Prevent Music Teacher Burnout

Prevent Music Teacher Burnout

At this time of year, many band directors start counting down the days until Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. While we all look forward to the time away from our band halls (and students), the difference between just being tired and truly burning out is very significant. If we’re not careful, the former can often lead to the latter.

While many factors contribute to burnout, people in the music world populated by perfectionists, over-achievers, and some of the hardest-working people walking the earth often reach this point by refusing to separate their work life from their home life. We have all advised a student that if they get frustrated while practicing to take a break. Often music educators seem to have a hard time following their own advice when it comes to their career. We see our jobs as a lifestyle, and through our passion we put our sanity and longevity at risk.

Education, in general, is notorious for losing teachers to burnout, dissatisfaction, and feeling under appreciated. If we are honest, a number of our “good practices” actually cause the stress that lead so many to seek other careers. While some of these can be modified to create a more healthy balance, others should be avoided completely.

School Email at Home

Your school email has no place on your phone or in your home. At all. Period.

First of all, none of us get paid enough to work 10+ hour days at school and then go home to work more. As shallow an argument as this may sound, many teachers across the country are campaigning for better pay. When we voluntarily (and regularly) work beyond reasonable hours from our own homes, we continue to validate the viewpoint that our current pay is appropriate.

In addition, in many districts, once your email is connected to your cell phone, your phone can now be searched and used as evidence should a parent ever make an open records request. This also goes for your personal computer or any other device on which you choose to do school business.

By answering or sending an email from your couch after dinner or as it pops up on your phone while in line at the grocery store you have inadvertently told your parents that:

  1. They can expect you to drop everything to respond on their time, anytime, and
  2. Your personal time is free game for their convenience.

But perhaps most importantly, we have all received “that email” from a parent while we are at home that absolutely derails our separation of home and work and puts us in a terrible mood for the rest of the evening. I can remember receiving such an email from a parent years ago that left me in a puddle of sleepless tears, and I vowed never to invite a parent into my home again.

School Email at School

Even at school, we often feel enslaved by our email. In this era of text messages, instant messenger, and social media, we have been trained to expect information instantly. This is then supported by many a school district’s 24-hour email policy (to respond within 24 hours).

But every minute we spend at our desks responding to question after question (that we probably already answered in a mass email several days ago) is a minute taken away from teaching a student, planning our lessons, or, heaven forbid, going to the bathroom. It is not always feasible to respond to every email by the end of the day, and that is okay.


Email Guidelines:

I think these suggestions represent a healthier balance:

  • Answering questions with a short one-liner answer is totally acceptable. The parent will probably appreciate your brevity. Add a smiley face if it makes you feel better!
  • Designate a set window of time to answer your email, and then close it!
  • Do not check your email before you go home for the evening.
  • Remember, that email will still be there tomorrow.

Finally, come up with ways to reduce email. For example, train parents of students in performing ensembles to use a closed Facebook group to post questions and answer each other. This creates involvement between your parents and allows those who know what’s going on to be leaders within your band family.

Assessments

Assessments take time, whether they be chair tests, pass-offs, six-second tests, etc. We all look for ways to preserve our class or sectional time for teaching as opposed to testing. Taped tests (as we used to call them) or recorded assignments on SmartMusic, Google Classroom, Charms, or through email are frequently the answer music educators choose. While the benefits of recorded assignments are numerous, they can also be yet another drain on our much-needed work life-home life separation.

When we leave work to then sit on the couch, headphones in, listening to students for maybe hours at a time, we are ignoring our spouses, our children, our dogs, and, just as importantly, our own need for downtime. We cannot be present in our own lives (during the few hours we are not in the band hall) if our work then isolates us even at home.

One way to combat this is to find ways to shorten assessments during class. Here are some suggestions:

  • One or two measures is often plenty for a viable beginner playing test.
  • Don’t stop/pause between students during playing tests. Keep the metronome going, and quickly give a grade as each child plays.
  • Use the same quick one to two measure Down-The-Row technique in your performing bands for gradeless assessment of progress, especially on fundamentals.

Another technique is to find ways to be more efficient with assessments during sectionals or in small groups:

  • Have students perform in pairs. Now ensemble skills like tuning and balance can also be addressed.
  • Allow students who are already high achievers (like those who have previously made region band) to submit recorded assignments while the others perform in person during their sectional time. This allows you more time to give quick mini-lessons and face to face feedback to the kids who are more likely to need that help.
  • Pair younger students up with more experienced players for peer tutoring at a time of their convenience in which the more experienced student can better prepare the other for their pass-offs or playing assignments. The more prepared, the less time they take.
  • Only assign sections of music or fundamentals that are necessary for growth as opposed to assignments for the sheer sake of giving a grade.
  • Allot a specific window of time for assessment during the class or sectional. By creating that limit for ourselves, we are more likely to be efficient with what we assign therefore leaving more time for actual teaching and repetitions.

