Four Strategies Every Online Educator Needs for a Work-Life Balance

Online educators have been implementing the work-at-home model long before there was the 2020 crisis. Some referred to it as “teaching in your pajamas” – because of the nature of the job, which often meant for many, working a full-time position during the day while teaching as an adjunct during the evening hours. Those who are in a full-time position may still find themselves working during both daytime and evening hours, simply due to the needs of the learners and the requirements of classroom management. I’ve been in both roles over the past 15 years, and my ability to balance a professional and personal life has come about through time and practice.

While the roles may have a slight variation from one online school to the next, the requirements are generally the same. To be successful in this role, you must decide to allocate enough time to complete your tasks, even if it takes away time from your personal life. I say this not to demean the position in any manner, rather it is said because teaching is not a position in which you can easily clock in and out from or establish strict hours for completing daily tasks. There are certain tasks, such as feedback and class discussions, which you can estimate time commitments to some degree. However, the time needed to be engaged with learners cannot be accurately estimated. From my personal perspective, I would rather be available, highly engaged, responsible, and easily available for learners, even if this means I am taking more time than it seems I should be allocating for that particular day. In fact, I do not even think about time as a factor each day. Instead, I developed strategies to help ensure I am balancing time effectively.

What Does Your School Require?

As an adjunct, there are typically specific due dates that are contractual in nature. These due dates are related to feedback and class discussions. This can create a sense of pressure each week, trying to meet those required deadlines. What you want to be certain you are aware of is the exact nature of your contractual requirements. There may be a Faculty Handbook, a teaching contract, or other similar type of document. I recommend you review these documents, along with school policies at the start of each term, to make certain you are well aware of what your school requires. There is often an unstated rule about those adjuncts who are not meeting the requirements and an inability to continue receiving new contracts or additional course assignments. More importantly, depending upon the severity of the requirements not met, failure to meet a contractual requirement could result in termination.

Are You Taking on Too Much?

I know of many adjuncts who are teaching for multiple institutions at the same time. As a faculty development specialist, I interacted with faculty who were teaching at five or six institutions at time. I cannot imagine trying to balance that many classes, at multiple institutions, all at the same time. What would make this even more complex would be also working full-time; however, I did not ask for personal details. There is a common understanding in this industry that many part-time adjuncts earn a living this manner, by teaching at multiple institutions, and I understand why. The competition for positions now is higher than ever. This wasn’t the case when I started in 2005 as the number of positions greatly outweighed the number of available faculty. If you are teaching multiple classes for multiple schools, you must be especially careful about how you are balancing your personal and professional lives.

Then there is a completely opposite syndrome, those who intentionally take on too much and are not concerned about the quality of the tasks they complete. A couple of years ago I had a contract with a specialty online school to create their very first Faculty Development Center. Once I had it developed and launched, I began online training. As part of this project I created the first set of Faculty Standards and reviewed faculty classes. What I found was a common problem within the industry, faculty who teach to earn a paycheck. There were participation posts with comments such as “I agree” and feedback for written papers which included “Good job”. Unfortunately for the school, there were no standards previously in place, and quality control was never measured.

How to Define a Work-Life Balance

The tasks required for an online educator are not easily calculated, as to creating a time management plan. Therefore, when attempting to set up personal and professional time, it may not be easy to state which day or days to allocate for each one. There is another approach required and the following four strategies can help you adapt your unique position to find a sense of balance, which in turn will help you feel better prepared to complete your tasks, when you are required to do so. No one can function effectively at a non-stop pace. Everyone needs a break and this plan will help get you started.

Four Strategies Every Online Educator Needs for a Work-Life Balance

These strategies are meant to help you find a sense of stability with your schedule. Start with the first strategy as it provides a purpose statement for your entire plan and will create a vision to sustain the balance you are seeking.

Strategy #1: Create a Professional Practice Philosophy Statement

As an online educator, you likely have a personal philosophy statement developed already. This statement is something different. This is a statement you are going to develop for you and you alone. It is a reconciliation, so to speak, in which you decide how much time you are willing to spend on your career each week. It is not meant to be shown to anyone, which means you are not going to be judged for your answer. You decide, and you determine now, what your limits for this job will be each week. Developing this type of boundary is important for establishing a balancing statement.

