Burnout among teachers is real! IF you are a music teacher you already KNOW the things you face daily that put you most at risk of burnout. After 20 years of teaching music here are some things that help me avoid burnout.
1. Celebrate The Good Stuff – even if it’s small
Typically music teachers tend to celebrate only the performance based accomplishments. Those are certainly worth celebrating! However, it’s also ok to celebrate the fact that you made it to work without leaving leaving your lunch in the fridge at home or that you taught for 15 minutes straight without a student asking for permission to go to the bathroom. Even the small victories are worth celebrating because some small things are HUGE!
Develop rituals that make you happy. For example, on the day of the first early morning choir rehearsal, I bring breakfast for me and my coworker. When we hit the last grading period we list ALL of our performances and field trips and we take great delight in erasing all the things we finish. Each ritual feels like a mini-reward/celebration.
2. Focus On the Students With “Want To”
When you give your best each day to your students it is easy to get discouraged by the FEW who are reluctant or even hostile participants. Meanwhile there is a whole class full of students who would gladly twist themselves into a pretzel just to make you happy. Because music is auditory it is entirely possible for students who seem disengaged to participate passively. For this reason, give yourself permission to give your energy and focus to the students who want to play, sing, dance and participate while strategically ignoring attempts at sabotage. Ignoring poor (not dangerous) behavior in the moment doesn’t mean ignore it forever, just hold off until the end of class or the end of the day. Document what is needed, make the phone calls, write the emails, but during class, ignore the bologna and focus on the students who are ready to go. This ONE thing can not only transform your classroom management by giving the social currency to the students who have earned it, BUT it will energize you by enabling you to go with the students who “WANT TO”!
3. Be Interested in Others
When you are a music teacher it is easy to get stuck in your little noisy corner. But within a school there are LOTS of moving parts. The more you know and understand about the community you serve and about the demands placed on your colleagues and administration, the more informed you will be. Taking a personal interest in what others do will validate their work and demonstrate your willingness to be a team player. People appreciate and value time. When you invest time in actively participating in a faculty meeting about non-music things, folks will notice. The idea of treating others the way you would like to be treated is a great way to overcome and avoid burn out. If you want people to be interested in your efforts as a music teacher, be interested in the goings on of the school as a whole.
4. Find Your Voice
Being brave enough to speak up does not have to be confrontational or rude. Instead, speaking up can be helpful and calm and can facilitate positive change that will make a difference in your ability to teach and help you avoid burn not. When speaking up, it is important to remember that sometimes the answer is still “no”, but even if things do not immediately change, speaking up still has value.
5. Work Toward Solutions
Very often the things that burden us most at work are things that CAN be changed IF the right solution is found. Try to make it a practice that when you find something that is causing a problem for you that you also try to suggest a well thought out solution. Schedule problems? Create a new one! Even if after all the work you end up with the same schedule you started with, you will in the process become more informed and understand HOW you ended up with the schedule you’ve got. Is there a need for more instruments or materials? Find out what grants are available and start writing. Working toward a solution to the problems you may be facing at school will help you avoid developing a pattern of resentment that can be debilitating and lead to increased burn out.
Often the way that I work toward solutions looks alot like day dreaming about next year. Inevitably, when I get stressed about a current delima at school I begin to plan something for next year. I don’t know precisely why it helps me, but sometimes escaping my current stress into a school year with all the possibilities and none of the mistakes makes me happy, so I do it. I might think, next year, when I pass out recorders, I’m going to do it like this… or next year when I set up my choir attendance, I’m going to include photos. Both of those things started as day dreams and grew into actual plans that made my life in the classroom easier.
6. Choose Your Chores
Some things simply MUST be done…. However, whenever possible, try to work on things that you WANT to do! If you don’t feel like organizing your music library, then don’t let it be… it will keep. If you feel like practicing the accompaniment for next fall’s choir piece, do that… Eventually, everything will get done. Some people accomplish this by leaving work at the same time every day. Some people refuse to take work home…ever. Some people are happiest coming in on Saturday mornings and cleaning their classroom. Save hard tasks at your best time of day when you are most clear headed and save the dusting for when you are brainless. Whatever works for you. I do my best work in the morning, but I don’t mind staying late because I don’t have a family at home. I just make sure that whatever I do is my choice, and I give myself permission to leave or take breaks whenever I need to.
This also extends to the HOW and WHAT you teach. As a music teacher you get to choose your repertoire. It’s always good to consider what your students might enjoy, but if you can’t imagine singing a given song about 1000 times without getting sick of it, then move on, choose something else. If you get a headache looking a recorder, then either find something else to teach that is not the recorder, OR find a method that you like enough to manage without risking a recorder headache.
7. Pursue Hobbies
Find things to do for fun that simply make you happy. I like to write and compose and sing and crochet and read and sing with my church choir. I pursue all of those things with as much energy as I can manage and I count the days until I can commit “real” time to those things. When something happens at school or if things get too heavy I pursue those hobbies with zeal. The heavier my work load gets, the more I cling to the joy of my hobbies. Realistically, this means that when school is crazy, I stay up late and read or crochet because those hobbies don’t really have a mental cost. However, the creative hobbies I enjoy are the most rejuvenating so I make time especially during the holidays and summer to dig deep into them.
