Four out of five college students say their campuses are experiencing a mental health crisis. That puts college professors on the front lines of having to care for their students, but they’re struggling, too — with burnoutdisengagement and thoughts of exiting the profession. 

The stress and strain of today’s classrooms are chipping away at faculty resilience and threatening to make many of us less effective teachers. If educators are going to effectively care for their students, they must care for themselves first. 

As author and activist Bell Hooks once wrote, engaged pedagogy — which goes beyond merely teaching students curriculum, standards and professional skills — requires that educators must commit “to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being.” The problem is, teachers and professors often aren’t very good at self-care.

Educators need to learn how to support themselves. They should start by establishing goals for their own teaching practice in the eight dimensions of wellness. By reflecting on aspects of each of eight key areas of wellness — physical, emotional, social, environmental, intellectual, financial, spiritual and occupational — they can begin to cultivate their own well-being. 

This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, it’s a basic framework that provides a simple way for educators to learn what they need to do for themselves in order to better handle the day-to-day stress that threatens their professional livelihood and the livelihood of their students. 

As I prepare to teach in Course Hero’s Faculty Resilience and Well-Being course as part of its professional development series this spring to hundreds of educators, here are five practical recommendations for using this framework: 

Set boundaries. Stress can erode interest in enjoyable activities, decrease productivity at work and cause someone to withdraw from family and friends. Educators should schedule time for themselves each day for sleep, self-care and activities like taking a walk, reading a book or practicing a hobby.

Part of setting boundaries means understanding how much time someone needs to recharge after a class, a work event, a faculty meeting or a social event. It also means sometimes saying “no” — a troublesome word, especially for introverts, but it’s often the key to setting boundaries.

In my own classes, I moved the weekly due date for assignments from midnight Sunday to midnight Saturday. I told my students that Sunday could be a self-care day for them but there would be no penalty for submitting late work. I also told them I wouldn’t answer their emails on Sunday. This approach gives my students some agency and flexibility (and a chance to work on their time management skills if they’re able) and allows me to model the importance of setting boundaries and caring for oneself.

Take breaks. Spending a few minutes stretching, talking to a colleague or walking around is a form of boundary-setting and self-care. Short breaks taken regularly throughout the day can strengthen mental focus, reduce work-related stress and improve job performance. A person’s body and brain need to rest for roughly 10 hours each day, and sleep alone usually won’t provide enough down time. 

Understand themselves as people. This requires asking some tough questions of oneself and taking time to answer them. Questions such as: What gives my life meaning and purpose? What gives me hope? How do I get through tough times? What helps me feel most like myself? Do my values guide my decisions and actions? Honest answers to these questions can help someone develop self-appreciation — a loving relationship with oneself — and inform the process of setting boundaries and choosing activities that can improve resilience.

Improve digital teaching skills. In the virtual space, educators have powerful new tools and unparalleled flexibility to support student learning through teaching, course design and curriculum. Virtual museums and makerspaces are just two ways educators can promote intellectual wellness — lifelong learning — in the digital arena for both their students and themselves. A renewed focus on pedagogy using digital technology creates more engaging interactions with students raised in a digital age.

Give students a voice. Educators should develop an approach to teaching that involves equitable grading, an inclusive classroom culture and culturally responsive instructional design — in all courses, regardless of the subject matter — that gives their students some agency and say in their education. These sorts of anti-racist teaching practices are vital to building more authentic and more trusting relationships with students. Only when educators are honest with their students and themselves can they build a vibrant and supportive classroom environment. Students, after all, will be the first to know if educators are stressed and burned out.

Resilience is about the ability to achieve a healthy work-life balance and manage workplace stress. If educators at all levels can steel themselves to withstand the relentless pressures of the classroom and their daily lives, they can become more resilient — and become better teachers for their students. 

Laura Lee Summers is a Clinical Associate Professor of Learning Design and Technology at the University of Colorado Denver.