The Good and Bad of Sensitivity in Teachers
9th May 2020 - By Dr. Teresa Tillmann
About the authors
Whilst working as a full-time psychologist in a psychiatric clinic for children and adolescents in Germany, Dr. Teresa Tillmann has also been actively pursuing research on Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) for several years. She collaborates with experts in the field and shares information on SPS through presentations, research papers, and book chapters.
As part of my doctoral research, I investigated sensitivity among teachers. Results show that being highly sensitive has strengths as well as weaknesses for teachers. Sensitive teachers reported having more empathy towards their students, but also experienced more difficulties with the challenging aspects of the teaching profession.
According to Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) theory , people differ in how sensitive they are to both positive and negative experiences, with some being more sensitive, and hence more affected by experiences they make throughout life. These differences in sensitivity are due to neurobiological differences in the brain, which are reflected in the tendency of sensitive people to process information more deeply than less sensitive ones.
As part of my doctoral research, I investigated the role of SPS among teachers in Germany. In relation to his work I observed and described how differences in teachers’ sensitivity affect the way they interact with their students and the demands they experienced that are associated with this important profession. I was also interested to learn whether and how this trait contributes to perceived strain in sensitive teachers.
The current study was embedded in a larger project titled “Risiko-Check für das Lehramt” (“Checking risks of the teaching profession”), for which we recruited 194 teachers that were currently teaching as well as 130 teachers that were receiving psychiatric inpatient treatment. Although both groups took part in the same study, the focus of this blog is on the first set of teachers that were not suffering from psychiatric disorders.
The study involved completing a series of questionnaires, measuring important aspects of the teaching environment, such as workplace characteristics , expectations, and collaboration [3, 4]. In addition, we also assessed aspects of teachers’ personality, such as dysfunctional cognitions[5, 6], self-efficacy[7, 8], coping strategies , and sensitivity (using the Highly Sensitive Person  scale).
According to statistical analyses, highly sensitive teachers generally reported feeling more attuned to students who need help. Sensitive teachers seem to sense when students needed help more easily and accurately than their less sensitive colleagues. In addition, they were also more likely to upset when their students were unwell.
These findings suggest that sensitive teachers show a higher degree of empathy than less sensitive teachers. In other words, this study provides empirical evidence for the notion that highly sensitive people tend to be particularly receptive to other people’s emotions and supports the theoretical assumption [11, 12] that higher sensitivity is linked to heightened empathy.
At the same time, highly sensitive teachers also reported having more difficulties regarding some specific aspects of the teaching profession. More specifically, sensitive teachers tended to struggle with the balance between work and personal life, the flexibility required for certain tasks (e.g., deciding when certain demands are fulfilled), the lack of feedback, and the wide range of expectations. However, in spite of these difficulties, they did not perceive themselves as less successful compared to less sensitive teachers.
In addition, I found that the association between the degree of demands made on the teacher and perceived stress differs depending on teacher’s sensitivity. For example, due to heightened sensitivity, some teachers perceive certain situations as more stressful than others because they think of themselves as less competent and adopt less effective coping strategies, such as social withdrawal or resignation.
In summary, being highly sensitive has advantages as well as disadvantages for teachers. They report having more empathy but are also more easily affected by stressful experiences.
The results of this study may be helpful for current and future teachers. In the case of highly sensitive teachers, this information may allow them to better understand their emotional experience of being a teacher, as well as acknowledge some of the difficulties they are more likely to encounter than others. For less sensitive teachers, study result may help them to develop a better understanding of their more sensitive colleagues and encourage them to learn from them as well as support them.
With regard to implications at the community level, future efforts should focus on providing support to highly sensitive teachers in order to overcome difficulties in their everyday work lives. Some examples of supportive initiatives are mentoring programs in which sensitive teachers learn about the specific demands and expectations of the profession, whilst establishing relationships with more experienced teachers as mentors.