Strategy #2: Create Your Schedule, One Week at a Time

Now that you have your Professional Practice Philosophy Statement, and you understand your professional time limit per week, you can create a schedule. What you will need next is a list of the contractual or required faculty duties for the week. Take the list and map it out for the week. You can allocate more time for significant tasks, such as feedback, and break down a task like that over several days. You may also need time for discussions throughout the week, along with classroom management. While this strategy may seem fairly obvious, the simple act of completing it, with a time limit having been established, can be very productive from a mindset point-of-view.

Strategy #3: Stick to the Plan, When It’s a Valid Plan

Now that you have a plan in place, you will find yourself more willing to stick to it. Now you will likely complete tasks on time as you know the deadlines established for yourself. More importantly, you understand why this plan was completed, and it was for your well-being, to ensure there is time leftover each week for your personal life. Now I would make a caution about this as well. If you decided to only allocate 10 hours, when the expectation is to spend 30 hours a week for your work as an adjunct, then a realistic plan has not been created and a disservice has been given both to the learners and your school. In addition, if there are valid reasons why you need to spend extra time on a specific day, then you should consider why that extra time would be a good investment in your career. In other words, always weigh the benefits of exceeding your daily plan when there is a legitimate reason.

Strategy #4: Learn to Unplug When It’s Time

This is perhaps one of the most challenging strategies for anyone who is an online educator, learning to unplug from technology. Even if you turn off the computer or laptop, it may still be possible to access the classroom and/or email from a mobile device, such as a phone. But at the end of a work day, you need your downtime. You have got to allow yourself some time to rest and recharge, for the sake of your well-being and mental health. This is also true for the personal time you’ve designated in your time plan. I cannot state I have always allowed full days off in my weekly plan; however, I at least allow blocks of time to stop and enjoy time with my family. Perhaps I’ll take my spouse to a movie, or take my family out to eat. The point is I understand why I’m working, based upon my own Professional Practice Philosophy Statement, and I know when I need to unplug. You need to do this as well, so you can come back to the computer or laptop refreshed.

This is an Art, Not a Science

Learning how to balance your daily and weekly tasks is an art, more than it is an exact science, and it will take some time and practice. If you have not been a remote employee before, this will require a new mindset. The best advice I can offer is to make certain you have a designated space to perform your teaching duties. I have my own home-based office, my command center, and when I step into this office, I know I’m there to teach. It is a place which allows me to easily become focused on the task at hand as it is distraction-free, and once I leave the office at the end of the day, I know it is time for me to begin to start my downtime. Was I able to become this well-disciplined right away? It did take time and practice as I had to learn how to rely upon myself, rather than arrive at my place of employment and later clock-out at a particular time, knowing my day was completed.

When I first began teaching online, I checked my online classes all the time, then I gradually developed a rhythm. Now I know how to use alerts and respond in a timely manner, and I have a feel for how to manage the many responsibilities of an online class. Over time you will develop this type of innate sense as well. Most important of all, I keep in mind every day why I teach, which is more important to me than anything else. In a learner-centered environment, an educator must be acutely aware of the needs of their learners and ready to action. Therefore, my form of balance is unique, similar to the type of environment I teach in. The more dedicated you are for the learners you teach, the more likely you may need to adapt the strategies I’ve described as well. Instead of creating a Work-Life Balance, perhaps you will create an Educator-Learner Balance. Always take care of your learners and yourself.

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson is an inspirational author, writer, and teacher.

Dr. Johnson’s career has involved helping others learn, including people and organizations. His roles have included Manager of Training and Development, Human Performance Improvement Consultant, Online Instructor, Career Coach, Curriculum Developer, Manager of Faculty Development, and Chief Academic Officer.

Since 2005, Dr. J has specialized in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, career development, and human performance improvement. He has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities.

As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published books, eBooks, and over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development, helping to fulfill his life’s mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others.

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