transformation need to happen in order to make sure that we’re not being reactive to all of the challenges that Crystal mentioned, but proactive about building an environment where we’re supporting people across all of the facets of their lives.” 

When the audience was asked what area of support would be most helpful to receive from their institution to help alleviate burnout, over half of respondents agreed it is having more opportunities for professional development and training. 

Poll graphic from the webinar highlighting the support instructors would like to see in higher ed.

The Importance of Professional Development 

While the idea of professional development is welcomed by faculty, one audience member asked how to best engage faculty in professional development when they’re already feeling burned out. 

“Quite often this faculty development is being funded, but we’re not looking at the structures that would allow people to engage deeply and to actually move the needle on their own development and learning when they have a lot that they have to attend to,” said Gunder. 

Before the pandemic, both instructors and institutions would come to the Online Learning Consortium looking for professional development opportunities that were transactional. Those interested would enroll faculty in workshops, expecting them to gain specific skills because they were paying for seats. In reality, faculty couldn’t even use the learned development skills because they had no time. 

Bain also noted that when it comes to professional development, it’s not just about training faculty. 

“We must move away from this notion of training and that faculty development involves training faculty in a new way. It’s not that. It is creating an environment, a space and a platform in which faculty can begin to explore new ideas and new perspectives that are going to be liberating,” said Bain. 

Mallner discussed how her faculty were looking for hands-on, practical knowledge through their professional development.  

“We must move away from this notion of training and that faculty development involves training faculty in a new way. It’s not that. It is creating an environment, a space and a platform in which faculty can begin to explore new ideas and new perspectives that are going to be liberating”

Dr. Ken Bain, president of Best Teachers Institute

When the faculty at the Online College at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College were asked directly about what they wanted from their professional development, the number one request was for hands-on learning. The institution’s administrators listened to their faculty and implemented a plan to shut down the campus the first Thursday of each month for a few hours in the afternoon. Faculty were not to be bothered—no grading or advising—just focused on the professional development of their choice, like technology training or soft skills such as conflict or stress management. 

“They know that time is dedicated for them, that they don’t have to worry about anything else,” said Mallner. “They can just focus on that, and it’s what they’re actually interested in learning, what they’re actually needing.” 

Several of our speakers also noted that faculty learning from one another is a crucial component of professional development. 

One way Gunder suggested faculty can learn from one another is through the classic method of using communities of practice. 

As burnout can impact anybody, our panelists also discussed how to support staff from the teaching and learning centers, who are often focused on the well-being of faculty. 

“I don’t think it’s the possibility in most cases to mean that [teaching and learning centers] are going to be able to provide a lot of individual assistance to faculty, but creating environments where they can begin to address these problems themselves. Part of it is being able to refocus the problems, the nature of the problems that people are thinking about,” said Bain. “How we articulate that problem to ourselves makes a huge difference in how we’re going to tackle it. And if we’re looking at how people in a teaching center can contribute to an institution, we have to reframe that problem very broadly and think about it in a much different kind of way.” 

A uniting theme throughout the entire webinar was how precious time can be and about deciding how to spend it wisely. 

“Does it mean doing more? No. I think it means, in many cases, rethinking how we’re spending our time and how we’re doing things,” said Bain. “A lot of the things that faculty members are doing that come to them out of tradition, are not well supported by the research on human learning. So they’re wasting their time, and they need to be able to look at ideas that can help them to redirect their time and to use it more valuably.” 

The Value of Time for Faculty in Higher Education 

One of the most important concepts when addressing faculty burnout is recognizing how valuable time is. For example, creating impactful courses, especially online, requires an investment in time. 

“It starts with institutions thinking about how we build longer runways that actually recognize the time and effort that it takes to build and teach courses, specifically building and teaching courses within online modalities,” said Gunder. “Some of the work that the OLC has done has been around amplifying research studies and research that we’ve conducted ourselves around the time that it takes in order to build quality instruction, but also the time it takes to learn how to build and facilitate quality instruction.”  

One way to show faculty the value of their time when it comes to professional development is by highlighting the rewards their invested time can produce. 

“The very experience of faculty development has to be so rewarding and so transformative that people will want to come. That’s the experience that we’ve had with the Best Teachers Institute over the last 25 years,” said Bain. “By creating an environment where people are likely to take up the ideas, that’s what’s going to be successful. It has to be that intrinsic interest that people will have and to be able to devote the time and the energy to think about something else.” 

At the Online College at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College, they’re starting to offer a master teacher program to help incentivize faculty to devote their time to development. 

For more details from our three panelists on faculty burnout and professional development for faculty, check out the full recording of our Teaching Today: Reimagined webinar.