Achieving the Balance We Need

By Nathan Langfitt, LPC

In what now feels like another lifetime, I was a Texas middle school band director. I worked the long days.  I cared deeply about the progress of my students. I spent every free moment advocating to those who didn’t understand why music education is important.

There weren’t enough hours in the day, and like most music educators I know, I put all of the responsibility on myself when things didn’t go well.

The stress and burnout I experienced and that I witnessed in others led me to leave my teaching career and return to school to become a therapist. I wanted to do something to help the profession I had loved so much.

I strongly believe there are shifts to our routines and to our thinking that can help us be more balanced individuals and forge more sustainable careers in music education.

Burnout and Music Education

Burnout has been defined as a combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that leads to a decreased effectiveness at work, as well as harm to an individual’s mental health.

Some recent research has shown that the effects of burnout are on a similar level to the symptoms of depression. As we look at each of the previously mentioned elements, it becomes clear how teaching—especially teaching music—can lead to burnout.

Emotional exhaustion is a natural byproduct of the intense amount of effort, energy, and passion we put into teaching. The first cars in the school parking lot each morning and the last to leave each evening often belong to music teachers.

Pair this with the amount of enthusiasm and energy required to teach large groups of students (who often respond less than enthusiastically) and our emotions grow weary and exhausted. This can lead us to become less responsive in our relationships outside teaching.

Depersonalization happens when we feel like all we do at work is push and pull the proverbial buttons and levers of our job. This could look like going through the motions, being overly immersed in routines, or becoming rigid and inflexible in decision-making.

When we become disconnected from the music and from the real essence of why we are music educators, it can be easy to feel like more of a bureaucrat, or just a person who operates a metronome and responds to emails all day.

Reduced personal accomplishment takes over when we no longer believe we are making an impact. This is where the adversity and barriers around us seem insurmountable—as if we have lost the control we need to be successful. I think of many of my peers who sink into a deep rut and even reconsider their career choice based on a less than favorable rating at UIL.

When our self-worth becomes entangled with the music our students make, we are setting ourselves up for burnout and other issues.

Strategies to Reduce Burnout

When music educators think about improving their mental health, the strategies I recommend are a mix of tangible exercises and tools, as well as broader, more systemic ways of shifting our thinking about our role and life as a teacher.

That said, I want to preface that changing the way we think about taking care of ourselves is a marathon, not a sprint. There is very seldom a day when we are “fixed,” because taking better care of ourselves is a long-term investment in our well-being.

Some music educators tell me they feel hopeless, because they believe they are already so burned out there is no turning back. If these exercises seem impossible in your current lifestyle, simply increasing your awareness can be a huge start.

Consider these simple daily exercises of pause and notice:

  1. Pause and notice your breathing.
  2. Pause and notice what is working and what is not with a non-judgmental tone.
  3. Pause and notice how you take care of yourself, and how you talk with yourself about this.

Any efforts to reduce burnout and improve mental health start with increasing our self-awareness. Perhaps starting with these will help you move to a place where you begin to see that you deserve to take care of yourself.

Self-Care Plans

Many music educators have hobbies away from music, enjoy physical activity, or find it relaxing to read a book or do something creative. Some of us do these activities already, but do we pause and acknowledge that we do them because we deserve to take care of ourselves?

A self-care plan is a deliberate and daily practice that can increase well-being almost instantly. To start, I encourage you to pick two or three things you can commit to doing daily. These can take anywhere from five minutes to half a day, based on available time.

The key to an effective self-care plan is being flexible yet structured at the same time, because the goal is to commit to our plan not just on easy days, but on the difficult ones as well. Here is a sample self-care plan:

  1. Read or write for 10 minutes (about a topic unrelated to teaching music).
  2. Do something good for the body.
  3. Remind yourself of something that is going well.

Based on how busy a day is, this self-care plan could be elaborate, or it could be fairly simple. The goal is not the amount of time spent in self-care, it is rather to be consistent and do it every day.

On a busy day doing something good for the body could be eating a healthy lunch. On a day with more free time, that could look like a long bicycle ride. This is an example of a plan having structure yet allowing for flexibility.

We are much more likely to commit to self-care plan that is written down. I encourage you to put your plan on a card and keep it in your wallet or purse. Even better, create accountability by telling a friend or colleague about your plan and encouraging them to make one of their own.

I realize this may seem far-fetched in rigors of a school day, but can you imagine a world where you tell one of your colleagues you need to step away for just 10 minutes for yourself?

We all deserve to take care of ourselves, even on the most stressful days of the school year.

What if some of the effort we spend on improving the lives of our students were turned inward, even just for a moment each day?

Boundaries and Balance

The nature of music educators’ work can seem almost designed to knock down boundaries between professional and personal. When you spend over 10 hours a day working at school and more on weekends, it can be easy to lose yourself.

Developing more deliberate boundaries is an essential step to increasing well-being and reducing stress, but for many it can be challenging.

At first, many music educators believe that being in teacher mode all the time is simply part of the job. This can be even harder to recognize as deleterious when colleagues exhibit similar behavior.

It can be most difficult to set boundaries in the moments when you come to and go from school. I suggest establishing entering and exiting rituals: something you commit to doing every time you travel between your work space and home life.

Picture this as the moment you take off your superhero costume for the night. Maybe it is a music playlist in the car, or a mantra you recite to yourself as you take off your ID badge for the day.

You are creating a ritual to remind yourself that work has ceased, and it is now time to connect with loved ones and take care of yourself.

Little tools like this can hold us accountable and keep us from sliding into a habit of perpetually being in teacher mode.

Identity and Self-worth

For many, joining band, orchestra, or choir gave us a sense of identity for the first time. This passion manifested into an all-in culture in college: our friends were music majors and it was completely normal to practice into the early hours of the morning.

In music school, it becomes common to sacrifice our well-being; instead of spending those years developing an independent identity, we spend them developing a uniquely musical identity.

When our musical identity and personal identity bleed into one another, our musical successes and failures in the professional world often become our personal successes and failures.

Self-worth and musical ability have become interwoven in a way that doesn’t allow us to process failure in a healthy way. This becomes even more problematic for music educators, as, every year, we essentially place our self-worth into the hands of a group of children.

It is easy to believe the only way to improve and grow as a musician is to be hard on ourselves. As teachers we are trained to dole out just the right amount of tough love, but when we do this for ourselves it is mostly tough with hardly any love.

Simply noticing and attempting to shift our self-talk is a first step toward taking the sting off of harsh self-criticism.

Caring for Ourselves and Our Profession

These suggestions are just the start of looking inward and taking better care of yourself.

Once we decide we deserve self-care and that we deserve to live a life free from needless suffering, the amount of personal growth can be astounding.

I often catch clients off-guard when I tell them they don’t have to do anything to deserve happiness, kindness, and self-care.

We deserve all these things simply because we are alive, not because of how hard we work or how much we teach.

It may also be helpful to work through these topics with a therapist in your community. Working with a therapist can add a trained and objective voice and can help you identify individual hurdles preventing you from focusing inward and taking better care of yourself.

I often think about how it might only take a handful of educators to begin to shift the culture on mental health within the profession and remove the stigma around these conversations.

I believe every music educator can live a healthier and happier life.

Nathan Langfitt, LPC, is Director of Undergraduate Career Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Adapted from “Achieving the Balance We Need,” published in the September 2018 issue of Southwestern Musician.