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#112: A Guide to Dealing with Challenging Students in the Online Classroom

This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com. 

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Online educators sometimes face challenging students who disagree with a grade or are argumentative in the classroom. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses ways to help online educators deal with such conflicts. Learn how to implement de-escalation tactics to meet in the middle, work with colleagues or administrators to get additional support, and finding ways to recover after a stressful situation.

Listen to the Episode:

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Read the Transcript:

This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. This is your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. I’m very happy to be with you today to talk about difficult students online. There are a variety of situations in which you might find yourself working with a student you might describe as “difficult.” And by difficult, I’m talking about a variety of things. It could be that student is challenging a grade and persisting after you have provided additional feedback. Or the student might be arguing throughout the class, creating a tense atmosphere. This might seem like it is escalating. It might seem as though your student doesn’t like you and resists the teaching approach or even your personality. And with a lot of tense events are happening in our world, so it’s likely that you’re going to encounter challenging students more often in the future, as our students face unexpected stressors, trauma, world events, natural disasters, and uncertainty.

While you’re working with challenging students in your online teaching, your own stress level increases. The experience might drain your energy and might make it harder to notice the students who are having a good experience in your class, and all the positive moments happening. We can easily become defensive when a student reacts poorly or challenges us, and our own response might add fuel to the fire.

To address all of this, in today’s podcast we will first look at ways to meet the student in the middle. To focus on de-escalating the tension to find a potential step forward.

Then, we will look at options available to you when a solution is not reached. This might include other departments at your educational institution, members of your team, or colleagues. Although we may teach alone, we are not alone in managing serious challenges, and we can reach out for support.

And last, we will explore supportive habits that can help you to get through the stressful time you’re experiencing and to recover from what might be a traumatic experience. When a serious challenging experience occurs in the online classroom, it can shake your confidence and make you feel depleted. Focusing on your wellbeing and recovery from the stress can give you the space to regain energy and zest for teaching. And we will close with those ideas.

Focus on De-Escalation and Meet in the Middle

A lot of times, students escalate quickly when they don’t understand, or when we’ve made a comment to them that they have taken as a judgment instead of an evaluation of their work. While it might surprise us when this happens, especially if it happens quickly, it also makes sense that not all our students will immediately understand what we say to them.

As you face a challenging student in your online class, I recommend looking backwards. Consider your past teaching moments and any challenges you might have faced. How did you work through those challenges? When we reflect on our past challenges, we can identify key skills we developed that are now available to us in present challenging situations. Looking at past teaching challenges can also help us consider new perspectives about the current problem. There is a lot we have already learned from working with difficult students in the past, and we can draw on what went right in those previous scenarios, as well as what we would have wanted to do differently.

To meet students in the middle, we can draw upon the skills we have learned from our past challenges. And we can try to understand our student’s perspective. From their vantage point, what might have been more helpful in the assignment instructions, or in my grading feedback? And where they are sitting right now, what will be most helpful to move them forward in the class?

Meeting someone in the middle suggests that I consider how I might be part of the problem, so that I can be part of the solution. One way to learn about the student’s perspective in order to meet in the middle could be to have a phone call or video chat and ask them: “What is you understanding of the situation?” or “What might help you most right now?”

As we hear what students will tell us, the most important part of this conversation is to listen with a true desire to understand their viewpoint or their perspective. As this begins to take shape, it is tempting to jump in with comments or assume that we’re ready to make a compromise of some kind. However, I would encourage us to keep listening to ensure that we have the full story from our student. And then, we can summarize or paraphrase what we heard to make sure that we understand. Only then, the student feels fully heard are we able to take a step forward to resolving the situation.

Be Authentic and Present

Now, if you have a problem that you can’t de-escalate with a student, and you really do feel like you’ve put in the steps needed but things are not improving, authenticity can be one additional resource available to you. Authenticity is a combination of awareness, behavior, relational orientation, and unbiased processing.

When we think about being authentic in a moment of tension or conflict with a student online, we might find that to be just the opposite of what is possible for us. But, if we can stay grounded to our personal values, what we care most about, and the humanity of that other person we are dealing with, we can bring ourselves back down emotionally and become mindful of the moment that we’re in and be able to let those really tense thoughts just stream on by.

The most important thing we can do in a tense situation with students is to think clearly and to be able to be back in the moment that we’re living in. By doing this, you can be authentic, you can present yourself as your best self, even when there’s a tension there. Most people that we’re engaging with, even if they have a complaint, will be less aggressive when they feel that we’re being non-judgmental towards them and inviting them.

Pause to Refocus

If you start to feel inflexible, resistant and defensive towards the student, I want to encourage you to pause, take a step back and see if you can understand what the student is experiencing. Just giving that pause can give you a little bit of space to see it in new light and understand if the student has missed something along the way, then a simple clarification can help get things right back on track.

Of course, not all students are going to respond openly when they initially are defensive about something. Again, if you sense yourself tensing up and resisting the student or starting to argue back and forth, a pause or silence to breathe and refocus can help. Letting go of that sense of resistance may be the tone that invites your student to do the same. And once we are meeting in the middle and understanding what is going on, we can take a step forward towards solutions, no matter how small.

In my experience, I notice that when someone is being challenging or difficult, it’s like I’m being invited to get defensive in return. It’s like an unwritten invitation to get defensive right back. And if we’re not careful, we’re going to be sucked in quickly. It’s easy to do that when we’re not seeing the people face to face that we’re teaching, and if we read the question or complaint in an email. If we take the invitation and get defensive back with a student who’s having a challenge experience, it becomes very difficult to see the student in a positive light or present ourselves in a positive way. And we might invite more of what we don’t want.

