Stress-Free September? Starting the new academic year

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A guest post by Dr Emma Kennedy of Queen Mary, University of London as part of the #HEblogswap initiative

September has always been a bittersweet time for me. Like many, I always feel that September is a new beginning (having been ruled by the academic calendar continuously since I started school 25 years ago). However, since becoming a teacher, I’ve also felt a significant amount of stress and trepidation at the start of a new year. New classes, and new names to (fail to) remember; new materials to get my head around; online learning areas to refresh; admissions processes, always messy, to deal with. I’m usually much less stressed by the start of October, when I’ve had a couple of weeks to settle into the new swing of things. This September I’ve been trying to be mindful of this, making sure that I start the new year off right in work while also maintaining some work-life balance. In this post I want to share some of my favourite ways to do this, as well as some new things that I’ll be trying.

Lists

Take advantage of the back to school stationery offers and get yourself a new notebook, or use a to-do tool such as Workflowy: either way, making a list of things you need to do can help to overcome the feeling of not knowing where to start. It also helps you to break down the tasks you need to do into manageable chunks. For example, “get module area ready on QMPlus” was not a manageable task for me, but I could break it down into:

  1. Change module format to new ‘grid’ and add images;
  2. Update module information;
  3. Update observations and additional workshops;
  4. Update section 1;
  5. Update section 2;
  6. Update section 3;
  7. Update section 4;
  8. Update section 5;
  9. Update ‘Assignment information’;
  10. Update assignment submission points with dates/new marking scale;
  11. Update handbook and forms with 2017-18 versions;
  12. Final check over the area;
  13. Un-hide the course;
  14. Email administrators so they can start adding students.

Some of these tasks will only take a few minutes, but having this list means that if I only get to do the first three before being interrupted, I can tick those off and remember where I got to when I’m able to come back to the course. It also allows me to put down everything I need to do, so I don’t rely on myself spotting everything that needs updating when I go through the course. It’s easy to forget to update the forms, for example, as they sit at the bottom of the page as downloads. Making a list, and checking it off, can give one a pleasing sense of progress, and brings into perspective tasks that seem too big to contemplate.

Prioritise

Preparation for the new term can feel as though it’s all lumped together into one big “must be done by September” pile. In fact, there are often things within that pile that can wait longer than others. Take a moment to really reflect about what you need to have done by the first week of term, and what you might be able to do later on. For example, my first September in Educational Development required me to ‘get ready’ for three modules that term. However, I was able to reduce my preparation load in early September/late August by consciously deciding to use staggered release of topics for each module. Each section was released to students two weeks in advance of the relevant session, so they still had plenty of time to prepare – but it meant that I could use my time in September to prepare for what I needed to teach that month and the next, and not spread it out trying to learn everything in the module, all at once.

I find that trying to figure out what is the most urgent also helps me my stress levels, as it turns an amorphous mass of stressful ‘to-dos’ into a prioritised list and helps me separate what is really stressing me out. I might be feeling really stressed about a particular module, but when I take the time to drill down I might realise that I’m actually stressed about one topic in particular, or about one of the assessments. This makes it much easier to find the resources you need and/or to seek help from a colleague. “Can you talk to me about marking e-portfolios?” leads to a much more productive meeting than, “I’m really nervous about this module and I don’t know why”.

Accept the stress, find the balance

That said, “I’m really nervous about this module (or workshop, or other aspect of the new year) and I don’t know why” is a perfectly normal and OK feeling to have, particularly at the start of a new academic year. Sometimes the best thing to do is just accept and admit your stress: talking about it may not make it go away, but you’ll probably find that you’re not alone. You and your colleagues may even be able to help one another with your problems. You’ll also have more power as a collective: if your stress is caused in whole or part by factors in your management’s control, and your colleagues are in the same boat, you’ll be better placed to ask for change if you do so as a group.

One thing I’m trying to do more this year is to accept that September is a stressful time and to make more efforts to maintain a good work-life balance. Critiques of this approach often say that the individual shouldn’t take responsibility for workload issues which may be a symptom of overload in the HE sector. I do think the sector as a whole has a responsibility (and I’ve blogged about it here), but I also find it empowering to think about what I can do as an individual. We can work to effect long-term change, but it’s important to take care of ourselves in the meantime.

I’ve been paying attention to what I do during the day. I try to leave my desk at least once every couple of hours, even if I’m busy, and go outside or move around. I make sure I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner sitting down. I try to do something nice for myself in the evening – a bath, or a good book, or something that isn’t my job. Even where evening work is necessary, having a ritual to switch off from the day helps remind us that even the most stressful of Septembers need not define our lives. Let’s make time to enjoy the autumn as well.

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