8. Pursue Spiritual and Physical Health
My faith has always been a source of comfort and purpose. As a Christian I believe that daily tasks, done in obedience to Christ can be an act of worship. Some things about teaching are simply no fun, but when I view even my least favorite tasks as an act of worship then even the most mundane seemingly useless tasks have meaning.
Do not neglect your health. Given that I’ve taught for twenty years I have faced challenges to my health that were rooted in daily habits of which I have control, AND I have faced health issues rooted in chronic conditions that needed treatment. In both cases, the nearest I have ever been to truly suffering from burn out is when I was physically unwell. In addition to good daily habits, pursue diagnosis and treatment for anything that crops up over time as proper diagnosis and treatment can be life changing.
9. Deal with Toxic Work Relationships
The people we work with have a very deep impact on how we function professionally. You can be at a school with MAJOR challenges, but if you feel supported by your team of cohorts, you can thrive and do amazing work.
Every work relationship is different, so when problems crop up, the appropriate response can be as different as the people involved. Generally, it is helpful to address the problem to see if there is any perceived offense that needs to be resolved. If after attempting to address the problem it is best to simply let things go. Hanging on to resentment will steal your joy and make it difficult to go to work. Kindness is always the best response. SOMETIMES kindness is walking away from the conversation. SOMETIMES kindness is avoiding the teacher’s lounge. SOMETIMES kindness is saying “I’m sorry” and meaning it.
10. Acknowledge When You Are Wounded
Sometimes, things are just too overwhelming and you simply ARE burned out! In such a case, the best thing to do is to make a choice. There have been a FEW times in my career when I was SERIOUSLY wounded by my job and I did not know if I had the strength to go back the next day. On those days (there have been 3 REALLY BAD days but one of those was significantly worse than the others) On those days I crawled home, crawled into my pajamas, enjoyed my stress eating and tearful phone calls while I watched mindless TV. Those were days when I gave myself permission to not care. I took a mental health day as soon as I could get it arranged and for about a year I even went to professional counseling because I was HURT!
I healed, but I did not heal alone and I did not heal by denying that I was in pain. I had to grieve and the grief of the situation is still a sore spot to this day.
11. Make a Choice
When things are tough at school, whether things are difficult due to a traumatic event, or just general overworked apathy, it is a good time to choose. As a music teacher, there are three choices. You can either:
- Stay Where You Are – In staying in your current situation, you must either accept that the good/bad things about your current situation will probably remain unaltered. If you choose to stay, you are choosing to accept things as they are. If you cannot do that, then it may be time to go.
- Teach Music Somewhere Else – In moving to a new situation you may get rid of existing troubles, but you may also pick up new ones. It is easy to think that the grass will be greener somewhere else. Sometimes a fresh start is enough to rejuvenate our teaching, but in starting fresh, you are choosing to accept both the good things and the bad things of something new.
- Leave the Profession – If when you consider leaving the profession your entire body relaxes… then it might be time. There is no shame in choosing not to do something that makes you seriously unhappy.
In my time as a music teacher I have occasionally decided to look for a different job. Sometimes, looking for a job simply confirmed that I was exactly where I needed to be. Other times, making myself available to look for a new job and consider change has served as the catalyst for new opportunities that I never thought possible. It’s hard to be burnt out when you have made a choice to do something. Active passivity leads to apathy.
12. Fill Out Applications for Cool Stuff!
Last year was an AMAZING year for me as a music teacher. I was selected as a finalist for the H-E-B Excellence in Education Award, and I was selected to be a Fund For Teachers Fellow for the second time. Both of those life changing opportunities were made possible when I applied. The applications for both required some reflection and planning on my part, but if I had not taken the time to write the applications, I would not have had the chance to participate in the amazing experiences that made last year so special. Not only did it do my heart good to be encouraged and recognized for my work, but I learned a TON! All the new things I learned last year have inspired my teaching this year.
13. Avoid Isolation With Connection
Often there is only 1 (maybe 2) music teachers on a campus which means that very often the music teacher is a bit of a unicorn on campus. Indeed, in 2011 Laura Sindberg published a study of isolation among music teachers in the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education. While the problem of music teacher isolation is well acknowledged in academia, the solutions for the problem are hard to come by and often the best ones are the most creative. One of my favorite ways to combat isolation and to foster collaboration with other teachers is the use of social media. My blog, started way back in 2008 was my first attempt at getting to know other music teachers who didn’t work at my campus. Over time, social media platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest offer an opportunity for music teachers to problem solve together. If you are not connected, I highly recommend it as a way to engage with other music teachers within your community but also all over the world. When you are alone at your school, following a few blogs, joining a few Facebook groups and collecting Pins may be one of your best tools against burn out.