Teachers have a demanding profession that requires skills at various levels. This starts with subject-specific skills, includes communication skills – whether in the classroom, with parents or with colleagues – and also extends to organisational fields and time management. This diversity in particular can be stressful in the long term, also because work is often taken home and the boundaries between work and private life become blurred. Studies have shown that more than half of teachers at mainstream schools develop work-related symptoms of illness as a result of the wide range of constant stress. This is an alarming finding. Does it look better at Waldorf schools?
Study at Waldorf schools
In 2012, around 2,000 Waldorf teachers were surveyed in a study conducted by Alanus University to find out what the main stress factors and resources are that teachers subjectively experience. It turned out that the situation at Waldorf schools does not differ significantly from that at mainstream schools: instead of 60 percent with health risks, the figure at Waldorf schools is only 50 percent – which is better, but nowhere near good.
Now it is possible to identify and reduce the stress factors, or to strengthen the resources and forces of resistance, i.e. to promote resilience. The second approach has proven to be more effective in recent years.
The slightly better result is essentially explained by the autonomy that teachers have in a self-governing and non-hierarchical school organisation. A positive working atmosphere also plays a decisive role. Dysfunctional self-governance, on the other hand, can also become the greatest stress factor.
The decisive factor: the inner attitude
Previous studies had shown that it was not the external hard factors, such as large classes or problematic pupil behaviour, that were decisive for the experience of stress, but rather the soft factors related to personal attitudes and beliefs. This includes, among other things, the experience of social support and the ability to address problems openly. However, the most important thing is to be able to switch off in the evening and leave work behind before going to bed – or ideally even earlier.
A total of eleven such attitudes can be identified, which make it possible to predict whether someone has a disposition for burnout or a predisposition to become a workaholic. If we are aware of our own dispositions, which can lead to a problematic relationship between commitment and resources, then it is also possible to consciously do something about it.
Four stress types
The analysis of work-related behavioural patterns provides four different types of behaviour: two patterns that are classified as healthy and two others that can lead to mental or physical illness in the long term.
Healthy patterns of behaviour
The ideal mode for dealing with stress is the so-called healthy pattern. People with a healthy pattern are intrinsically motivated and experience meaningful fulfilment at work. They are also able to work hard, but recover quickly and, above all, have the necessary distance from the problems of everyday working life. Both at mainstream schools and Waldorf schools, however, only 17 percent of teachers fall into this category.
The second type of behaviour originally relates to a pattern of behaviour which takes things easy, i.e. refers to working people who avoid too much effort. However, the pattern does not occur in this form among Waldorf teachers. Because even for Waldorf teachers who are assigned to this pattern, work is important and is carried out with personal commitment. What characterises them, however is that they are very aware of their personal stress limits and are therefore usually able to avoid overworking. This type is therefore also referred to as the self-mindfulness pattern. At 33 percent, this group makes up the largest proportion of Waldorf teachers. It is also worth mentioning that the probability of developing this latter pattern increases with the duration of employment. This is presumably due to – possibly painful – individual learning through experience.
Two patterns of behaviour can prove to be hazardous to health in the long term: the first is the so-called exertion pattern, which resembles the behaviour of a workaholic and has a low capacity for detachment. If something has not worked properly, it is tried again with more energy instead of reflecting and possibly adjusting our own behaviour.
The second critical pattern is characterised by persistent resignation and carries a high risk of burnout. Failures and lack of energy lead to reduced commitment and a tendency towards resignation. This in turn limits the sense of achievement and therefore also positive feedback, which ultimately lowers energy levels even further. This can lead to a downward spiral until all we can do is to somehow try to get through the day. Those who possess these patterns are often unaware of them, especially when they are not yet fully developed. However, a trend can also become problematic in the long term and early counteraction always offers better opportunities for sustainable change. The frequency of the risk patterns is roughly equally distributed for teachers at mainstream schools at 30 percent each; at Waldorf schools, the former pattern is slightly more common at 27 percent than the latter pattern at 23 percent.
Changing patterns of behaviour
Patterns are laid down in the individuation phase and are completed by the age of 17 to 18. However, changes can also occur later due to the job. The career entry phase is particularly critical. This is where the course for many behavioural patterns can be reset, which is why resilience coaching is particularly worthwhile when starting a career. Smaller pilot studies at individual Waldorf schools over two to three years have shown that a positive change of pattern is possible if a person's own pattern is first brought to consciousness and then tracked over a longer period of time with mindfulness exercises. The focus is always placed on one of the following characteristics: importance of work, professional ambition, willingness to exert oneself, striving for perfection, ability to distance oneself, tendency to resign, offensive problem solving, inner peace, sense of achievement, social support and life satisfaction. Here, the balance of these characteristics is also crucial: for example, someone with a higher level of commitment also needs a greater ability to distance themselves in order to achieve a balance.
What factors promote a healthy pattern of behaviour?
In the 2012 study mentioned above, four factors in particular were identified that favour a healthy approach to stress. Of these, the first three are part of the ideal job description for a Waldorf teacher. These are the power of initiative, enthusiasm and creative lesson organisation, subject expertise and spiritual orientation.
Each individual aspect was reflected in the questionnaire by several questions on which the teachers were able to give their self-assessment. It turned out that the more the teachers surveyed ascribed the above-mentioned skills and attitudes to themselves, the lower the proportion of risk patterns. And in the relatively small group of those who stated that they already implemented all four characteristics in everyday school life, the proportion of risk patterns was reduced to zero.
It was noticeable that in particular the combination of subject expertise on the one hand and the classic virtues of Waldorf teachers – such as initiative, enthusiasm and creativity – had a very positive effect. The development of initiative is also closely linked with the autonomy of Waldorf teachers in a self-governing school context, as mentioned above. Further evidence of the importance of the power of initiative was provided by a long-term study by the Hannoversche Kassen insurance fund. This showed that the promotion and support of individually proactive projects over the course of a year had a long-term positive influence on the state of health.
For various reasons, it seems worthwhile to focus to a greater extent on the resilience of teachers. On the one hand, this can prevent personal distress, and on the other hand, it avoids well-trained specialists having to leave the profession early for health reasons, thereby putting further strain on the already strained staffing situation at schools. Lastly, it is to be expected that a resilient staff will benefit the educational quality of the school and also be better able to deal with challenges.
The key lies in learning in the process. Even occasional coaching can provide a decisive trigger. Positive results can also be observed in the introduction of intervision groups and peer observation. This can highlight individual weaknesses and at the same time support the change process. A school that offers space for initiatives, supports coaching and at the same time has a solid conflict management system is already doing a great deal for the health of all staff on the part of the organisation. However, the willingness and personal freedom of the individual always remain central – no one can or should be forced to change their individual coping strategies.