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Self-Care for the Introverted TA

Advice for keeping your batteries charged.

April 19, 2016

Anne Guarnera is a doctoral candidate in Spanish at the University of Virginia. You can find her on Twitter as @aguarnera and at her website.


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While The Atlantic’s recent article on K-12 teacher burnout suggests that introverted teachers may thrive in the college classroom, if you are a TA and an introvert, you know that it is not necessarily easy to balance your need for quiet and reflection with what can seem like constant demands from students and colleagues.  


As an intensely introverted person (albeit a very friendly one!), I have encountered this struggle in my own teaching career. When I first graduated college, I taught high school English to 120 students on a daily basis; at the end of each day I left my classroom feeling completely depleted of all of my physical, emotional, and mental energy. While college teaching has proven to be a much better fit for me, I have still had to work at developing systems that allow me the mental and emotional space that I need to teach well (and be a generally happy person), while still being accessible and responsive to my students.  


So in honor of Self-Care Week on the blog, I’d like to offer some suggestions to my fellow introverted TAs based on what I’ve learned so far:


1. Set clear, reasonable communication expectations with students. Especially in the United States, social media and e-mail culture has convinced many of us that we need to be “on” 24/7 to respond to student inquiries and last-minute crises, but for an introvert, being constantly accessible to students can create unnecessary stress. So before you attempt to respond to every question about a problem set as it arrives in your inbox, consider setting some boundaries around your communication with students. There are two key things to think about here: first, how you will communicate with students, and second, when you will communicate with students.


As to the former, consider the best ways for you, personally, to be accessible to students; Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangout, online course pages, e-mail, text, and office hours are all options. Some of these may be less helpful to students than others, and you may opt out of them entirely, but others can be used strategically to streamline your work. For example, you may decide to ask students to funnel certain kinds of communication through certain channels. For example, I often request that students reserve homework problems for office hours, since they are typically too complicated to respond to via e-mail. You may ask that students crowdsource basic scheduling or assignment-related questions on a course Facebook page that you monitor, or perhaps they can tweet discussion questions with an assigned hashtag. Part of figuring out what will work best for you is evaluating just how many channels you can handle; if the idea of maintaining a Facebook page for your class makes you nauseous, it probably isn’t the best idea (and we’ve talked about social media privacy here).  While you certainly want to give students more than one way to reach you, you don’t necessarily have to (and probably shouldn’t) employ every communications platform for every class you teach.


Once you’ve decided how you will be accessible to students, it is can also be helpful to set boundaries around when. I know one extremely talented TA who valued her weekends as personal time and did not respond to e-mail from 5 PM on Friday until 9 AM on Monday. Since she communicated this to her students at the start of the semester, they respected her policy and planned accordingly. You may ask that students give you 24 hours to respond to e-mail, or tell them to expect a response only at the set times of day when you check your inbox. Your communication schedule will depend on both how many channels you have open and how much structure you want to require of yourself. If checking e-mail at the same time every day helps you feel less overwhelmed, then telling students that you will respond to them at 9 AM and 3 PM might be the way to go.


Regardless of how and when you choose to make yourself accessible to students, be clear with them about your personal standards and then be sure to follow through and be available at the times and places you’ve promised.


2.  Surround yourself with fellow grads who will encourage you in your teaching. Every department culture is different, but if yours tends towards endless commiseration, beware. As Katie Shives has written, it’s important to guard yourself against cynicism in grad school, especially with regards to teaching. Students can be an easy target for complainers, and departments sometimes inadvertently encourage negative attitudes towards classroom teaching by making it seem like an obligation to endure rather than a privilege and an opportunity for professional development. So be careful regarding who you talk to about teaching, and if you find that someone else is draining you with his/her negative comments, consider putting these boundary-setting measures into practice. Likewise, exchange strategies with other introverted TAs for thriving in the classroom. If you are used to incorporating a lot of group work in your classroom—which is a great thing—perhaps you and your students would benefit from the addition of more contemplative activities as well, such as individual written reflections.


3.  Feed your introverted soul with hobbies that energize you. During the semesters that you are teaching and interacting with students on a very regular basis, consider whether or not your hobbies are truly serving your emotional needs. Some hobbies that might be fine to pursue during the summer may just produce stress during a busy semester. Case in point: Facebook can be a major stressor for me during busy times; the politically incendiary status updates, the passive aggressive comments, and the endless targeted ads for baby breathing monitors become overwhelming to me. So recently, when I need to tune out for a minute, I’ve been trying to open my Kindle app instead and read a few pages of my current novel. If you need more ideas on hobbies, consider the wisdom of past GradHacker authors, who have written on the “weekend warrior” approach, the joy of failing at new pastimes, how to take yourself on a scholar date, and the specific value of knitting and cupcakery.


If you are an introverted TA, how have you found ways to honor your introversion while remaining engaged with students?


[Image by Flickr user Michael Yan and used under Creative Commons licensing]


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