Another problem that we might face is feeling that we need to be right. If we have seen the situation from an objective viewpoint, and we feel that we’ve communicated very well with a student, we might feel like we know the answer, we are right and the student just needs to accept it. The problem with that is that the firmer we get, the more we’re sort of inviting that fight in return. If we’re willing to hear the person out and be a little bit softer in our presentation, and really listen, sometimes that alone will de-escalate the situation and invite your student into a discussion.

Some things we can do to invite the other person to de-escalate and join us at the table for a conversation are to ask open-ended questions and just wait. And listen. If we’re able to do that, and just give silence and take it in, then another thing we could do is to restate back to the student what we’re hearing. To validate that, yes, they must be frustrated with that understanding, whatever that is, and to ask them what they’re hoping that we can do together to resolve the situation. Sometimes it really is a small thing that’s just a huge misunderstanding. If you find yourself in this situation, slow down, and see if you can get yourself present in the moment to be your more authentic self and invite that student to the table with you.

After focusing on de-escalation strategy, slowing down, listening, and learning about what the student is experiencing, and working toward a solution, we might find that this student continues to challenge. In some cases, it begins to seem as though everything in the class starts a new challenging conversation, and the student is not interested in working with us to resolve it. When this happens, there are options available to you when a solution is not reached. This might include contacting other departments at your educational institution, members of your team, or colleagues. Although we may teach alone, we are not alone in managing serious challenges, and we can reach out for support.

Consider a Partner or Department to Support You

One helpful partner we can contact might be a department chair, a manager, a partner teacher, or another team member who can be on the phone or on a Zoom call with us and our student. Having a second party there can bring in neutrality to help us to have the conversation in a less emotional manner than we might otherwise have. The team member can add value to the conversation by sharing additional ideas or perspective that can help both you and your student to move forward. And after the call has ended, this person might be able to share perspective with you that you’re not seeing, because you’re very close to the situation.

In any challenging situation, whether we are alone in the conversation or with a team member on the call, we can listen to the student’s story, their experience, and their complaint, and then let the student know we need some time to think about what they have said, and a second conversation to respond. It’s like we’re scheduling two different meetings, that first one will be to hear this student and really understand their situation. And the second conversation will take place after we have had the time to consider how we want to address the complaint or concern.

And be sure to respond in a prompt manner as much as possible. The wonderful thing about this approach is that it takes all pressure off you. In that first call, you can be open, a good listener, and just focused on learning as much as you can about the student’s perspective and experience. You don’t have to give any answers during the first conversation, and you can have time to think before responding.

If you work with another department, the representative from that department might be able to suggest alternatives and additional solutions to help you and your student. Some departments you might consider contacting include the student conduct department, a faculty advocate, a student services or advising team member, the university chaplain, or the disability services and accommodations office. Each of these teams has a slightly different approach when meeting the students’ needs, and you may find that aligning your approach with one or more of these teams gives you strength and perspective to respond well. If you have any suspicion that your student could use these services, you can even recommend them to your student, that they reach out to those departments. And of course, you can as well for a little more insight and support in dealing with a very challenging situation.

We know that online teaching can itself be challenging at times and a bit isolating. But with these ideas, we hope that you’ll be able to reach out to your students make some personal connections, feel that you’re able to really reduce the tension in a situation that might otherwise escalate and help your students to get right back on track.

During the conflict, it’s possible that you will feel unable to relax and consider the student’s perspective if this student has approached you in a hostile way or a threatening manner. If that happens, don’t wait to reach out to others for help and support. It’s difficult to know what to do in such a situation, and other team members and departments will be able to help you.

If the challenge is a tough one, but it does not seem that you’re being threatened or treated in a hostile way, it might still push you a bit. You can know if you’re feeling stress if you start to firm up your grading practices in response or if you feel like suddenly becoming strict with grading timelines when you were previously more flexible. If you start to notice yourself getting into more strict absolutes, which we call all-or-nothing thinking in terms of your deadlines and your grading, this serves as a red flag to let you know that you’re under a lot more stress than usual. And you might unintentionally invite more resistance from students, instead of less. When you notice these kinds of red flags in your approach, I encourage you again to pause, step back, and continue to treat that challenging student as you would any student in your class as much as you can. And at the same time, contact other colleagues, a manager, or one of the departments available to help you, and ask for back up.

If you need a break from your classroom, you can also talk to a partner teacher, a manager, or a leader in your institution, a department chair, a principal, or wherever you’re working for some backup for some help. Perhaps there might be a day or two, you could be out of that class to get some space if the situation has escalated.

Take Care of Yourself and Recover from Stress

For the final topic we explore today, we look at supportive habits that can help you get through the stressful time you’re experiencing and recover from what might be a traumatic experience. When serious and challenging experience occurs in the online classroom, it can shake your confidence and make you feel depleted. Focusing on your wellbeing and recovery from the stress can give you the space to regain energy and zest for teaching.

And you might truly experience stress and trauma when you’re working with very challenging students. Especially if there’s been a traumatic event. There is a resource one of my wonderful colleagues shared with me from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is linked here in the podcast transcript. And from it, we are taking some helpful tips to notice normal and natural reactions you might experience when dealing with a traumatic event or a disaster, and emotions you might have. Physical reactions you might also have, and then some suggestions on how you might manage your workload afterwards.

