Organisation - January 25, 2018

How can teachers reduce their work pressure? - Ten tips for beating stress


WUR teachers are groaning under the high work pressure arising from growing numbers of students. And they are not alone in this; it is a feature of higher education everywhere. Thijs Brilleman, who teaches industrial robotics at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, trains teachers and was nominated as national teacher of the year in 2017, has given a lot of thought to stress. He has 10 tips.

Text HOP, Irene Schoenmacker illustration Geert-Jan Bruins

1. Teach less
‘When I tell teachers that, they look at me in astonishment. But of course your aim as a teacher is not to teach but for your students to reach their full potential. You certainly don’t have to spend all your time in front of the class. You’ve got to be there when students get stuck. In the robotics minor at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, we revise the programme every year, because the technological developments go so fast. I can’t keep up with that so I put students in groups and give them an assignment. Three days later, they know more than I do. They I ask them to write a manual or teach a lesson. The group in the next period gets a kick-start from the previous group. That is less time-consuming, and the education is much better for it. So you need to set up a smart system.’

2. Limit lectures
‘A lecture for more than 30 students is not efficient. You can hardly answer any questions and what is more, it is deadly dull for students. Let them watch a video about the material instead, and then take an hour or an hour and half for questions. That way you make yourself much more useful.’

3. Don’t do 10 things at a time
‘You should cluster tasks. People can’t easily do several things at once. Yet you see them every day doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and switching tasks all the time. That gobbles up energy. I prefer, for example, to plan one whole day on which students present their projects in groups, rather than spreading out all those presentations. Then I only have to reserve a room once, and I don’t have to keep thinking about what I have to do next. Cluster your grading and feedback too. Assess group reports together with your students. Reserve a room, make sure they can see what you are doing on a screen and assess the work out loud. It saves you time and students learn a lot from it.’

4. Don’t do anything you are not good at
‘I don’t teach programming anymore. There are open online courses that are 10 times better, so I get students to watch those. That leaves me more time for answering questions. And a teacher’s time is expensive, so make sure you only do things that make good use of your capacities. For some of the work, the degree programme would be better off hiring students. They are cheap, enthusiastic and often get a lot out of it too.’

5. Make use of differences
‘Following on from that: you don’t have to everything by yourself. Teachers grumble about having to teach students of varying abilities, but that is fantastic. Form groups and put one strong student in each group. Then they teach each other and that is 10 times more effective.’

6. Forestall email contact
‘The email is the curse of our society. Email is generally not a suitable means of communication between students and teachers. I have an online appointments system, with which students can plan a meeting. And I have a couple of open drop-in moments every week. That means I am very accessible, but only at particular times. Which saves a lot of time. And the delay also works as a shit filter: it’s not quite so easy to call for help and eight times out of 10 students solve their own problems.’

7. Organize your inbox
‘Don’t let cc’s come into your standard inbox. They are just for your information; otherwise you would be the main addressee. Of course you should read them, but do so once a week. The same goes for newsletters.’

8. Don’t take responsibility for everything
‘When it comes to tests or assignments, the burden of proof lies with the student. And make sure you don’t get made co-responsible for final projects. Students are always asking: what is still lacking? If you tell them, you take away all their autonomy and you can’t fail them anymore because you have become co-responsible for the input. The same goes for colleagues. You might go through a test but never make changes yourself. Create a separate document containing what needs changing, and let them make the changes themselves.’

9. Be selective
‘This sounds obvious but it is important. As a teacher you have to select very precisely what you do and what you don’t do. Before you agree to something, remember that it will mean not being able to do other things. A lot of teachers don’t make that connection.’

10. Think about what people really want
‘People often come to you with a request: can you do this or that? But there is always a higher goal behind this. The real point is the output of the task: helping a student progress, for instance, or getting through the accreditation process as a programme. I have stopped automatically doing what people ask me to. Because often, what they ask won’t lead towards the higher goal. This is quite common in bureaucratic organizations like educational institutions: they are not results-driven. That mindset is much more present in businesses, because without it they would not be competitive. But in education we often lack the reflex to think about outcomes. Whereas doing so can save a lot of work.’

Petition on work pressure
On 5 December 2017, campaigners from #woinactie submitted a petition to minister Van Engelshoven, following the example of their primary school colleagues. The petition states that work pressure in the universities is too high, and that staff are getting exhausted. There are more and more students, partly thanks to growing numbers of international students. Logically, the number of teachers should grow too, but that isn’t happening. The revenue from the loan system should be used to appoint more teachers, but at present only the applied sciences universities are on course with this.