Sooner or later in the yearly life of conscientious music teachers, a time of feeling flat arrives. It’s kind of like a carbonated beverage that has lost its fizz. To weather the episode(s), it helps to understand why this happens and what may be required to get on the other side of feeling uninspired in the music classroom. Each of us has our own set of conditions that can lead to losing the zing we expect to be there in our teaching, but we share some factors that can lead to burnout. Even temporary burnout can have drastic effects on overall health and wellness. Is there anyone who can’t relate to the cold that arrives along with the beginning of vacation?

There are many factors that contribute to a temporary loss of interest in the daily challenge of meeting the children at the door with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

  • Serving hundreds of children who have varied emotional and learning needs is uniquely the territory of the specialist teacher. Many administrators truly don’t understand the effect of asking a music teacher who has little to no prep time, to read the latest book on a topic of relevance to the school climate, etc. – especially when the request comes in the same week as a culminating activity to be shared with the public.
  • The “testing culture” has made its way into the music classroom. In spite of the limited contact time of once or twice per week, music teachers are held to a standard of proving that significant learning is happening. Unfortunately, the days of testing have to be preceded with contact time tailored to prepping the student for understanding the task to be tested. Overall, it may take a month of time away from making music to satisfy the demands of the test.
  • In many locales, specialist teachers are reminded over and over that their needs really don’t count in the same way as the needs of those teaching in the general core classes. Would anyone dream of taking away the room where math is taught and placing the teacher on a cart? Or not sending a para-educator with special needs students?
  • Our very passion for the subject area we have chosen leads to total investment of ourselves and an unwillingness to compromise the learning we know children deserve. It is hard to give up the vision of children being the creators of music and we work harder and harder to deliver quality instruction, in spite of reductions of time and resources on the part of the district.

After years of teaching, I learned to recognize some of my personal alarms. You might find some familiar indicators.

  • A noticeable and uncharacteristic tendency toward forgetting things that my brain decided were not critical
  • Double booking – scheduling an evening rehearsal over the top of a school activity
  • Waking at 4:00 a.m. with the to-do list already being reviewed
  • Feeling my immune system teetering on the brink of failure

It’s true that certain times of the year, like December or the last month of school, can be overloaded with expectations placed on us by administration, but that can be compounded by our own desire to showcase the learning of the children. I think the first line of defense is to be realistic in creating the calendar of performances/informances. If the school culture can’t be changed to distribute the extra strenuous times, perhaps it is time to give up the concept of the holiday program. Many Orff teachers have been moving away from the frenetic delivery of many programs at various grade-levels, all within one or two days shortly before a holiday break. The children are crazed enough without having a crazed music teacher! Other points you might consider:

  • Create the program as an outgrowth of the classroom learning and be willing to drop components that aren’t satisfactorily prepared. Few parents are going to know the difference between three accompaniment lines and one critical line of accompaniment enhanced by body percussion or untuned percussion. They want to see their child enjoying being involved in the presentation.
  • Analyze WHY you are feeling under engaged with your teaching. If it isn’t the stress of having too many children who need 100% of you, what is it? Has the situation in which you are teaching changed significantly but your expectations for what you can accomplish remained the same? Reality check: You can’t deliver the same kind of music program rolling on a cart as you did in a designated music room. Or seeing twice as many children. Or moving from a school in an upper income area to a low-income area in which the children may not have the same level of personal security.
  • Do you have extra stressors that are not related to the teaching day? Even though young children believe their teachers live inside the school, life outside the school day may be causing a disconnect when you try to serve your students. Anything out of the ordinary (losing a loved one, separation or divorce, loss of housing, etc.) can lead to feeling numb by the time you get to school.

Some tried and true solutions may be applicable but you may also need to seek a truth that can only come from someone else in the same shoes. Maybe all that’s needed is enough time for the wellspring to fill back up.

  • Be willing to ask others to give you time and space to recover the sense of self and let your body and musical-self get back on top of the situation.
  • If you feel someone else is controlling your whole life, find the space and place that you are in control. The word NO is especially useful in regard to the requests people make of us and we make of ourselves. Perhaps it isn’t good for you to be a church musician, or an independent performer, or the chair of the Suzuki parents, if it makes you feel more frenzied. Take time for yourself: read a book; listen to music just because you like it; sit in a quiet space and zone out. Be centered on your own needs…even fifteen minutes at a time.
  • If you are teaching music without being an active participant in music-making as an adult, perhaps you are giving so much away that you need a fill-up. Beware the people who would like to use your talents but the situation doesn’t really give you the chance to fill the empty spots.
  • Take the time to watch a master teacher work with children. You don’t have time to NOT do this. Watching a master teacher work with the same group of children over a long period of time is golden. You will recognize many techniques that you apply to your own teaching, but you may have lost track of why repetition is critical in an ever-changing frame. You may see the master navigate an unexpected development that could not have been planned for, but what makes them a master teacher is how the situation is handled as the learning goes on.

And finally, never ever pass up the opportunity to spend time in the company of your “peeps.” Those are the folks who understand without a lengthy explanation because they’ve walked in your shoes. I think the AOSA Professional Development Conference held annually is one of the most amazing events in the world of education. Imagine a local community of teachers who give three years of their lives so that 1500 people can visit their locale and spend three days having amazing experiences. You’ll go back home a different person with tools you could never have predicted. You will be filled-up with the phenomenal presentations and the emotional “knowing” that happens when you are in the space with people who are wired like you. You deserve it. 2014 in Nashville: 11/5-8; 2015 in San Diego: 11/11-14. Do it. I dare your spark to not return and burn even brighter!