For example, one of the suggestions is that if you realize you’ve been injured, you need to seek medical treatment, of course, and if you’re not injured, focus on completing only one task at a time, just slow down in your work. And that will help you feel like you’re getting some control back and getting on top of things as you’re getting back in the game of working with your students.

Pause and take deep breaths. Take the time to gently stretch to calm yourself before you tackle each task. And plan to do something relaxing after work. Be patient with yourself if you notice that you’re having trouble remembering things, difficulty thinking clearly, worrying a lot, of experience more difficulty making decisions. All of these can be normal effects of stress or trauma. So do your best to exercise self-compassion.

And look at those tips for survivors of traumatic events. Talk with others who can understand you and understand what you’re going through. Listen to uplifting music, music that can help you relax and calm yourself. Of course, use what you know to be good coping skills, healthy coping skills that work for you.

As you work with challenging students, you know, because you’ve been teaching online, that there are many types of students that we work with, a lot of different people with a lot of different backgrounds. Hopefully you’ll be able to get through that experience and take the skills you have gained in the challenge to apply in other scenarios in the future. And if you’re not able to finish the class with that student, you will still be able to care for yourself and work through the stress and trauma of the significant challenge you might be experiencing. Regardless of how the situation ends, taking the time to focus on your wellbeing and recovery from the stress is important. And adopting habits to sustain your wellbeing will help you regain confidence after the conflict.

The ideas we have considered today around working with challenging students have focused on de-escalation efforts to meet in the middle, working with colleagues and other departments to get support if the challenge isn’t improving, and finding ways to recover once the stress has subsided. Although these ideas are a good start, there is no substitute for your own experiences and intuition about how to resolve challenging situations and relying on your own insight can be helpful throughout the process.

Thank you for being here today and for your desire to help challenging students get back into learning in your online class when possible. We wish you all the best in resolving tough situations in your online teaching and in your work this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#104: Tips to Recognize Burnout and Overcome Overwhelm

#104: Tips to Recognize Burnout and Overcome Overwhelm

This content first appeared at APUEdge.com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Are you experiencing burnout? Burnout is serious and can impact your health, happiness, relationships, and work. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses the signs of burnout including exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. She also discusses ways to rebuild your emotional strength, manage your energy, and find satisfaction in your work again.

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
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Read the Transcript:

This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining me today. We will focus on how you can recognize burnout and overcome overwhelm through tips from Dr. Jacinta M. Jimenez’s book, “The Burnout Fix: Overcome Overwhelm, Beat Busy, and Sustain Success in the New World of Work,” and other resources.

But before we do that, I’m going to share out three announcements.

Here is a Site to Help You Navigate through Prior Episodes for Help

First, if you’re trying to decide what past episodes to listen to in your online teaching focus, with 104 episodes published so far, you could get lost in this long list of episode topics and strategies. To help you out, I’d like to invite you to visit my website: BethanieHansen.com.

Once you get there, you will find a menu item across the green menu bar at the top of the page called “The Online Teaching Toolbox.” By clicking this menu item, you will find some broad topics listed to help you navigate toward what you’re looking for. You can also access the toolbox using the big button on the home page that says, “find effective strategies right now.”

In future weeks, I’ll keep adding more structure to the website that will help you navigate topics even more quickly and effectively, so that you can read or listen about whatever you need in the moment.

Online Learning Innovation Conference is Coming Up!

Second, I’m announcing that the Online Learning Consortium’s spring conference is coming up. At the time of this podcast, early April 2022, the international conference is just a few days away. The conference is called “OLC Innovate,” and it is focused on new ideas, strategies, and fresh approaches to online, hybrid, and blended education. I’m putting a link to the conference in the podcast transcript, so please take a look. The conference includes virtual presentations as well as live sessions on-site in Dallas, TX. So, if you cannot travel to attend in person, consider the virtual option.

At the conference, you’ll find new ideas, and you will also benefit from specific topics like blended learning, community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, instructional design, online leadership, networking, research, career and technical education, instructional technologies and tools, open learning, and teaching and learning practice.

And your presenters will be excellent educators, leaders, and researchers who have gone through a “rigorous three-stage, double-blind peer review process upon conference proposal submission. Acceptance to present at OLC Innovate is competitive and is a great accomplishment.”

It’s always a good idea to refresh your teaching and stopping by a professional conference like this one might be just what you’re looking for. Not only will you keep growing, but you will have at least one fresh idea you can take with you to try out. If you are attending, I’m presenting a workshop about creating podcasts for education you might find interesting. Dr. Jan Spencer, one of my colleagues at American Public University, is presenting a workshop about three specific areas of online teaching and learning practice. These include the rules of the road for online presence, fun ways to enhance forum discussions, and innovative strategies for creating assignments.

Whether or not you’re able to attend the OLC Innovate conference for April 2022, I encourage you to submit a proposal to present a session, a workshop, or a discovery session for the OLC Accelerate conference coming up with virtual sessions November 1-3, 2022, and live sessions in Orlando, Florida, November 14-17, 2022. The call for presentation proposals is open until May 18, 2022.

Two Consecutive Years with the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast

Third, and most importantly, today’s episode number 104 marks the end of our second year with the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. This means that we have shared tips, strategies, and topics about managing online teaching every week for two continuous years.

There are over 2,000,000 podcasts out there with over 48 million episodes, and those numbers keep growing. And although there are millions out there, many of these have only a handful of episodes and then they dropped. Fewer than 20% of podcasts that start up reach one year of continuous episodes.

