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In Germany, A Deeper Look At Teacher Burnout

South of Munich is a clinic that specializes in treating teachers with psychological problems. The causes aren't always what you think.

In Germany, A Deeper Look At Teacher Burnout
Lisa Sonnabend

PRIEN – Michael Glockner had become like some of his students: as soon as he would get home, he would fling himself on the couch and turn on the TV.

On weekends, he stopped going on outings or jogging, he just stayed in bed all day until it got dark. But the teacher was not lazy – he was sick. Michael Glockner, whose name has been changed, was suffering from burnout.

The 41-year-old sits on a wooden chair in a doctor’s office, telling his story. He’s got a stylish scarf around his neck, wears a blue and white striped shirt and dark jeans. He laughs occasionally and mostly seems full of energy – only occasionally does he look disquieted. For four weeks he hasn’t been teaching – he’s been a patient. He is being treated for depression at the Schön Klinik Roseneck in Prien, by the Lake of Chiem southeast of Munich. The clinic specializes in treating teachers with psychosomatic conditions.

Every year, between 400 and 500 teachers come here for help – more than any other profession. After teachers, the second biggest group is police officers, but there are only about 100 of those per year. According to figures provided by the German state of Bavaria’s Ministry of Education and Culture, in the 2010/11 school year a third of the state’s teachers went into early retirement – many of them for reasons of mental health. Experts estimate that there are also significant numbers of teachers who are suffering from mental illness but keep dragging themselves to classes.

Why are teachers so vulnerable – a group that, as cliché has it, gets off from work early and has a lot of vacation time? Andreas Hillert, head doctor at the clinic, has been researching stress in the teaching profession for the past 10 years – the only scientist in Germany to do so. "Teachers are exposed to a high level of psycho-social pressure,” says the 51-year-old. "They constantly have to make decisions, and a lot of them to boot."

By way of example, Dr. Hillert cites questions like: Should I interrupt the lesson and tell the talking child to stop? And if I do, what approach should I take? In addition, teachers constantly have the feeling they don’t really have time off, what with classes to prepare, papers to correct. Many of them lose the ability to turn off from their work. And then one day the battery runs out, the way it did with Michael Glockner.

For 12 years, Glockner has been teaching Latin and Catholic religion in a comprehensive school in the state of Hesse. He’s also a member of school management. "I functioned well for 12 years," he says. He mostly put in an 80-hour workweek. Breaks were no longer breaks for him, because other teachers would come to him seeking advice. Usually there wasn’t even time for lunch.

Another thing was that the teachers’ room at Glockner’s could accommodate 100, but in fact many more worked there. Quitting wasn’t an option, however. Somewhere along the line, the situation started to overwhelm Glockner, particularly as he faced the break-up of a relationship. It got harder and harder for him to get out of bed in the morning. At first, he sought outpatient solutions until he heard about the clinic in Prien and packed his bag.

Muscle relaxation and role play

Hillert calls Glockner "an exceptional case" because he sought treatment within a few weeks of his breakdown. Most teachers go on teaching for five to seven years before getting help. The problem with this is, it’s not just the teacher who’s suffering from his or her illness – it’s their students, too. The teacher simply doesn’t have the strength to prepare classes well, has concentration difficulties, and the quality of the teaching goes south.

Miranda List, also not her real name, is in the same therapy group as Glockner. The 50-something high school teacher is divorced, and has a teenage child she finds hard to keep in check. List had been focusing increasingly on her job to avoid conflict at home, and to maintain a feeling of being liked and respected. The result was that she became isolated but kept thinking that she would be a bad teacher if she went back on her commitment so she could have more free time. She’s at Prien to work through that problem with the help of the doctors there.

When Hillert takes off his white coat, you could mistake him for a teacher with his glasses, beard, and lively eyes. Where does his interest in teacher stress come from? "My mother and godmothers are teachers, and while my wife is a pianist, she also teaches," he says. He enjoys talking about his subject except for one thing: the term “burnout.” He prefers differentiated terms like depression or anxiety attacks.

On average, patients stay at the clinic for two months. Sick teachers have about 30 therapy sessions a week, some of them tailor-made for teachers, others open to all patients. In addition to that there are courses in muscle relaxation, and the teachers role play and learn to say no to more work, how to create more free time and take up hobbies. There are also consultations where they talk about their personal issues.

Hillert recommends that the specific problems of the teaching profession should be part of teacher training. "Regular supervision should also be mandatory, it is in other social professions and should be a prerequisite for teachers," he says. There’s not enough money for this, but a kind of mentor program based on Hillert’s research is up and running.

Michael Glockner is sure that other teachers in his school are also overloaded and will break down. It’s one of the reasons, he says, he’s been very open about what’s happened to him. He told his colleagues why he was going to be absent from work for eight weeks. The only ones who are not going to get the full story are his students. In four weeks, Glockner will be standing in front of his blackboard again. And he’s recovered enough to be looking forward to already. "There’s no finer profession than teaching," he says.

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