Stress prevention in the teaching profession
Achieving motivation and balance in your everyday life as a teacher

Coping with everyday life as a teacher with highly diverse lesson requirements and student groups – day after day, school year after school year – calls for secure structures and approaches to ensure teachers maintain motivation through the working day. How can that be sustained? What specific support is useful for long-term burnout prevention in the teaching profession?

Every teacher is familiar with the high level of almost continuous concentration, on the progress of the lesson and at the same time on the learner group. And that’s in every single lesson, which quite often also entails unexpected stress and disruption. So it’s no wonder that occupational health professionals repeatedly measure extremely high cardiovascular values during the school morning, which remain high well into the afternoon – comparable to levels seen in driving test candidates. What can be done to bring lasting relief in this situation?

Limiting multi-tasking – without missing the highlights!

Performing actions in parallel in a multi-tasking scenario is pure stress for the brain. Multi-tasking prevents you being able to register what you have achieved properly. As a result, your personal reward system fails to even start up. So you need to intervene actively here:  For instance, demand consistent turn-taking when students have queries, and deal with everything by applying the one-after-the-other principle, ideally backed up with a to-do list! As well as that, you can reduce stressful ad-hoc planning at break-time by scheduling a time buffer before lessons for yourself, allowing you some quiet time to prepare arrangements and materials for the teaching day. As well as consciously performing actions in sequence, you should never miss out on your personal highlights during the school day. If especially positive events occur (the lesson topic goes down well, the methodical approach is effective, all pupils are on side and working hard), make sure you pause your inner film to take a snapshot of these moments and ensure you really enjoy them. You are the one who is valued most highly and therefore offers maximum empowerment in your profession! And your brain will thank you for it by becoming increasingly sensitised to positivity (neuroplasticity). So (professional) happiness is also a question of your perception!

Practising routines and acting as a learning coach!

Successful class management is a key health factor for the teaching profession. If routines and rules are devised, agreed and well-rehearsed alongside each other, the result is that everyone has stress-reducing routines day after day because there are no disruptions. So it’s definitely worthwhile – even if it isn’t always exactly exciting – agreeing rules as precisely as possible with each other right from the start, and really enforce those routines by thanking students when they keep to them, and imposing sanctions consistently when they step out of line. These structures allow a clearly regulated cooperative working alliance with each other, the best basis for successful teaching and learning. So more than anything else a healthy teacher needs excellent social skills and a close relationship with their students in addition to their specialist “passion” – and they will sometimes impose boundaries on those students if necessary. (81% of teachers experiencing low stress levels have good interpersonal skills!) Furthermore if a teacher is increasingly showing the way in their role as coach by inspiring students to take responsibility in an age-appropriate capacity (free choice of work, weekly schedule, portfolios, form council), then boosting the teacher’s health is an additional factor. That’s because valuable moments of downtime will become available for them to take a breather – but there will also be individual student contact opportunities to encourage learning.
Ensuring an effective and realistic working style!Since teaching work is a seasonal business (reports, corrections) with what seems like thousands of details to take into account, an absence of structures as well as prioritising in order of urgency are real stress pitfalls! As well as checklists it’s important to deal with large-scale jobs in digestible chunks, and allocate time slots for them in advance. To improve the effectiveness of lesson preparation, it’s particularly important to have the right balance between effort and benefit. Here’s an example: if you’ve already found a decent worksheet and a reliable introduction medium for a lesson, then that lesson is likely to progress smoothly without a lot of additional input. But as soon as you start to make radical changes to the worksheet anyway, and maybe even look for a new medium online, then your input’s going to be much higher and the lesson might not be much better. But because you usually have to plan 26 lessons every week, you can’t afford to expend this level of effort on such detail. Perfectionism is the best breeding ground for a burnout in the teaching profession. So plan a rough structure for your teaching week, and do that at a quiet time without media distraction. Not only is that extremely effective, it also gives you comforting confidence for the entire school week, during which you probably have enough other things that need sorting out.

Ensuring distance and support networks!

Having your workplace at home and that feeling of never having finished makes it hard to distance work from your private life, and quickly causes you to have a guilty conscience. 2/3 of teachers find it difficult to switch off, which makes the regeneration they so badly need all the more difficult. So you need clear dividing lines: in terms of space (a specific working area at home), time (a daily time limit) and media (a designated email for work). If people allow school to merge too much with their private life, it’s easy to end up in a dangerous permanent functioning mode, which throttles the inner contact with your own needs and is therefore highly conducive to exhaustion. The most important bastions to combat burnout, as well as setting clear boundaries, are support networks in the form of colleagues and people from your private sphere. If you have problem situations at school, the understanding of your colleagues is particularly invaluable, but so is their help in terms of practical help and professional expertise! Admittedly both systems need maintenance, in other words a mutual give and take, if they are to hold up during periods of particular stress. Please make sure you set aside enough time for your loved ones on a regular basis!  

Taking care of yourself and identifying your own purpose within the system!

Because you, as a teacher, are a hugely significant aspect of your students’ learning success, it’s important that you also make sure to take care of yourself. The thing is, your students will pick up on a negative state of mind immediately, and react accordingly. So don’t live your life in a way that causes you problems! For example: you arrange a parent consultation at 2 pm after teaching for 6 hours, when you’re at the absolute low point of your day. If, to top it all, that meeting becomes difficult, you’ll expend a lot of stress energy in order to remain focused. Your body will then react with a high level of exhaustion, which wouldn’t have been necessary if you’d had the meeting at your peak time. In other words, teachers who are prepared to keep running themselves into the ground are particularly at risk of burnout.  This applies all the more against the backdrop of the resource shortages frequently encountered in the education system. Instead of wanting to fulfil other people’s expectations, as a teacher you should focus more on where your particular moments of happiness are in your job, and develop these. For me it was many years of being in a “class mummy” role at a primary school, and after that the role of emergency mediator for conflict situations in a variety of schools. Where can you find your own special purpose within the system? Why did you become a teacher? As long as you have the right answer to that question, school stress can’t really get to you.


Book titles:

Heyse, Helmut (2011), Herausforderung Lehrergesundheit. Handreichungen zur individuellen und schulischen Gesundheitsförderung, Seelze: Klett Verlag

Rohnstock, Dagmar (2018), 99 Tipps Burn-out vermeiden. Berlin: Cornelsen Verlag

Rohnstock, Dagmar; Roller, Claudio (2013), Schulkonflikte meistern. Mediative Kompetenzen für Lehrende. Baltmannsweiler: Schneider Verlag Hohengehren

Rohnstock, Dagmar (2012), Zeit- und Selbstmanagement für Lehrende, Berlin: Cornelsen Verlag

Wesselborg, Bärbel (2018), Lehrergesundheit. Eine empirische Studie zu Anforderungen und Ressourcen im Lehrerberuf aus verschiedenen Perspektiven, Baltmannsweiler, Schneider Verlag Hohengehren