Next week’s episode launches our third year, and I invite you to keep listening to strengthen your online teaching technique and help rekindle your sense of purpose in what you do every day for your students.

We have established a strong history and have exciting plans for the year ahead. Episode 105 will feature Dr. Jan Spencer, the Department Chair at American Public University, and Dr. David Ferreira, Provost at Charter Oak State College and part-time faculty at American Public University in leadership and student affairs. The episode will focus on helping students navigate their online education journey, and it’s one you won’t want to miss!

Education is one of the most powerful forces in the world. By seeking education, we begin to dream again. We dream about who we are, and who we can become. What we can do, and what we might be able to achieve that we previously never imagined possible. And when we teach, not only do we help others learn and grow, but we also help them make their dreams come true.

Pursuing an education online can be a scary proposition for students. After all, when we sit in a live class, on a college campus, with a live teacher and classmates all around, this almost automatically puts us into a mental space to focus on learning.

Yet online, our students might doubt their own abilities to focus, to stay on task with the online materials, and to keep working without all of those people in the same room. This is one of the many reasons we support you and your teaching through the Online Teaching Lounge podcast, and why I hope you will share this podcast with anyone you know who could benefit.

Statistics in a recent study suggest that the number one reason that people listen to podcasts is to learn something new. And giving you new tips, topics, and ideas is our goal here. That said, let’s move into this week’s topic to help you get the new ideas you came for.

About Burnout

The Online Teaching Lounge podcast celebrates you, the educator, in this episode. As we close our second year of connecting with you, we realize that you work hard. And teaching online, at times you might feel isolated or alone. Technologies used in online education are marvelous, but they also invite us to keep trying new things, exploring, and making the class and our approaches better. This never-ending quest for excellence can become overwhelming. So many things might be part of that path to burnout as an online educator.

But how do you know whether you’re just getting a little stagnant and need new ideas, and whether you might have burnout?

Dr. Jacinta Jimenez describes three components of burnout. These include exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.

Exhaustion means that you might feel very intense emotional, physical, or cognitive fatigue, and maybe a combination of all three. It’s a lingering state of being tired, and it’s persistent. One of the ways you can know whether you’re exhausted in these ways is that after you get a really good night of sleep or take some relaxing time off, you don’t feel refreshed or replenished. And if you notice this trend over and over, that’s an even better gauge.

Cynicism is an attitude of suspicion where you believe the future is bleak and that other people are acting only out of self-interest. An example of cynicism is when you always think the worst and have a hard time seeing the good in anyone. When you experience cynicism, you have low levels of job engagement. You start to feel detached. And, you are easily annoyed by the people you work with.

And inefficacy is where you’re being unproductive. You are working harder, but you’re producing less. You’re not getting the results you might have gotten in the past. You even start to feel incompetent, like you can’t keep up or be successful. Self-efficacy is an important part of confidence and it means that you can make things happen, and you know you can. Your efforts lead to results. In contrast, inefficacy is the state in which you believe that no amount of effort you put in will get you the results you’re trying to achieve. You don’t see that you have an impact or make a difference.

Although there are these three common components come together to suggest burnout, everyone experiences them in unique ways. For example, you might find yourself having a lot of exhaustion, where someone else might have a lot more cynicism.

Regardless of which aspect seems to weigh heaviest for you, burnout is serious and can impact your health, your happiness, your relationships, and your job. When you’re teaching online, you might find that getting the work done takes longer and longer. Mental clarity and sharpness are difficult to harness when reading through students’ comments and considering how to respond.

Either the online work begins to take up more of your free time, nights, and weekends, and keeps you from enjoying your personal life, or it’s increasingly challenging to get yourself to sit down to being at the work at all. You might even begin to think your students are not learning or getting anything out of what you’re trying to teach them, missing signs of their efforts altogether.

If you believe that you might be experiencing burnout in your work, this doesn’t mean that you lack coping skills or are just bad at taking care of yourself. And it doesn’t mean you’re weak. There are many combined forces that lead to burnout, some in the workplace, some in our own expectations for ourselves, and some in areas that are more difficult to pin down. If you’re experiencing burnout, Dr. Jacinta Jimenez’s five core pulse practices can support you in working through it and recovering.

The five core practices are behavioral, cognitive, physical, social, and emotional. These practices take consistent, intentional effort. And in the book “The Burnout Fix” I’ve referenced for this podcast episode, you’ll find exercises you can read, work through, and integrate into your life over time.

Getting through burnout is not something that can be done quickly or easily. But the positive of it all is that you can find real, research-based, and solid strategies to use that will help you out of burnout and they will also increase your resilience for future challenges and tough times ahead.

There are two of the five core practices I’d like to highlight today because we’ve explored them many times already in the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. The first is to “undo untidy thinking,” which means that you’re going to intentionally teach your brain to let go of thinking patterns that don’t help you.

Believe it or not, there are many different kinds of thinking patterns that hurt us. And some of these are common in work groups and families, and we accept that they are true or just the way things are. One of these is “all or nothing thinking.” This would be something like when you’re teaching a class that is going really well, and one student complains. Whatever the reason for the complaint, believing that one student’s complaint ruined the entire teaching experience or makes you a bad teacher, regardless of the positive experience you’re having with all of the other students, this is all or nothing thinking.

It’s often called a cognitive distortion, because it’s not based on fact or truth. Could one complaining student actually be a sign that you’re a bad teacher? Perhaps. But it doesn’t mean that you are suddenly a bad teacher when everything else is going so well. And you would need much more evidence and insight to determine the quality of your teaching beside just one student’s opinion.

