Talk to any music teacher this time of year and you’ll notice a pattern.
Most of them are seriously exhausted.
If you’re a music teacher, you almost certainly know what I’m talking about.
Whether you’re an ensemble director, classroom teacher, university faculty, or you run a private studio, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced this on-the-edge-of-burnout, just-need-another-cup-of-coffee, how-much-longer-can-I-do-this type of exhaustion.
In my work with music teachers, I’ve noticed that a few challenges seem to come up for nearly everyone: a too-busy schedule, difficulty balancing administrative tasks with teaching, not enough energy, decision fatigue, and negative mindset.
And as a music teacher, I’ve experienced all of these same challenges myself (…some of them more intimately than I’d like to admit).
As difficult as each of these challenges are, none of them are permanent.
We each have the power to take back control of our lives and return to what we love about teaching.
7 Habits of Highly Exhausted Music Teachers
It might seem obvious, but the biggest challenges we face in our lives often relate to our habits — the behaviors that we repeat regularly enough that they begin to happen automatically.
Some habits lead us toward the lives we want to live, while others take us in the opposite direction.
The best kind of habits help us to work efficiently, complete complex tasks easily, and enjoy our leisure time more fully.
The worst kind of habits undermine our ability to focus, create unnecessary stress, and sometimes even destroy our health.
Fortunately, we have the ability to adjust our habits in relatively small but significant ways to overcome just about any difficulty. First, we need to identify the habits that aren’t helping. Then, we can implement the changes we’d like to make to shift things in the right direction.
Do any of these 7 habits sound familiar?
Habit 1: Skipping Self-Care
Between teaching, practicing, planning, performing, executing administrative tasks, and the million other things we do each day, self-care is often the first thing we give up when we get busy.
But as a teacher, the most important thing you can do for your students is to take care of yourself. If your mental or physical capacity is decreased, your ability to teach, guide, and support your students will decrease as well.
On the other hand, if you create the time you need to be physically and mentally at your best, you will discover reserves of energy, teaching skill, and joy that you had no idea were there.
Try finding a small, simple way to take care of yourself every day. You don’t have to run 5 miles or go to a 90-minute hot yoga class (although both of those can be fantastic!).
What would it be like to enjoy a good book for 15 minutes each day? Or to meditate for 5 minutes? Or to enjoy a leisurely walk with a loved one?
Habit 2: Thinking About Teaching All the Time
When you finish teaching for the day, do you spend your evenings thinking about your students? How about the tasks you left unfinished? Do you replay conversations with other teachers or administrators?
This is one of the habits I’ve struggled with the most.
It’s tempting to believe that by using “free” time to solve work problems, you’ll be able to be even more efficient and get more done when you get back to work.
And it’s undeniably true that sometimes, working through work challenges during non-work hours can be helpful.
But over time, this habit can destroy your mental capacity, your love of teaching, and your ability to think critically.
I like to think of it like this:
Nothing bad happens if you stay up late every now and again to finish a big project or to enjoy a night out. But if you stay up late every night, consistently getting not quite enough sleep, you’ll eventually find yourself so physically and mentally exhausted that your quality of work suffers.
Similarly, it’s totally reasonable (and sometimes unavoidable) to think about work-related tasks when we’re away from work. But if we do this all the time, are we ever truly resting and recharging?
Try intentionally letting go of thoughts about work when you’ve finished your work for the day. I like using an end-of-day ritual to shift from work mode to relax mode.
For example: close all tabs on your computer and put away all music supplies, close your eyes and take 3 deep breaths while setting an intention to end your work for the day and begin recharging through rest and relaxation, then let a broad smile spread across your face.
Habit 3: Embracing Negativity
As music teachers, we face a lot of challenges every day.
Depending on the context in which you teach, that might mean frustrating parents, administrators with unreasonable expectations, students who don’t always come prepared, difficult political environments, lack of institutional support, or numerous other challenges.
In the face of all of this difficulty, it’s tempting to embrace a negative, “me against the world” mentality.
But often, a negative mindset dampens our enthusiasm, undermines our motivation, and distracts us from our goals.
That’s not to say that we should ignore feelings of anger, frustration, rage, or hopelessness. These feelings represent a natural human reaction to difficult situations and there is nothing inherently wrong with experiencing them.
