The InterLearn Blog

Sharing our journey, opinions and thoughts on online education.

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Killing Passion: Letting Burnout Run its Course

Earlier in my career, I was a regional dean for Indiana Wesleyan University.  During a significant portion of that assignment, I was responsible for the Cleveland Education Center (Ohio) as well as the Louisville Education Center (Kentucky).  For those not familiar with that part of the country, that’s about a four-hour drive between the two.  During that time period, I would switch back and forth between being onsite at each location:  one week in Cleveland, one week in Louisville. 

During the weeks that I was home, my wife also worked for the oilfield testing company that she now leads. . .in Tulsa, OK.  That was a bit more than a four-hour drive.  That was two plane rides away. . .often going through Chicago and getting stuck overnight in the airport in Chicago.  When she was in Tulsa, her work week was usually 3 am until 10 pm each day. . .and then she would do data analysis and report writing on the weekends. 

During this time, we had two young girls and a baby boy. 

Did I mention that in addition to my duties for IWU and dad duties, I also taught every first course of every associate’s program for IWU and several other courses as needed onsite and carried about a 2.5 times load teaching online for Capella University, Walden University, Northcentral University, and University of Phoenix? 

In order to keep up this habit, I would work my “day job” from 8 am until 5 pm.  Then I would come home, have dinner and teach and grade online courses until 1 or 2 in the morning.  Then get up and start it all over again. 

In keeping this schedule, I found that I hit burnout about once per quarter.  So, I began to plan for this.  Instead of hitting full on crash-and-burn-hard burnout, I recognized that I had a tough schedule along with a wife that had a tough schedule.  As a result, my wife and I planned things to help us recover from burnout.  From my part, I planned to go out with the guys on a semi-regular basis.  As a family, we planned downtime, putting it on the calendar, and made a big deal about really unplugging and not working.  Sundays really were a day of rest. . .we religiously took a nap after church and Sunday lunch.  We had special meal nights with the kids with themes.  Additionally, I played basketball three days a week and I ran.  We were heavily involved in church as well and that family cared well for us too. 

Now that I am out of that role and retired from teaching, my schedule is not nearly that hectic (nor is my wife’s).  We live in Tulsa where my wife leads the lab.  I no longer have the hours grading as I rarely teach any longer.  I no longer travel back and forth between Cleveland and Louisville.  I work for myself and control the schedule that I keep.  Life is nowhere nearly as hectic as it was in those Cleveland days. 

Yet, I came to the realization, with some level of surprise this week, that I was seeing the signs of burnout.  You would think that I would have this figured out and wouldn’t let myself get to this spot.  However, the telltale signs were in place:  tired, a general malaise towards some projects, lacking focus and drive, lacking desire to workout, even a dullness in my relationship with God.  I was still reading the Bible faithfully but it felt distant.

Psychology Today had an article that referenced burnout as “a state of chronic stress that leads to: 

  • physical and emotional exhaustion
  • cynicism and detachment
  • feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment” (Carter, 2013, para. 2).

Carter goes on to list some of the very things that I was experiencing and should have recognized. 

In her opening paragraph, though, she hits on a key point, the passion of the leader, that is at stake when a leader experiences burnout.  When a leader lets burnout overtake him/her, passion is drained off. . .and that’s a bad thing.  The passion a leader has is a mixture of skill, calling, and preparation meeting the opportunity ordained of God.  That zeal for the work not only affects the leader but it affects the followers influenced by the leader. 

As a leader, you must carefully protect that passion.  Watch for the signs that you are nearing burnout.  Look for ways to assure that you do not let it overtake you.  Don’t let the pressures of the work drain your passion.  Come up with strategies that help you recalibrate and get you back to your passion and focused on the work God has for you. 

In my case, I have started down that path to recalibrating: 

  • I went out with a college buddy for the evening for dinner and a movie. 
  • I bought a book to read for pleasure and decided to read through Chronicles of Narnia again. 
  • I’m working on several trips for the year. 
  • I passed along several responsibilities to my team that I didn’t need to do so I could focus on things only I could do. 

Reference

Carter, S.B.  (November 26, 2013).  The tell tale signs of burnout…Do you have them?  Psychology Today website.  Retrieved April 2, 2019 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/high-octane-women/201311/the-tell-tale-signs-burnout-do-you-have-them

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Learning from the Negative

I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve had this conversation as a parent with my children.  Sometimes it has been about examples that are in front of my children as teachers or leaders. . .sometimes it’s about me.  I tell them as we’re reflecting on the situation and can find very little positive that happened:  “I’m sorry but you’re going to have to learn from the negative on this one.  You’re going to have to see what not to do and learn to do the right thing.”

I’m sure we’ve all had to do that in our lives.  We see a bad example of something and run the other way. . .or at least decide to do something different.  (If you’re struggling for some negative examples, talk to me…I’ll share some of mine.)  We never want to be the negative example for those around us (ahem, our children…or students or team members).  Yet, given our fallen nature, it does happen.  As we grow in wisdom, hopefully, we have fewer of those times where we are the negative example. 