Another core practice Dr. Jimenez recommends in her book is to evaluate your effort. This means that you think about your emotional wellbeing and your energy levels. And, you take charge of your time and priorities. In this area, you might have to settle for “B-minus” level work on some things you’re responsible to complete, and you might even need to leave some things unfinished. Perhaps you will have to say no.

Evaluating your effort might feel difficult because many of us believe that we are our work. Or in other words, our work is a reflection of who we are. So, if we’re putting in too much time and not getting the results we want, or putting in too much effort for the smaller things that should take much less, it seems like our fault or a flaw in our character. But that really isn’t true.

One way to begin making changes in effort is to notice where you have high energy, and what drains your energy. And then, you can also think about different times of day in which you have naturally higher and lower energy. With this awareness, you are in a position to begin planning the draining tasks you must do for the higher energy parts of your day, when you are more able to tackle them better. And those things that refuel you or lift your energy can be planned in times where your energy levels might naturally be lower. Focusing on your energy levels and the required effort of your work and life tasks helps you start setting limits and boundaries to avoid overwhelm.

Intentionally setting limits on the time something will take or the effort you can give it helps get things into their proper places again, and it gives you the space to establish priorities.  And if we work with our priorities in mind day in and day out, and re-evaluate those priorities regularly, we can guard ourselves against becoming overwhelmed in the future as we move out of burnout.

Another area of evaluating your effort has to do with your emotional health. Emotions are data that speak to us, and yet many adults don’t recognize what they are feeling or have words to describe it. And many are uncomfortable experiencing these emotions.

Just like strengthening muscles, learning to identify what you’re feeling, reason about what it means for you, and what you’ll do with it, gives you power over your emotional self and builds emotional strength. As you focus on doing this and on managing your energy as well, you will regain a sense of purpose in what you’re doing and begin to feel a sense of satisfaction in your work again.

As we close our second year of the Online Teaching Lounge with today’s focus on identifying burnout and trying some ideas that will help reduce burnout and lead to thriving again, I want to thank you for the work you do each day teaching others online.

As I mentioned earlier in this episode, this can at times feel like isolating and challenging work. But through the power of education, we help people grow and learn, and we even help them make their dreams come true. In your own work to build new habits that reduce burnout and bring you back into alignment with your purpose and priorities, you too will begin to dream again and may even be able to keep moving forward serving many more students in the future, too. I wish you all the best in your online teaching this week, and in the year to come!

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#79: Three Steps to Stress-Free Online Teaching

#79: Three Steps to Stress-Free Online Teaching

Three Steps to Stress-Free Online Teaching Using Productivity Tools

This content first appeared at APUEdge.com.

Teaching online can bring stress in managing competing commitments, diverse teaching tasks, and multiple modalities. To free online educators from overwhelm and stress, productivity strategies provide structure to the work. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares three productivity tools that include a prioritization matrix, task batching, and time boxing to help online educators structure their work and keep time investment within limits. Learn how to simplify your approach to the daily work of teaching online and feel a sense of relief by reducing your stress.

#59: Tips to Skillfully Cope with Life’s Inevitable Stressors

#59: Tips to Skillfully Cope with Life’s Inevitable Stressors

This content initially appeared at APUEdge.com. 

We all have an endless “to do” list that we can’t keep up with. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all our responsibilities and tasks, but that cumulative stress is incredibly harmful to our physical and mental wellbeing. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks to APU Chaplain Kyle Sorys about his role in offering emotional and spiritual support to students and faculty. Learn ways to skillfully cope with life’s inevitable stressors like dedicating a day each week “no work” where you just enjoy life, establishing “no screen time” each day, getting more sleep, eating better, and meditating. Also reduce stress by learning how to extend self-compassion and self-kindness to yourself in conscious acknowledgement that you’re doing the best you can. All these tips can improve your overall wellbeing and help you live a fuller, less stressful, life.

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Hello, everyone. And welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. We are so excited to have you today, because we have a special guest, Chaplain Kyle Sorys. He is going to share a lot of expertise with us today. And as you know, our podcast is geared toward online educators. So you’re living and working online and you have a lot on your plate, and we hope today you’ll find something that makes working online just a little bit easier to manage.

Your life online is something we have covered quite a bit in the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. We’ve talked about sleeping more, getting some better exercise and some activity going, there. And we’ve also talked about eating healthy and managing your time. So today we’re going to meet Chaplain Kyle Sorys and I’m really excited to have him here today. So, Kyle, welcome.

Kyle Sorys: Thank you.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thanks for being here. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your path to becoming an online chaplain at APU and AMU?

Kyle Sorys: To me it’s like two questions. It’s like, how did you get here? Where we all can resonate with, since we all work for this organization. And also, what was the path to becoming a chaplain?

And so I’ll just say the chaplaincy, the profession of chaplaincy, I stumbled into it. And I wonder how true that is for most people in their professions versus seeking it out? The truth is when I was in college, when I graduated undergrad and I was looking at master’s programs, I just wanted to take all the classes. I really wanted to be a professional student. I wish they paid me, instead of me paying the school.

But yeah, all the classes, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. I want to take that one. I want to take that one.” And it’s like, “This is training you to be a chaplain.” I’m like, “Okay.” I had no idea what a chaplain was, but I’m like, “Okay. I just want to take the classes. If these classes train me to become a chaplain, then I’ll be a chaplain.”

