Some occupations tend to be more stressful than others. We all know that serving in the armed forces is an activity that is not only dangerous but also inherently filled with tension. Firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical personnel also face significant stress. In various lists that rank occupations by how stressful they are, educators are ranked below surgeons and flight attendants, but those who teach music for a living know that there are good reasons to place their jobs higher on such lists.
Even though the music world is sometimes thought of as being the antithesis of a stressful environment, those who live within it know that this is not the case. Performers can be extremely driven and competitive; they are prone to become frustrated when they feel that they do not advance despite daily practice, and they can also feel the sting of looking at natural born prodigies who do not have to practice at all. When you add education to the music mix, it is easy to understand how some teachers can fall into burnout situations.
One of the problems music teachers face is the same that many other educators go through: They do not find it easy to separate their careers from their personal lives, and this is usually related to passion. The individuals we see as hard workers are passionate for various reasons; some of them face socioeconomic pressures while others are simply driven. In the world of education, all stakeholders want teachers to be passionate, and this is a dichotomy for music educators who are not able to strike the right work/life balance.
Dealing with stress is something that everyone has to master on a personal level; it boils down to the practices we undertake to react, prevent, and manage the various tensions we are bound to encounter. The education sector is known to place undue stress on music teachers for reasons such as:
- Lack of funding for music programs.
- Excessively bureaucratic administrative tasks.
- Unreasonable goals.
- Poor curriculum design.
Starting with the year 2020, music teachers had yet another stress agent to add to their careers: Students returning to the classroom in districts where contagion spread was still significant. All teachers know that enforcing social distancing and the wearing of masks is not something that students will do automatically and diligently because they don’t fully understand the gravity of the situation. There is also the fear of what students do after school; while it is assumed that they return to their social pods, there is always the potential of other household members who may bring the virus home. Since the majority of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases happen to be children, many public school districts and private academies have failed to implement testing programs, thus placing teachers and administrators at risk of infection.
With all the above in mind, here are a few recommendations that music teachers can follow for the purpose of managing stress:
Dialing Down Passion
We might as well mention this first because it is an ugly reality that not all music educators become aware of. In the 2014 film “Whiplash,” actor J.K. Simmons masterfully plays the part of a jazz drumming and percussion instructor who is a dangerous sociopath, but who is also able to help his students achieve greatness through highly ruthless and stressful strategies. This instructor’s misguided passion made him extremely toxic, and he never realizes it.
Ambition can certainly pay off in the music world, but it can become problematic. Music teachers must learn to manage their emotions; they also need to realize that not all of their students will be able to achieve the goals of the curriculum. In the spirit of being great educators, some teachers will make the mistake of trying to solve problems that neither students nor their parents can fix. Unrealistic expectations can make educators more driven than they should be, and this may develop into intense personalities that attract conflict and stress.
Separate Work and Personal Life as Much as Possible
Setting aside specific blocks of time to school obligations is something that all educators should put into practice for their own sake. You should be able to assign time for classroom instruction and time for administrative tasks outside of the classroom. When it comes to blocking off time for personal matters, particularly performance practice and listening to music, this must be sacred. All time frames blocked for personal matters must be non-negotiable, especially if they are shorter than the blocks dedicated to career endeavors.
Some educators choose to make themselves available to students, parents, and their bosses unconditionally; this inevitably results in all stakeholders incorrectly assuming that teachers have no lives of their own, and they will take undue advantage of this availability. It is fine to be a little self-centered in this regard; do not rush to answer every email or telephone call right away. Whenever you feel that a communication or inquiry qualifies as an interruption, continue to treat it as such until you can actually reply without disrupting your personal life.
Formulate a Strategy for Communications
Mobile devices have created new stress agents for educators. Some schools adhere to “bring your own device” (BYOD) practices because they lower their hardware acquisition costs, but this also creates an electronic ankle bracelet for many teachers. Most schools have a 24-hour reply policy; in essence, they give staff members a full day to respond. If this is the case in your school, do not be afraid to use the entire 24 hours. Here are other recommendations:
- Think about the aforementioned blocks of time. Do everything possible to stick to this time frame without interruption so that you don’t end up going over it.
- When you are at school, refrain from checking your email or messaging center just before you go home. If you leave at 3:00 pm, for example, try to do the final check at 2:00 pm. The problem with checking messages just before going home is that doing so may fill you with anxiety.
- Keep messages brief. With the deluge of digital messaging, we are all living with these days, brevity is appreciated. Whenever possible, try to respond with one-line messages. You can also use emoji as a shortcut as long as the conversation can be kept casual.
- Organize your email folders according to the topic and in terms of priority.
The last thing you want to experience as an educator is the “Crackberry Effect,” whereby you combine personal and work communications in the same smartphone. You may think that keeping a Facebook conversation going during work hours is a form of relaxation, but it can easily turn into a stress agent because you will feel indebted to react to notifications.
Some teachers use recording equipment, cloud computing, and their own mobile devices in order to listen to assessments at home; they often do this because they feel as if they can maximize classroom work. The problem with this practice is that it ignores the fact that assessments are excellent classroom activities, particularly when they are conducted as chair tests.
There are various ways you can maximize classroom time without having to take assessments home. Every minute you spend listening to student assessments on your headphones is a minute you are taking away from personal activities. The school environment can be stressful enough on its own; the last thing you want to do is to bring some of that stress to your household. Some teachers will admit that they prefer recorded assessments because they know they will stop students in the middle of chair tests in order to correct them; this must be resisted by letting the metronome run and issuing grades on the spot. Students who are not hitting the mark can be given a chance to improve their assessment grade right away or at a later time.