However, as leaders, we must recognize and embrace those opportunities to teach and develop even in the negative.  For faculty, they need to train students to learn from the negative.  They will likely have leaders “in the real world” that don’t have a positive message or lesson at times.  Yet, they still need to move forward in their own development despite those negatives.  The same is true for team members.  We would not want our team to fail just because we mess up.  We want them to learn and grow even when we miss it.

Learning from the negative requires several things on the part of learner:

  • Humility.  Recognition that we are fallen and make mistakes is vital. 
  • Grace.  Fortunately, we have forgiveness through Christ for this.  However, it’s Christ’s work of forgiveness in our lives that must be remembered when viewing these failures in others. We, too, are fallen, been forgiven (and will need forgiveness again in the future very likely), and need to extend the Grace that Christ extends to us.
  • Reflection.  While it may be easy to get upset at the negative example in front of us, we must logically reflect on that example to really learn from it.  See the situation from the perspective of the person providing the negative example.  What made them act the way they did?  What would have been the better way to act?  What will keep you from acting the same way in other situations? 

There are certainly times where the body of negative work in an individual requires us to pull away from an individual.  However, recognizing that they are in need of growth, just like you, is equally important. 

You may be the one to help them learn from their own negative example by gracefully helping them see their example.  

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Race to the Finish

In our household, the end of the year can be an extremely busy time (I’m sure we’re the only ones, right?!?). Not only do we have the normal holiday rush, my wife’s company often has rush work at the end of the year. As a result, there is always the likelihood that she will be racing to get everything done and reports written for clients. The question for us becomes, “what is really important that has to get done and what can wait?”

But what if we were to start the year with this attitude instead of just ending it with the idea in our heads? What if we decided that we were going to focus on what was really important and prioritize our year that way instead of just letting the year come at us and responding? How could we change our focus? What would it take?

Probably the first part would be to say, “What IS important. . .for the whole year (or 5 years or 10)?” When we really take the time to think about what is important, some of the focus will shift away from things that in a month we won’t even care about. It will let us throw aside the unimportant and reach for the important (perhaps eternal) things. . .

As we start this new year, let’s take the time to find the important, in our relationship with the Father, in our family, friends, and colleagues, in our work, and then get rid of the stuff that isn’t important. . .

. . .Then let’s race to the finish, with lightened load, and accomplish what needs to get done.

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You Don’t Have to Know It All (and you can’t know it all)

One maxim that I share with team members here at InterLearn is that “you can tell clients that you don’t know.” That is, I want them to know that they don’t have to know it all.  

According to some, the human knowledge base is currently doubling every 12 – 13 months.  The expectation is that it will reach a 12 HOUR doubling state with the expansion of the Internet of Things (all the appliances connected to the internet).  So, from a very practical perspective, it is an impossibility to know everything.  

Before you stop reading as you think this is a point that you already know, stop and think about your personal practice.  Everything from the way you delegate to the way you hire team members to the consultants you hire is affected by this conversation.  You may practically recognize that you don’t know everything.  However, unconsciously, there are areas where you think you know more than you really do.  When you unconsciously think you know everything about something (or that you know better than others), it keeps you from delegating tasks that “someone else couldn’t possibly do as well.”  It affects the team members that you fail to hire because they have abilities equal to or better than yours.  It keeps you from hiring consultants who could 1) take some of the man hours that your team has to spend to accomplish work, 2) know how to do it better/have more expertise than you, and 3) save you money by doing it more efficiently and quickly than you could do it. 

So, rather than feeling like you have to know it all, develop your vocational certainty around the concepts that you SHOULD know.  Have the attitude that you are going to make you the best you that you can to support those who you lead on your team.  Then keep learning and bringing in those that can support your learning.  

Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. . .and then never give up on learning more and developing resources that help you know (including other people). 

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The Truths We Ignore about Faculty (and how to embrace those Truths)

I’ve seen it time and again…examples of exceptional teachers in higher education and some dismal failures.  We look to faculty to be the deliverers of our message and mission to the students at our institutions.  We hire them educated in their field of study and ask them to pass on the body of knowledge to our students from our institutional perspective.  

However, there are truths about faculty that we often ignore.  When we do, we do our students a severe disservice.  Here are some of those truths:

Adjunct faculty members and non-terminally-degreed faculty may be your best teachers. Maybe.  This is not a guarantee.  However, because they often have their “day job” to support them, they are often doing this because they want to give back, because they have a passion for it, or because they really have a good knack for it.

  • Embrace the Truth:  Don’t be afraid of using adjuncts liberally. Connect them with your full-time faculty in discussion groups about the field and what is happening.

In getting their education, faculty often miss the practical experience out in the field because the ivory tower is not field-based instruction.  As noted in the previous point, adjuncts are often employed in their “day job.”  Their job out in the “real world” hopefully aligns with their advanced degrees that they’ve put to use informing the field and letting the field inform what they’ve learned in their program.  However, many times those pursuing higher education faculty roles are not experienced in what the field is doing.  Instead they have the perspective of what the research has shown (at best) and an outdated perspective they gained in the ivory tower.