So yeah, graduate. And then learn what chaplaincy really is. And here’s a learning curve that first year when you’re new to something. So I cut my teeth in the hospital for a while. After that, I did church ministry, youth ministry, specifically. That’s where I met Chaplain Cynthia, who is our full-time primary chaplain at APUS.

[Read an article by Chaplain Cynthia: Embracing Change in This Era of Mass Confusion and Fear]

So it’s interesting how our paths course correct or flow. Just interesting to me. Like the whole purpose of that one year at the church, because I never saw myself working at a church, was I think just to meet Cynthia, just to connect with her.

And so after that, I still do it, too. Not as much because of the pandemic, but a hospice chaplaincy. And Cynthia asked to me to help her out and come on online university chaplaincy. There’s such things as university chaplains like on site, but I’m wondering if APUS, Cynthia, myself, and we have another one, Audrey, if we’re the only online university chaplains in the world, which boggles my mind.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wow. That is interesting to think about. And I’m wondering what might be different, just to expand that a little bit, about being a chaplain online versus in the live space? What’s the change?

Kyle Sorys: So in hospice, I call it ministry of presence. Being one-on-one with another person, having the physical energy of another person. That gets removed on the online environment. Hence why I really, when I’m working with students or with staff or faculty, mainly it’s students I work with, I really try to talk with them over the phone, at least get the voice. That way I can have a feeling or an understanding. Get that body language, but in the voice. I don’t know how to describe that. It’s like voice language, but under the language, does that make sense?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah. It sounds like tone and inflection and mood.

Kyle Sorys: Yeah, exactly. Because I learned, a lot of emails, right? A lot of emails in the online university profession. The written word, it makes it a little challenging to try to really feel what the person’s going through. Really hear what they’re trying to say. And I find myself, well, I hear this in the writing. It’s like, well, I hear it in the word, but I don’t literally hear it in my ear. So that makes it challenging.

But the freedom it gives too, that you can be anywhere in the world and we can connect this whole now Zoom revolution in a way. Everyone’s on a screen. There’s a lot more flexibility versus, “Oh. You have to meet me in my office, or I have to come meet you. And how far, and where are you?” And more localized as well. I can’t go physically visit someone in the East coast when I’m living right in the middle of the country. So pros and cons.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yes. And just before we jump into some of the things we might want to talk about today, can you give just a brief, “What is a chaplain?” for any of our listeners who are really just not familiar with that role?

Kyle Sorys: I’m still trying to figure it out myself. It’s funny. Was it last week or a couple of weeks ago? Quarterly, we do “Meet the Chaplains,” and that’s where I explain the profession of chaplaincy a little bit. And traditionally, it is clergy members, but in a secular environment, like a hospital, the military, prisons, fire departments, police departments, so secular organizations bring a traditionally religious person in, has a religious background. I think that’s evolving and changing that ritual religious ritual ministry is important, but that’s not the emphasis here on the online university. Maybe that’s one to five percent. I think I’ve prayed once or twice. I don’t know how many students I’ve worked with in the past year that really requested prayer. Most of it is emotional support. And underlying that is spiritual support.

So in brief, chaplaincy is offering spiritual and emotional support. Hence the importance of that ministry of presence, of just being with someone in their struggles and just listening to their story. So another definition I could say as me as a chaplain is someone who hears stories and just appreciates hearing stories.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wonderful. It sounds like a really engaging profession and also one with a lot of variety.

Kyle Sorys: Yeah.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: On the idea of the emotional and the spiritual support, it seems that online faculty in particular are very heavily loaded nowadays. They’re doing a lot. It takes a lot of time. As you mentioned, a lot of emails. They experience that too. What would you like to share with listeners about stress management?

Kyle Sorys: First, it really is about an acceptance that stress exists. You can’t escape it. So there’s no need to resist the stress. Because stress can mean a whole lot of things to different people too. So when I contemplate, like what is stress? And for me, stress is whatever disturbs the mind, whatever disturbs the heart. It’s those winds and storms of life.

And sometimes it’s unavoidable, but most often we’re the ones creating that wind and those storms and those disturbances of the mind.

There’s an analogy that you could get hit with a dart or shot with a dart, a really sharp dart. It hurts. And what do you do with it? Well, most often what happens is we take more darts and stab ourselves, instead of just pulling that dart out and going about our life. So stress happens and what do we do? What is our reaction to the stress?

And so to manage stress, there’s skillful coping and unskillful coping. And it’s really cultivating these skillful coping mechanisms where we just pull that first dart out, instead of adding a second dart or a third dart or fourth dart and so on. And then adding more darts because we’re adding darts.

So that’s definitely where I’d say, start with stress management. Just accept and open to the fact that it is unavoidable.

And then investigating, what are we adding onto it? Is it in our benefit or is it making things worse? Because most often stress happens, we react and we don’t even realize how we’re reacting. It’s just so much habit patterns and conditioning. So really learning what’s under that and managing that, then the stress itself. Stress, you can think of it as more as a symptom of an underlying condition going on.

The stress is not personal. I have that, that sometimes we like to think it’s about us. It’s against us. That it’s a personal attack or life’s out to get us, like we did something wrong. All that we add on to it. No, stress is just stress. It’s not personal.

I think if we can really connect with that, at least for me, if I connect with that, that it’s just nature arising, nature unfolding, just stress happening. It’s not personal. There’s a letting go in that. There’s a release and that which helps the stress.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: As you’re describing this, I’m getting this idea. There’s this concept that thoughts just exist and they might float through your mind and float out of your mind. And if you have a negative thought, you could just imagine that and let it go in the same way. Your analogy to the darts makes me think of that same idea, passing through.

