By: Erin MacAfee

Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Unmotivated. Inability to feel excited about teaching. Any of this sound familiar? As music teachers, most of us have personally experienced burnout at some point during our teaching careers or know someone who has. Between trying to juggle lessons, planning, parent communications, student recruitment, expanding our resource libraries, and professional development, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed. When you add trying to balance that with families, school, chores, and other commitments, it can feel impossible to keep up with everything. In addition to the typical challenges of music teaching, teachers who work with special needs populations face an even higher risk of burnout and exhaustion due to stress. The pandemic has added additional stressors over the past year and a half as well, with many teachers having to face new challenges like switching to online learning, struggles with student retention and engagement, and coping with the effects of isolation. Considering these challenges, it’s no wonder that more music teachers than ever are suffering from stress and burnout!

Stress management is crucial to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Without it, we risk suffering a myriad of negative side effects, and it also make it difficult to show up and be fully present with our students. However, the good news is that there are many ways to manage stress. Keep reading to learn more about stress, burnout, and for tips on how to reduce stress.

Stress and Burnout
First things first, what is stress? Stress is your body’s natural response to a challenging or threatening situation. When we are faced with a stressful situation, our body’s autonomic nervous system responds. There are two parts to this system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system activates our fight or flight response, which is designed to protect us. This can be helpful in certain situations. For example, your body’s stress response can alert you to a dangerous situation and the associated physiological responses (e.g. increased heart
rate, heightened senses) prepares you to face that threat (fight) or flee from danger (flight). Stress can also motivate you or make you feel “pumped up” before an important event, like a presentation or an interview. The parasympathetic system does the opposite of the sympathetic system: it is our “rest and recover” response. This system helps our body return to normal functioning after a period of stress. Normally, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work in tandem to help our bodies stay balanced and function optimally. However, when the body is under prolonged periods of stress, it remains in a constant state of “fight of flight”, with no opportunity to rest. This can have a number of negative effects on mental and physical health, including, headaches, muscles aches and tension, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and more.

Burnout is what happens when you reach a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion after prolonged periods of stress. Burnout can lead to decreased concentration, motivation, and productivity, and increase irritability and illness. We’ve all felt the joys of making music and teaching others to do the same, but burnout can make it feel impossible to feel that joy, and can lead to feelings of depression, pessimism, and hopelessness. On top of everything else, burnout decreases your ability to cope with stress which creates a vicious cycle that can be hard to disrupt.

Tips for Stress Management

Given that it’s highly unlikely that all of life’s stressors will magically disappear one day, the question is: how do you manage stress and avoid putting your well-being in jeopardy, while still maintaining a successful and fulfilling teaching career? Below are a few tips you can try to reduce stress and eliminate burnout from your life.

1. Take care of your mind and body. One of my favourite sayings is “You can’t take care of anyone if you don’t take care of yourself.” As teachers, we need to take care of ourselves if we want to be able to help our students. Eating well, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and exercising can all increase your resilience to stress. There are also plenty of stress management techniques you can try like meditation, yoga, and mindfulness to increase your stress tolerance and help you feel more balanced on a day-to-day basis.

2. Start small. If you’re already starting to feel burnt out, the thought of adding something new to your routine (even if it’s something that could help) probably feels overwhelming! The trick is to start small. Instead of expecting yourself to start meditating 30 minutes every day, try 5 minutes. Instead of going for a walk every day, start with 1-2 walks per week. Too many changes at once trigger our stress response, which is what we’re trying to avoid in the first place. Start with small changes first and grow from there.

3. Take breaks. Take breaks throughout the day and while you’re teaching. Try scheduling in 10–15 minute breaks between some of your students so you have some built-in rest time for your schedule. If that’s not possible, even taking 2-3 minutes in between lessons to move around, eat a snack, or use the washroom can make a big difference. If you’re teaching online, make sure to take 30 seconds to look away from your computer screen between each lesson. This will help reduce eye strain and contribute to your overall health. As well, if you’re working on lesson planning, or something that has less structured time blocks compared to lessons, try setting a timer to remind you to take a break every 30-60 minutes.

4. Set boundaries. We all know that teaching doesn’t end when our lessons do. With lesson planning, parent/student communication, and constantly expanding our teaching repertoire, we often spend many hours outside of lesson time working. Try to set clear boundaries for yourself around when and how much you work. For example, if you’re someone who gets a lot of emails, try setting aside a specific time where you check and respond to emails. Outside of that time, step away from the computer or phone and do something else! Having clear boundaries about what is work time and what is personal time will help you maximize your time off so that you feel rested and ready to go when it is time to work.

5. Know your limits. This is related to setting boundaries but understanding your limits can help you find a work-life balance that keeps stress levels low. For example, you may feel comfortable teaching 10 students in an evening, or you may start to notice that after 8 students, you start feeling tired (and maybe a little grouchy). Everyone has different limits and that’s ok! It’s important to understand where your limits are and work within them to avoid overextending yourself. Once you’ve become familiar with your limits, learn how to say no to things that are beyond them. Keep in mind that your limits can also change, depending on stressors or challenges you may be facing outside of work. That’s ok too! Learning how to recognize and respect your limits will go a long way towards preventing burnout.

6. Connect with other teachers. If you’re feeling stressed, lonely, or frustrated, reach out to other teachers! Whether it be teachers in your studio or in the community, talking with others who are facing the same challenges can relieve stress and help us feel more connected to the world around us. Talking to other teachers will help you feel less isolated, and they may also have some more great stress management techniques for you to try out.

7. Be kind to yourself. As teachers, we practice compassion, empathy, and patience on a regular basis with our students. Practice this with yourself as well! One thing that can be helpful is to focus on what you did during the day, and not on what you did not do. With an ever-present to-do list, it’s easy to finish the day thinking about all the things that didn’t get done or the things you need to do tomorrow. This perpetuates the stress cycle and keeps our bodies in fight or flight mode. Instead, take a moment to think about what you did do today. Did you have a great lesson with a student? Did you find a new rhythm activity that you think your students will really enjoy? Great! Take a moment to reflect on the things that went well during the day and connect with some positive feelings. Everyone faces stress and challenges in their teaching. However, by practicing stress management techniques, you can combat the negative effects of stress and instead feel energized, inspired, and joyful as you work with your students.

Happy Teaching!