Professor Destressor eNews
Combining productive work lives and balanced personal lives

Our goal is to bring you news, insights, and information about leading a balanced and productive life while making a difference.

Strong Start to the Semester

Those lazy hazy days of summer are over again. Didn’t it seem that they just began a week or so ago? The fall semester is upon you and if you are like most professors, you are feeling a bit anxious and overwhelmed. When I was a full time professor, my colleagues and I joked about waking up in cold sweats with pre-semester nightmares about arriving for class in our pajamas or showing up in the wrong building or teaching a class of students who rudely ignored the teacher. To calm some of your back-to-school jitters, take a few moments to plan how to have a strong start to the semester with your goals clearly in mind and your work life organized enough to feel confident and hopeful about a good semester.

Teaching Strong Starts

As a teaching faculty member you have two tasks that will make your semester start strong: a well-prepared syllabus, and a good first class.

A well-prepared syllabus has these elements:

  • Information about you, your office, your office hours, and how you want to be communicated with whether that is email, a certain phone number, etc.

  • The required and recommended textbooks and or supporting materials such as journal articles, lab manuals, or sketchbooks.

  • A week by week or day by day schedule of class topics, assignments, and assessments.

  • A clear grading scale.

  • Class policies such as attendance, class participation, use of cell phones, etc.

  • A writing tone that sounds more like an organized executive than a prison warden. For example, one syllabus I reviewed for a coaching client said, “No amount of begging will get me to change your grade.” We changed it to read, “The best strategy to earn the grade you desire is the timely completion of quality assignments.

  • Special assignment directions such as for term papers or lab reports can be either attached to the syllabus or distributed later.

A strong start to a great first class includes:

  • Being early so that you can greet students, circulate around, introduce yourself and learn a few names. The early birds are often the better students who come to class prepared and want to contribute. Calling them by name reinforces their hard work and builds a community of learners.

  • When it is time for class to begin, introduce yourself with whatever information you want the students to know about you. They will spend approximately 45 hours this semester staring at your face and they want to know something about the person behind the face. The introduction does not have to include personal material about your marital and family status unless you are public about those things but it should include:
    • How your name is pronounced.
    • Your degrees earned and schools where earned.
    • Your rank and department.
    • Your research and teaching interests (explained briefly in non-technical language for undergraduate classes).

  • Do some activity that shows interest in your students as people. In a small class, you can design a structured exercise where they introduce themselves apropos to the course topic, for example, what they love about chemistry. At the very least, ask them to fill out 3x5 cards with names including phonetic pronunciation if it is not a name that would be obvious to you, how they would like to be contacted by you, and their academic and job experience in the field related to the course.

  • Spend some class time reviewing the syllabus. If it is lengthy, distribute it or tell them the website where you have posted it, Assign the students to read it bringing questions to the second class. Class time spent clearing up misunderstandings about the course structure will pay off in lowering your stress later in the semester.

  • Introduce the topic of the course in a learning centered activity, perhaps a short mini-lecture followed by a small group or pencil-paper activity. Don’t lecture the whole class and don’t dismiss the class early.

  • In case you read this newsletter after your first class and didn’t do any of the above, all is not lost. You can implement any suggestions that seem appropriate in the second or subsequent class.

Research Strong Starts

One area of feeling overwhelmed for most faculty is how to find time for scholarly work while still being prepared for class. For a strong start in your research role, block out writing appointments with yourself as though you were committed to a class hour at that time. When you were a student, if you were a smart student, you took your class schedule and then blocked in class preparation time around your classes. Similarly, as a smart professor you will want to sit down with your schedule, fill in with your classes and add class preparation and grading. Plug in your office hours including electronic office hours, those announced times when you promise your students you will deliver prompt replies to their emails. Then reserve time for standing meetings such as with your graduate students or committees. You should still have about 15 hours across the week to work on your research and writing. If you don’t, you may be spending your class preparation time ineffectively or perhaps you have overcommitted to service work.

If you have problems with staying on target with your research commitments, find accountability outside of yourself until you can build better habits.

  • Join a faculty writing group and show up with some pages to share with your colleagues.

  • Buddy up with one or two colleagues to connect and keep in touch on projects. You do not have to actually meet in person; you can set a deadline for reporting progress and do so by email. Or you can meet in person and share writing for helpful critiques. The colleagues do not have to be in your field. Faculty writing expert, Tara Gray, suggests that feedback from intelligent readers who are not in your field can pick up the obvious that would not be apparent to fellow scientists or philosophers, for example, problems of logical argument or lack of definitions and explanations. However, be sure to specify the help you need so that instead of getting overwhelmed by a full critique of the piece you will receive feedback just on your organizational structure or your use of the third person or some other writing challenge you are facing.

  • Hire a coach. This person could be a writing coach who helps you specifically on techniques to improve your writing or it could be a life coach who acts as a point of accountability for your production schedule.

Community Building Strong Starts

Many professors fail to consider that part of their job is building good relationships with colleagues, administrators and students. While tenure application do not ask, “Are you a popular cool kid that others like?,” your social intelligence skills impact your career in more subtle ways.

  • Think of building a community of learners in each class. What activities like introducing yourself do you need to engage in to make a good first impression? What facial expressions and body language quirks do you have that might be an impediment to this process, for example, looking down at your notes the whole class or pacing nervously? For a humbling experience, video tape a class and critique it privately.

  • What small goal might you work on to increase your visibility in your department or on campus? Why does that matter? Because when your tenure application gets approved by the committee and passed on, you don’t want the dean to say, “Professor Who?” Increasing your profile increases the chances that people will think of you when opportunities for interesting collaborations present themselves. How can you manage this area of your job without getting overwhelmed? Think numbers. Meet one colleague for lunch once a month. Attend lunch in the faculty club once a week and talk to one person. Take a faculty/staff aerobics class and introduce yourself to one new person each class meeting. Staff are often gatekeepers for contacts with people that matter to your career.

  • Arrive at committee meetings prepared and ready to participate. If an agenda has not been sent out the day before the meeting, suggest that it would be a good idea so that all can prepare for the vote or the discussion. When you run a meeting, set an agenda and stay on task unless a major issue prevails.

  • Look for ways to volunteer that count as service and use your unique talent package. For example, if you teach on a small campus that doesn’t have a photography major but has a photography club and you enjoy photography, consider moderating the student club in this area.

  • Smile, say hello, and be kind and interested in everyone you meet. You don’t have to waste time at the water cooler if you have focused positive interactions.


Get a strong start to the semester and it will be a great one.

© Copyright 2008 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.

CONTACT INFORMATION: Susan Robison, PhD.; 3275 Font Hill Drive; Ellicott City, MD 21042 Voice: 410-465-5892; E-mail: Website:

Copyright © 2024