The commitment required of teachers to support our nation’s youth and provide the educational foundation necessary for their ongoing success has changed along with society over the years. The demands can be overwhelming and will, if allowed, consume every other aspect of the music educator’s life and family. Certainly, all teachers have a desire to inspire their students – but at what cost?
To avoid burnout, all educators need to find activities that minister to their mind, body and spirit. This is especially important for education professionals such as music educators, administrators, athletic directors and teachers who also coach or advise student groups where the demands on their time daily exceed the school day hours.
Music educators are notably – and notoriously – susceptible to letting their work overwhelm their welfare. The demands of directing large ensembles with two to four times the number of students in a standard classroom, along with the significant amount of equipment required for each class and the sustained focus on teaching opportunities outside of the school day, all contribute to music educator stress, anxiety and early departure from the profession.
In addition, most music educators also perform on their instrument or voice in local community groups or direct town bands, church choirs, amateur orchestras and the like. While there is enjoyment in such musical performances, there is little in relief from the pressures that are faced in their “day” job.
“Get a hobby” would be words to the wise for any teacher, but possibly more so for the music educator, who might consider his or her hobby playing or conducting. Hobbies can range from collecting stamps to Geo-Caching to painting. A hobby does not have to be an activity that requires funding to participate, but may add to the teacher’s income.
As an example, interior house painting during the school year on weekends and vacations, and painting the exterior of one or two homes over the summer can provide relief from the stresses of teaching. This can be an easy, safe, mind-clearing exercise that provides funds for regular expenses or special projects (and there are always other faculty members who would love to hire you).
Hobbies could also include volunteer work that is outside of the sphere of music and education. Church youth groups, Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, Salvation Army, senior citizen centers and the YMCA are examples of organizations in need of help. Besides a physical presence, there are opportunities for using your educational skills in teaching other topics without the pressures of grades, performances and discipline reports.
Music educators could teach a class on a topic they enjoy or for which they have the necessary skills – swimming, crafts, orienteering, computers, as examples – to individuals who are there for the simple enjoyment of being together and learning a new skill. Another possibility is using your organizational talents to plan a dance, a hiking trip, a visit to a museum or an overnight campout. Being the teacher in these opportunities can remind you of why you went into education in the first place without renewing the counterproductive aspects that taint your school position.
Music educators are accustomed to spending several evenings a month (and often entire weekends) at school supporting their students by providing, preparing and participating in additional rehearsals,
marching practice, concerts and festivals. These “overtime” efforts come with the position and may be included in the job description or administrator expectations. Finding a social activity to attach to some of these activities that fall outside of the school day can help offset the challenges they present. Treating yourself to an ice cream sundae on your way home from weekly evening jazz ensemble practice, joining your students at a restaurant after Friday football games, meeting other music educators for social time after festival concerts are ways to add a different approach to those duties and efforts.
Many educators come back to their classroom duties from a school break and are not refreshed, renewed and rested. This happens when they don’t take a true vacation and have mentally carried their work home. All teachers have tasks they hope to accomplish during school breaks, so the secret is to be organized about that effort just as they would be organized as an educator.
On the last school day before the break, make a list, in priority order, of the tasks you need to accomplish, the tasks you hope to accomplish and the tasks you would love to accomplish. Pick one day (and one day only) during the break and work on your list from top to bottom, preferably at school in your office where you have the resources needed to be efficient. And then spend every other day of the break doing something other than school work – something you enjoy with family and friends that has nothing to do with school. You will find that you get more of those tasks done this way than you would by taking them on in the haphazard manner that fills up other school breaks. An organized, focused approach to getting the most urgent items on your list done in one day is always the best plan.
The same approach should be made to the longer summer break where you focus on school-related activities for a week or two (taking a course or workshop, attending a conference, restructuring the music library at school) and then focus on other interests (and people) in your life the rest of the time. You would be surprised how rejuvenated you feel when you return physically exhausted from a week-long Boy Scout hike or how energized you are about teaching your musicians after a week on the beach with your own family. Music educators are too valuable to let the pressures of the 10-month school year affect success in their chosen profession. Take a break when it is offered, find a way to spend time doing things you enjoy every week, and stay enthused about teaching music for years to come.
Steffen Parker, a member of the High School Today Publications Committee, is a music educator, computer geek and instructional support specialist from Vermont where he organizes music festivals and supports other states with online services fro their events.