Self-care has never been more important. In “normal” times, it was challenging enough for faculty members to make self-care a priority. We often heard of faculty who started work before dawn, others who worked well past midnight and others who answered email in their beds.
During the first pandemic of our lifetimes, work has seemed constant. Many of us have been toiling from home with no clear definition of the boundaries of work’s place and time. Sometimes our spouses, our kids and our dogs have been additional obstacles to our workload. For many faculty members today, remembering to include exercise, healthy eating, adequate rest and other recommended self-care practices has seemed to be only a pipe dream.
At Delta College, we decided to make that dream a reality, if only for a half hour. In January 2020, we had a Winter Learning Day, with eight hours of Zoom sessions dedicated to self-care and professional development. As soon as the agenda was released, faculty were already making comments about how being on Zoom for eight hours, with a program devoted to self-care, seemed hypocritical and rather ironic. In addition, they usually use part of their Fridays to catch up on grading and prepare for the following week. Now they would have to steal time from their weekend to catch up on those eight hours of work.
As co-coordinators of the Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence, we were asked to lead an afternoon session. We knew that our session could not just discuss why we needed self-care; we needed to provide actual self-care. We understood that we cannot be the best versions of ourselves in our classrooms and in our personal lives if we are exhausted. Our center’s goal is to help faculty achieve a level of teaching excellence, which will not occur without first having healthy mental, physical and psychological well-being.
In preparing for the session, we read a number of articles, including “A New Way to Think About Work-Life Balance.” That became the focus of our challenge to our colleagues. We began our session by acknowledging that it had been a long day on Zoom, not to mention the long year adjusting to online teaching. We asked faculty to write in the chat the ways that they take care of themselves. They mentioned items such as praying, taking a nap, exercising, eating healthy food, talking to a friend, getting outside and so forth. We saw that faculty certainly know what to do to be healthy but often fail to make this a priority or even a reality.
We let them know that we are aware of all the roles they juggle in their jobs, their homes, their relationships and their communities. We identified the most precious “glass balls” that will shatter if we drop them and “plastic balls” that will bounce and can be picked up later. We then reminded them to consider what was urgent versus what is important. Many people know this concept, but putting it into practice is the challenge.
Then, to give faculty members the opportunity to care for a “glass ball” -- to act on what was important over urgent -- we asked them to take the next 30 minutes and engage in something that was important for their well-being. Then they were to send us an email, letting us know what they did and how it contributed to their self-care. We had the hope that faculty would experience it and decide to make it a regular part of their lives every day -- even for just half an hour.
A Gift of Time
The response? We read emails about “How I spent my Winter Learning Day break” from over 150 faculty, full of genuine thanks for the opportunity to take care of themselves. Many mentioned taking a walk on the cold winter day or exercising. Others spent unexpected time with children, spouses, dogs and cats. (Photos of dogs, babies and art projects were included.) Others used the 30 minutes for reflection, prayer and meditation.
Here are just a few memorable comments from the wide range of professors from all types of disciplines -- including English, mathematics, languages, residential construction and physical therapy, among others -- who responded.
- “Honestly, I was tempted to work during this time since I actually have childcare help today, but I didn’t. So here is what I did: I went and kissed my 1-year-old just before he went down for a nap, had a snack with my 3-year-old before he started his quiet time and then took my dog on a 15-minute walk -- just me and him.”
- “I went for a 1.5-mile walk up and back on our road with my dog. I really needed to get away from the computer and get some fresh air. Felt great!”
- “I used my 30 minutes to do some exercises and stretches (while listening to music!) and then enjoyed a snack while basking in the silence (a rare thing at my house). For the first time today, I feel energized/recharged and realize that spending this time on myself is crucial to my well-being.”
- “This is not the ‘correct’ answer, but I spent my time finishing teaching today's virtual first-grade lessons to my son. That probably counts as ‘urgent,’ but if it makes you feel better, I also take a lot of joy being able to participate in the important learning he has done this year, like learning to read and grasp basic math concepts. If I didn't also have to work, it would be my dream to be able to teach him this stuff! As it is, it is very hard to perform double duties of teaching first grade and teaching college, but I am grateful for the added safety afforded by being at home with my people.”
- “I took a book I’m reading on my iPad and headed to our basement treadmill. I have been neglecting getting enough physical exercise recently, and I knew I had a busy day, so I had given up hope that I’d have a chance to walk today. It was a real pleasure to have been given the permission, or rather the assignment, to take 30 minutes to do this for me.”
Because this time was unexpected, faculty members especially appreciated it. It was a gift. Here’s the secret: our time is always a gift. Daily, those of us who work in higher education should purposefully attend to our important needs, even if only for a short time each day. Flower Darby reminds us that we should “schedule wisely.” We need to “carve out (regular) time to unplug and recharge.”
This is the lesson we learned from offering just those 30 minutes -- a lesson we hope you’ll consider, as well. It is a vital ingredient for making our classrooms reach the level that our students deserve: the level of excellence that we can only provide if we do, in fact, unplug and recharge. Our students, our loved ones and we are worth the investment. So go ahead: take just 30 minutes.