  • Embrace the Truth:  Connect faculty with field-based experiences through your field-based adjunct faculty in discussion groups about the field and what is happening.  Encourage your faculty to engage in field-based projects to gain more personal “real-world” experience. 

Faculty without accountability equals anarchy.  Without accountability to policies and standards through faculty assessment and reviews, faculty default to their latest whim.  We hope that they have a standard of decorum, but allowing the faculty to do what they want could be akin to telling a teenager to “behave” while you’re out of town for the week with no other adult supervision.  Will your place be standing when you get home?  How many times will the police be called to your house by the neighbors?  

  • Embrace the Truth:  Establish strong relationships with your faculty, first and foremost.  Leadership of them through relationship will allow for trust to be built between you and them.  So, even when you haven’t specified something that might arise, they will know you well enough to do what you’d prefer.  Develop an assessment process that holds faculty accountable for the things that your institution values.  Assure that they know the standards you have and that they adhere to them.  In the accountability system, find ways to catch them doing the right things exceptionally.  And a final point, if you don’t have it implemented, don’t implement a tenure system that avoids accountability for faculty.

Faculty are educated in their field of study, not to be teachers.  This is probably the biggest truth we ignore and I almost wrote the article just about this.  Most individuals reading this article are probably working with teaching institutions.  In those institutions, we expect faculty to know how to teach when they enter the academy.  In adult and online programs, where we use more adjuncts, we’ve figured out that we better do some orientation.  However, I rarely see much beyond an orientation for even that group.  Further, I rarely see even an orientation for traditional side faculty where they are expected to know how to teach.  Faculty, at best, come out mimicking the methods of their instructors.  That is a complete wheel of fortune model though.  Sometimes you get the $10,000 slot (in a few, rare instances).  However, “bankrupt” is all too often an outcome.  Faculty (may) know their content, but they are not often prepared to be good teachers.  

  • Embrace the Truth:  Recognize the commodity that you’ve “purchased” (the knowledge base of the faculty member).  Recognize that they have that but that the rest of their abilities may not be up to the standards that you have.  Then meet with all of your faculty to discuss good teaching and learning based on philosophy and theory that your institution has as part of its conceptual framework* for its programs.  Then train EVERYBODY that has faculty status. Don’t let them back in the classroom until they have gone through your training.  As noted above, assess for the things that you’re wanting to see in the classroom.  Then keep developing and training every year.  For faculty that are good at what they do, use them as mentors for more inexperienced faculty.  Set up content discussion groups and teaching methods groups.  

*If you don’t have a conceptual framework for your programs that you actually use to affect course development and delivery, back up to this step.  If you need help with this, call us.  

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The Pessimist’s Dilemma

For most of my life, I’ve been an optimist.  In high school, I was even given a character award for it.  As an entrepreneur, I’m a rugged optimist…I think my ideas are good enough and better than what I see out in the field. . .and will succeed.  And if those ideas don’t work, I’m sure we’ll figure out another way to get the job done.  As I’ve aged, I’ve probably moved a bit left to realism as a measure of what can affect my ideas (particularly when I haven’t done the hard work of developing a plan around them).  However, I still maintain that positive outlook about what can be and what is coming.  

For the pessimist, though, there is an entirely different outlook on things.  They see the world in the ways that it can’t be done, not in the way it can.  They have obstructionist’s tendencies to shoot holes in the ideas of those moving forward with a plan.  The “new ideas” that they bring to the table are why it won’t or can’t work.  All too often, they hold this pessimism as a righteous calling.  

I’ve seen this all too often in my client base.  The pessimist enters the room claiming they are just being the realist or holding the arbitrary standard they feel applies. . .and their “righteous work” is, seemingly, to kill accomplishment…to kill growth.  I’m thinking of one individual in particular as I write this but there are many others I’ve seen over the years.  

The experienced optimist knows that there is a way to deal with the pessimist.  A good idea backed up with a solid plan can defeat the negative perspective of the pessimist.  The pessimist will out themselves as a “Negative Nancy” given the time and opportunity and the crowd around them will grow weary. 

However, the pessimist has a dilemma in any forward-thinking, growth-minded organization.  Will they choose to change their perspective on the ideas placed before them with a positive attitude? Or, will they succumb to their bent?  Their bent is comfortable for them.  They can play the role of “just looking out for what’s best” or “quality.”  In the end, they will settle for less and hold back those looking for increase.  When they stay with their normal, it will lead to misery for themselves and for those around them until someone makes the executive decision to move them out or they self-select out.  Either way, it will be a breath of fresh air for the group when they do.  

Alternatively, they can CHOOSE a new perspective.  It won’t be natural.  It likely won’t be easy.  They will have to change their attitude and thinking patterns.  They will have to gain a new understanding of how quality works.  They will also have to gain a new level of trust from their compatriots who know them as a pessimist (because likely by now their compatriots have learned to expect the negative from them).  It won’t be easy to change.  It will be a daily, perhaps hour-by-hour challenge to make the adjustments.