Delegate

If you are a head director with the option of delegating tasks to others, delegate! It is pretty ridiculous to assume that only you can handle all of the tasks required to run a program. Often your associate directors are itching for something to be in charge of as it creates a feeling of ownership and a source of pride.

While finances should definitely remain in the hands of a head director, task your associate directors with handling inventory, solo and ensemble paperwork, facility requests, communication about fundraisers, etc.  Consider delegating anything that prevents you from guiding the direction of the program as a whole and teaching as many kids as possible.

You were hired as the head director because of your pedagogical prowess, not because you are awesome at spreadsheets or PowerPoint. Remember that when the long list of administrative jobs are spread out, everyone can go home sooner.

Trust Your Coworkers

If you are a head director, trust your associate directors. You don’t have to be in every minute of every rehearsal of every band. Team Teaching is amazing, under-utilized, and allows directors to learn from directors in the moment. However, teachers also learn from making mistakes with their classes, talking through them afterward, creating a new plan, and trying again tomorrow. As a head director you can take care of a lot of administrative work during a rehearsal while on your laptop in the front of the room or within earshot, still allowing you to jump in or give feedback when necessary. Guiding the whole program does not need to mean actively teaching the whole program.

In the same breath, your own rehearsals do not require the presence of your associate directors every minute of every day. If you have delegated, they too have administrative duties to complete, including emails to answer, grades to enter, etc.  If your rehearsal plan is not actively utilizing them, they can be taking care of work during their contracted hours instead of late into the evening.

Go Home – Get a Hobby

As I said before, many of us view our jobs as our identity. And while this may be noble, it can often lead to the demise of our sanity. To preserve the passion that led us to music education, we must retain the person that originally fell in love with it. As middle school or high school students who enjoyed music so much we thought, “wow, this might be a cool job,” we were still talking about sports or playing them, hanging out with our friends until curfew, watching Must See TV on Thursday nights, flirting on AOL Instant Messenger, and doing <insert hobby here> simply because we enjoyed it. We also did band. Or orchestra. Or choir.

But as music educators, our desire for excellence, our commitment to our students, our pursuit of accoladesall of these honorable and driving forces in our careerscan also lead us away from ourselves. We risk replacing ourselves with a titlea jobthat then becomes work, that steals from our lives, our families, heckour ability to converse about anything other than school!

Preserve you.

Go home. Leave your job at work. Sure, tell your significant other about that student in second period, but then cook dinner with them and veg out watching Scandal. Take your dog for a walk and breathe fresh air that doesn’t smell like kids. Play with your kids.

Get a hobby. Reread Harry Potter or take a yoga class. Definitely work out. Exercise keeps you healthy and sharpens your mind. Learn to install a light fixture. Buy Settlers of Catan and invite some friends over. Find something you love that isn’t music.

Not so long ago a band director friend vented their frustrations on Facebook, lamenting that they had no time for life because of the constant planning, entering grades, recorded assignments, emails, late nights at school, fundraisers to afford instruments, and the fact that they are left with a single hour each night with their children before it’s time to put them to bed. “This is unsustainable,” they wrote.

And it is.

I wholeheartedly believe that so many directors leave a profession they once loved because they underestimate the need for downtime, a separation between their work-life and personal life, an identity outside of music. The daily frustrations of our job are easier to tackle when we give ourselves a sanity break, pulling out of the parking lot, and leaving the never-ending onslaught of tasks for tomorrow.

I can love my job tomorrow because I leave it today.

Darcy Vogt Williams teaches at Stiles Middle School in Leander ISD in Leander, Texas. In July 2015 they placed 3rd in the TMEA CC Honor Band Contest, and in December 2015 they performed at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago. Additionally, her bands have won the Outstanding Performance Series and performed at the Western International Band Clinic (WIBC) in Seattle. A graduate of West Texas A&M, Darcy has been invited to give clinics on teaching rhythm at both TMEA and the Midwest Clinic. Most recently, she wrote the book Teaching Rhythm Logically, a method for teachers (not students) that helps directors structure their lessons through scripts and diagrams. The eBook is available for download at TeachingRhythmLogically.com.

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