Kyle Sorys: Exactly. There’s two common analogies of the mind. One is the sky. Sometimes you get the nice, beautiful fluffy white clouds just slowly rolling by. Other times, there’s dark, stormy clouds filled with water, ready to burst. Sometimes there’s lightning and sometimes there’s tornadoes. But it’s just weather patterns of the mind. It all comes and goes. And exactly, do you want to get involved with the clouds? Are you even able to get involved with the clouds and the storm? Or you just watch it? Yeah, exactly, just take a step back and just watch the clouds pass by.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Beautiful. Thank you, Kyle. So what strategies might our listeners want to try to deal with their stress or manage it?

Kyle Sorys: This is a hard question to answer, honestly, because it’s so individual. Strategies that work for me may not work for another person and vice versa. But when we were talking before, when you invited me and we talked about what this podcast would entail, I remember mentioning a story that popped up called “what’s done is finished.” So for this question, I’m going to read that story. It’s really short, but I just want to share that to hopefully plant this seed. You can come to keep in mind the importance of this phrase, “what’s done is finished.” And this comes out of my probably favorite book, “Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Sounds great.

Kyle Sorys: Oh, it’s awesome. Yes. So what’s done is finished.

“The monsoon in Thailand is from July to October. During this period, the monastics stopped traveling, put aside all work projects and devote themselves to study and meditation. The period is called the Vassa, the rain’s retreat.

“In the South of Thailand some years ago, a famous abbot was building a new hall for his forest monastery. When the rains retreat came, he stopped all work and sent the builders home. This was the time for quiet in his monastery.

“A few days later, a visitor came, saw the half-constructed building and asked the abbot when his hall would be finished? Without hesitation, the old monk said, ‘The hall is finished.’

“‘What do you mean the hall is finished?’ the visitor replied, taken aback. ‘It hasn’t got a roof. There are no doors or windows. There are pieces of wood and cement bags all over the place. Are you going to leave it like this? Are you mad? What do you mean, the hall is finished?’

The old abbot smiled and gently replied, ‘What’s done is finished.’ And then he went away to meditate.” That is the only way to have a retreat or take a break. Otherwise, our work is never finished.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: What a way to frame that idea.

Kyle Sorys: Yeah. That to-do list. We all have a to-do list. It’s just part of our adult life and it never ends. I know I get stuck on what’s left. Oh, it just keeps accumulating and I can’t keep up. Versus just set it down and looking at it. Nope. I checked that box off. I checked that box off and having it, it’s good enough. What’s done is finished. And there is a letting go in that.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Kyle, thank you for sharing that story and the great example of how to re-conceptualize or view it differently when we’re feeling like the tasks just never stop. They never go away. And in our online teaching world, it does often feel that way, because we might have classes overlapping. There might be an endless pile of forum discussions to reply to, or essays to grade and more to do. So very nice concept to think about just being finished. I like that.

Kyle Sorys: There’s another philosophy I personally stick to, and I understand I don’t have family. I don’t have children. So it’s really easy for me to implement this into my life. But one day a week, I truly commit to no work-related tasks. Even thoughts about work. I’m like, “Nope. Setting those aside. Today’s not the day.” One day a week to live life as I feel it’s meant to be lived, whatever nourishes me spiritually, emotionally. Because come to this understanding that I guess it’s a bigger view. Again when I was in college, it was in Boulder and we called it the Boulder bubble.

Around Boulder, there’s just these majestic mountains and all this natural, just uncivilized greatness and wonderfulness. But you get so bogged down in the Boulder bubble, the assignments due, the busy-ness of traffic, this where to go, those daily tasks of life that we forget the big picture that these mountains exist. And then the big picture of space and time. When we really contemplate our lifespan in the grand scheme of things, a space in time. We’re a blip, or a blip of a blip. And life is precious.

Our time is precious. And in hospice work, I joke, but I’m serious when I say this, that I have heard nobody, not one person on their death bed ever say, “I wish I worked more.” So what’s really important in life? So at least commit one day to embracing that, what life is really about for you.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wonderful guidance. Thank you for that piece as well, Kyle. Now I hear you are a bit of a connoisseur of meditation.

Kyle Sorys: Yes.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Maybe have some strategies you could suggest for a beginner. How might we try meditation?

Kyle Sorys: You start where you are. That’s first. You just start where you are. It’s funny. Because the instruction to meditate is really simple. But in actual practice, it can be quite challenging. And that’s why we call it practice. But if anyone is interested in meditation I might say, “If you’re really serious, call me, contact me, email me, and I’d love to talk one-on-one more about it.” That way it can be more of a personal and individualized approach, because not everyone is at the same starting point.

No one has the same causes and conditions happening in their life. So that helps. But basically, really you just commit to a practice, and you start very small, and the practice is stopping and resting. You just sit and be. And breathe.

The image that was given is it’s like sitting on a park bench. What do you do? You just sit. You just be, when you sit on a park bench, and you just take in the sensory experience, be it the birds singing or the people around, or if there’s children playing or the firmness of the bench seat. The warmth of the sun, you’re just in that moment. Whatever’s happening, arising, you’re just being with it. Again, another joke, but serious, we’re called human beings, but we’re conditioned as human doings. So really it’s tapping in what does that mean to be a human being? To just be, to learn to set things down? That’s meditation, the essence.