However, we have the power to choose how we react to our emotions. Rather than giving in to an unpleasant emotion and amplifying it, what would it be like to simply observe the emotion and then skillfully decide how to respond?
Try embracing gratitude, growth mindset, and positivity.
For gratitude, what would it be like to name 3 things that you are grateful for today? For growth mindset, what if you replaced the thought of “this isn’t good enough” with “this isn’t good enough…yet”? And for positivity, what if you visualized the best possible outcome for a difficult task, just once each day?
Habit 4: Sacrificing Sleep to Work More
If you’ve ever had to pull an all-nighter, you know how badly this habit can go.
But the all-nighter is just one extreme example of sacrificing sleep for work.
Often, we start by habitually extending our work hours late into the evening. We get home late and expect ourselves to eat, unwind, and prepare for sleep faster than our bodies are able to.
As a result, we sleep less…and more poorly.
We wake up the next day exhausted. The quality of our work suffers. We work less efficiently, leading us to work late into the evening…and so the cycle continues.
For music teachers, this cycle is often exacerbated by administrative tasks that pile up right around the busiest weeks for concerts.
Try shifting your focus to creating an environment in which you can do great work as efficiently as possible. What if you were able to work in such a way that you could get more done in less time?
Find creative ways to maximize your sleep time each night until you reach 7-8 hours per night or whatever your personal ideal is. If creating time to sleep is a challenge, how could you increase the quality of your sleep? What if you ended screen time at least 30 minutes before bed, put your phone on airplane mode, and meditated for 5 minutes before bed?
Habit 5: Listening to Music All the Time
I love listening to music, teaching music, analyzing music, reading about music…
And as a fellow music teacher, I bet you share this love!
But when we spend all day listening critically to our students, our ears can start to get overwhelmed.
If you’ve ever finished a long day of teaching feeling overwhelmed and aurally exhausted, your ears might be in need of a break. After too many days in a row of maxing out your ears, your love for music and your ability to listen critically may suffer.
Try giving your ears (and the part of your brain that listens critically to music) a break every day.
What would it be like to commute to work in silence? Or to meditate in silence? Or to go for a walk and enjoy the unique sounds of nature?
Habit 6: Ignoring Signs of Distress
As a professional music teacher, there’s a good chance that you’ve developed many of the skills you need to be highly resilient.
You’re an expert at problem solving, you aren’t afraid of hard and detail-oriented work, and you have learned how to manage success and failure on stage.
Unfortunately, the ability to work hard in difficult circumstances and perform under stress often enables us to ignore signs of distress within ourselves.
If you’d like to return from the brink of exhaustion and burnout, changing this habit might be the most powerful thing you can do. By getting in touch with what your body is telling you, you gain the ability to skillfully navigate difficult circumstances and maintain long-term success.
Try tuning in to the signs that your body is sending you.
What if instead of ignoring pain, exhaustion, and discomfort, you explored it with curiosity? What might you learn if you asked yourself, “What can I learn from this experience?”
Habit 7: Pushing Through Burnout
A few years ago, I was a textbook example of burnout.
During the last semester of work on my Doctor of Musical Arts degree, I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. I felt detached from my students, I felt negatively about nearly every task I had to do, and I resented the choices that had gotten me there. To top it all of, I sensed that my teaching efficacy was plummeting.
With deadlines looming, I pushed through the burnout.
Amazingly, I completed every task and graduated as planned, receiving a steady stream of congratulations and commendations from my mentors, professors, and peers.
On graduation day, terminal degree in hand, I was happy.
But I was beyond burnt-out. I didn’t want to think about music or teaching or practicing. It took months to rediscover my mission in life and to begin creating goals that aligned with that mission.
Of course, this experience is what led me to create dynamicmusicteacher.com, so I’m thankful for it!
But now I know not to push through burnout, no matter how important the short-term goal seems at the time. Next time, I’ll create the space I need to stay in touch with my mission and the long-term goals I need to achieve to get there.
Try finding creative ways to recover from burnout. If you discover that you are approaching burnout, what would happen if you scaled back your most stressful responsibilities or found unique ways to reduce the stress associated with those activities?
Do you find yourself struggling with any of these habits?
If so, you’re not alone! Share which of these 7 habits you struggle with in a comment below, so other music teachers know they’re not alone. We are all here to support each other.
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