In addition, psychoeducational programmes that aim at teaching sensitive teachers emotion regulation and effective coping strategies in order to prevent elevated levels of stress or burnout may also be very helpful. In fact, these programmes would be helpful to all teachers, not just highly sensitive ones.
Finally, and more generally, I would like to highlight the importance of addressing fundamental issues of stigmatization and acceptance of highly sensitive people. It is crucial to share reliable, research-based information in order to teach the public about this basic human trait.
Such knowledge may help individuals understand and possibly reframe their beliefs and attitudes towards highly sensitive people. One way of distributing this information is through scientifically informed books and book chapters for the general public, as well as websites such as www.sensitivityresearch.com (see also a website for the German public run by myself and my colleague Patrick Wyrsch www.sensitivitaet.info).
- Aron, E.N. and A. Aron, Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. J Pers Soc Psychol, 1997. 73(2): p. 345-68.
- Rothland, M., Beruf: Lehrer/Lehrerin – Arbeitsplatz: Schule. Charakteristika der Arbeitstätigkeit und Bedingungen der Berufssituation [Profession: Teacher – Work place: School. Characteristics of the workplace and conditions of the professional situation]. in Belastung und Beanspruchung im Lehrerberuf [Demands and strain in the teaching profession] M. Rothland, Editor. 2013, Springer: Wiesbaden, Germany. p. 21-39.
- Fussangel, K., Subjektive Theorien von Lehrkräften zur Kooperation. Eine Analyse der Zusammenarbeit von Lehrerinnen und Lehrern in Lerngemeinschaften [Teachers’ subjective theories about collaboration. An analysis of the collaboration of teachers within learning communities]. 2008, Bergische Universität Wuppertal: Wuppertal, Germany.
- Fussangel, K. and C. Gräsel, Forschung zur Kooperation im Lehrerberuf [Research on collaboration in the teaching profession]. , in Handbuch der Forschung zum Lehrerberuf [Handbook of research on the teaching profession] E. Terhart, H. Bennewitz, and M. Rothland, Editors. 2012, Waxmann. : Münster. p. 667-682.
- Beck, A.T., et al., Cognitive therapy of depression. 1979, New York: Guilford Press.
- Trageser, C.C., Dimensionalität dysfunktionaler Kognitionen und Assoziationen zum psychischen Gesundheitsstatus – eine Studie unter Lehrkräften [Dimensionality of dysfunctional cognitions and associations with psychological well-beings – a study with teachers] 2010, Philipps-Universität: Marburg, Germany.
- Bandura, A., Self-efficacy, in Encyclopedia of Human Behavior V.S. Ramachaudran, Editor. 1994, Academic Press: New York. p. 71-81.
- Skalen zur Erfassung von Lehrer- und Schülermerkmalen. Dokumentation der psychometrischen Verfahren im Rahmen der wissenschaftlichen Begleitung des Modellversuchs Selbstwirksame Schulen [Scales for the assessment of teacher and student characteristics. Documentation of the psychometric assessments in line with the scientific monitoring of the pilot project self-efficient schools]. , M. Jerusalem and R. Schwarzer, Editors. 1999: Berlin.
- Lehr, D., E. Schmitz, and A. Hillert, Bewältigungsmuster und psychische Gesundheit: Eine clusteranalytische Untersuchung zu Bewältigungsmuster im Lehrerberuf [Coping patterns and psychological health: A cluster-analytical analysis on coping strategies in the teaching profession]. . Zeitschrift für Arbeits- und Organisationspsychologie, 2008.
- Pluess, M., et al., People differ in their sensitivity to the environment: Association with personality traits and experimental evidence. In preparation.
- Aron, E.N., A. Aron, and J. Jagiellowicz, Sensory processing sensitivity: a review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2012. 16(3): p. 262-82.
- Acevedo, B.P., et al., The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions. Brain Behav, 2014. 4(4): p. 580-94.