What really helps is when you do sit, you’ll see that the mind just carries these bags of past and future. And if you’ve ever carried heavy luggage, maybe that’s a thing of the past, because everything’s on wheels now. But if you carry these heavy bags, how wonderful it feels to let them go and set them down, right?

So that’s what we’re doing is just not giving into the lure of the nostalgia of the past, or reminiscing about the past. Or planning and worrying and creating an anxiety about the future, which is uncertain. Whatever you think is going to happen, probably rarely ever happens that way.

So, that’s the practice, just at least five minutes a day. Start small. Going to stop. This five minutes in the morning and this five minutes in the afternoon or this five minutes in the evening, this is my time to just stop. Put a force field around me that keeps everything out. Just for these five minutes, I’m taking a mini-vacation and relax to the max.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Oh, I liked the sound of that. In fact, as you were describing it, I was starting to think about the birds chirping and just getting really present in the now, and not worried about the next hour or the next day or when those assignments are coming due and all the grading we’re going to be facing, needing to manage that time. But just thinking about the moment you’re in and letting go of anxiety. Really appreciate you sharing that suggestion and a little bit of a process with us as well. Thank you, Kyle.

Kyle Sorys: You’re welcome.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: What else, if anything, might you suggest or share with us that could really help online educators with their stress management or maybe anything else that has to do with their overall wellbeing? What do you think?

Kyle Sorys: You mentioned it in the beginning. You I guess talked about it in the past. That the body and the mind are not separate. So to take care of the mind, as in meditation, you also need to take care of the body. Meditation is rest, but rest is also physical rest. So we are a very sleep-deprived society.

And I had one student. She was going mad. She was really stressing out and that was the one question like, “How’s your sleep?” That’s all I asked and she said, “I don’t sleep. I kind of this and this.” And I checked in with her and she just asked like, “Did you get sleep last night?” And she goes, “Oh.” Like her mind was just reset and how everything just smoothed out for her, just because she got one good night of sleep. I think we forget that. Maybe we forget that because that to-do list, right? Like, “Oh. I got to wake up. I got to do this.”

Move the body. Working with elderly people, that’s their advice. I ask them like, “What’s your nugget of wisdom?” And some of them will say, “Make sure you move that body every day.” Be it stretching, walking. Because just reflect what’s the percentage of your daily time committed to sitting or lying down? It’s too much for me. I’ll admit that’s way too much. And to be conscious of standing more, just even standing and walking, moving, and stretching and being mindful when I’m bending over. And I guess this body communicates that to me. It’s like, “Take care of me. If you don’t, I’m going to make you.”

And then, yeah, the nutrition also. I guess you’ve talked about that in the past. What fuel are you putting in the body? That affects the mind as well. Other well-being tips… Like committing to not having work, but having periods in the day where, “This time, no screens allowed,” because we are definitely becoming a civilization of screens and can get really caught in the screens. And I just know it tires my eyes. It tires my mind just looking at the light. I don’t know. It does funny things to me. Maybe that’s just me, but I have a sense others might experience that as well. But be aware to take time out from the screen. I actually had a friend, that’s a slogan. He goes, “Put yourself in timeout at least once a day.”

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: And someone said to me, “Be your own parent.” It sounds a lot like that.

Kyle Sorys: It’s hard. Right?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Exactly.

Kyle Sorys: As adults, we struggle the most feeding ourselves and putting ourselves to bed.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: It’s true.

Kyle Sorys: Yeah. I think of, with stress, another way to think of stress, I like this. That the mind is like a garden. And so everything in life that we consider good or bad, it really is neither. It just is. But it can all be used as fertilizer for the mind. And so when we step in the crap of life, our reaction is to get away from it, to scrape it off the shoe, to be repulsed and disgusted by it. It’s so nasty. But we could just leave it on our shoe and take it home and then scrape it off in our garden and it’ll grow some beautiful flowers.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That is a great, great visualization there.

Kyle Sorys: And the importance of self-kindness and self-compassion. “You are doing the best you can. You have to remember that.” Pretty much everybody is doing the best they can. And if you’re not, if you ask yourself, “Am I doing the best I can?” You say, “No,” then you know like, “Oh, okay. I need to be striving a little bit.”

Most often, you’re going to say, and “Yes, of course I am.” And just, well, have some kindness there. Have some gentleness there. Another slogan or motto that I use often is, “You make peace. You be kind and you be gentle. To yourself, to others, to this moment. Just make peace, be kind and be gentle.”

And I think that can go a long way in helping with the stress and wellbeing. Cultivating lightheartedness, having a sense of humor, the importance of humor and playfulness. This adult mind forgets that skill and its so vital to childhood development. But I do believe it’s still that aspect of play and humor is vital to our adult development as well. And to just cope with the inevitable stressors of life.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wonderful. Kyle, thank you for all that you’ve shared today. I can tell that you draw on your expertise from your various background experiences you shared with us earlier. And also, even though this is just online, you and I are looking at each other on video while we’re recording this. And I really feel like I have a sense for your presence. I don’t think that virtual totally prevents that from coming through. It’s just nice to be here with you, and thanks again for all you’ve shared with our listeners today.

Kyle Sorys: Likewise, Bethanie. Thank you very much.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yes. So as we wrap it up, this is the Online Teaching Lounge podcast and we’ve been here with Chaplain Kyle Sorys and talking about your wellbeing as an online educator. We wish you all the best this coming week in being the best version of you in your online teaching.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.