Overstimulation and the Teaching Mind

How can teachers combat their own overstimulation?

Posted May 06, 2017

Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2016 (author's book cover image, used with permission)
Source: Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2016 (author's book cover image, used with permission)

Teachers’ focus is regularly tugged in different directions by diverse, pressing demands. Students of all ages are regularly pulling at teachers to meet immediate and varied needs. Parents are calling or emailing to hear how their children are doing. Administrators are stopping by to ask if a form has been turned in or a book has been read. The teacher’s smart phone is beeping as new emails roll in from colleagues and new comments are made on professional learning network (PLN) social media accounts. The laptop chimes as a student scans his work and needs to be grouped at an appropriate station to prepare for his next learning challenge. Oh, and of course, the teacher must teach.

Routine Overstimulation

When people do not prioritize the information they afford their attention, both their cognitive capacity and their effectiveness are reduced (Schwartz, 2010). This is true within the field of teaching, where juggling multiple demands is inherent to the profession and prioritization is necessary. Yet teachers’ brains require rest if teachers are to provide students with their best teaching. Routine overstimulation is one of the 13 most common and impactful contributors to teacher burnout (Rankin, 2016).

Helpful Strategies

The topic of overstimulation was covered in an entire chapter of my recent book for teachers on how to fight teacher burnout. Following is a sampling of key strategies teachers can employ to give their brains a break, unload distracting thoughts, and take back some mental peace.

  • Use lunch for your personal needs (e.g., camaraderie with colleagues) and professional needs (e.g, a quick photocopy) instead of spending it with students.
  • Limit where and when work-related emails can reach you (e.g., checking email only during a designated time, or never from home). Renowned teacher Vicki Davis (2014) suggests fighting burnout by not syncing school email with your smartphone and by checking email only twice per day.
  • Speak to administrators about excessive emails, such as staff mass-emailing jokes (e.g., abuse of an “AllStaff@...” email shortcut) or administration sending multiple emails that could be consolidated into a weekly announcement. You can also use email filters to automatically file or archive unwanted emails (e.g., promotional) as they arrive.
  • Turn off alerts and notifications on your smartphone and software so you can check them at designated times rather than feel harassed by beeps and buzzes.
  • Set firm limits on when you use devices, such as having all family members place their phones in a drawer (turned off) when they get home, to be left there until after dinnertime.
  • Limit social media usage by removing apps or links from all but one of your devices, designating a set hour of each day as the only time you will check social media, and/or downsizing to no more than three social media accounts.
  • Resolve to not bring work home, or to at least only bring work home when it (or that portion of it) absolutely has to be tackled that night or weekend. Otherwise, the stack of papers will serve as a haunting distraction when you should be mentally recharging. Cameron (2014) suggests maintaining a realistic grading limit, such as 10-15 papers per night, rather than bringing home the whole stack of 50 papers. English teacher Lisa Chesser (2014) suggests setting aside a three-hour window each evening when no work will take place.
  • Maintain a concise “to do” list or agenda to unburden your mental worry list. Agenda-setting helps the brain prioritize attention-worthy information and combat burnout (Schwartz, 2010).
  • Whenever possible, deliberately focus on one thing at a time (e.g., when you are working alone, select one task and do not swap to a new task until you have completed the first). Dr. Kristen Race, an expert in mindfulness, has found that multitasking takes a toll on the brain, which is forced into the inefficient process of going back three or four steps (to reorganize) every time we change tasks (Oumanski, 2015).

Mental Health and Burnout

Extended periods during which time the brain is free to ponder, daydream, and reflect help people problem-solve and are essential to mental health. Teachers need such freedom from distraction to thrive in their profession. Teacher attrition is high, with 15% of teachers leaving the profession every year (Seidel, 2014) and more than 41% leaving the profession within their first five years (Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey, 2014). Teaching is a difficult profession in which burnout is rampant, yet fighting overstimulation can help fend off burnout (Rankin, 2016) and help these vital professionals persevere and feel peace in their classrooms.


Cameron, K. (2014, November 14). 5 ways to take the grind out of grading papers. Classroom 2.0. Retrieved from http://www.classroom20.com/forum/topics/5-ways-to-take-the-grind-out-of-grading-papers-1

Chesser, L. (2014, March 18). 25 tricks to stop teacher burnout. InformED. Retrieved from http://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/features/25-tricks-to-stop-teacher-burnout/#ixzz31i2ITdLO

Davis, V. (2014, May 20). 12 choices to help you step back from burnout. Edutopia. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/12-choices-step-back-from-burnout-vicki-davis?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=022515%20enews-A%20sm%20gm&utm_content=&utm_term=blog1&spMailingID=10733072&spUserID=MzgwNjgyODYwNjUS1&spJobID=481863955&spReportId=NDgxODYzOTU1S0

Ingersoll, R., Merrill, L., & Stuckey, D. (2014). Seven trends: the transformation of the teaching force, updated April 2014. CPRE Report (#RR-80). Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania.

Oumanski, P. (2015, June). 43 ways you’re not really helping. Real Simple, 16(6), 142-149. 

Rankin, J. G. (2016). First Aid for Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success. New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis.

Schwartz, T. (2010). The way we're working isn't working: The four forgotten needs that energize. New York, NY: Free Press.

Seidel, A. (2014). The teacher dropout crisis. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/07/18/332343240/the-teacher-dropout-crisis?utm_campaign=storyshare&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=social