It seems like information about teacher burnout is everywhere right now. I’m not sure if it is because we’re still facing COVID-19-related difficulties in the classroom or if we’re just less afraid to talk about the less glorious side of teaching. In fact, Sarah Gulish wrote about “Pandemic Flux Syndrome” in a post back in September. And it still rings true.

Teaching during a pandemic (or any time) can be challenging and there has been a lot of research on how to more effectively retain music teachers in the field as well as music teacher burnout. However, even though burnout can be frustrating, we don’t have to accept that nothing can be done about it.

Defining Burnout

Dr. Joseph Hanson explored music teacher burnout saying the effects of burnout can leave teachers emotionally stressed about their jobs to the point of not knowing why they go to work each day. In reviewing burnout literature, Dr. Hanson stated that there is a struggle for music teachers, but burnout is not an inevitable result of job stress.

But what happens when burnout feels unsurmountable? For Laura Long, burnout led directly to her leaving the profession. I think the trick is to know that sometimes the right call is to leave as Laura Long did. However, sometimes it can be enough to know that burnout symptoms can be a catalyst to making changes.

Narrative Inquiry

Allison M. Paetz conducted a study exploring a music teacher named Eleanor who moved through her burnout and chose to remain in the profession. This study is a narrative inquiry, which is just a fancy way of saying that Eleanor’s experiences were explored through interviews and an observation, but written as a story.

Eleanor’s Story

Eleanor accepted her first position as a middle school general music and high school ensemble teacher in a rural community. Over the course of her five years in her position, Eleanor described becoming frustrated with the lack of support from administrators and resources at her school. At the end of five years of unrelenting stress and consistent frustration, Eleanor made the decision to walk away from her position without a concrete plan about what she would do next.

Eleanor eventually found a substitute teaching position for a semester-long maternity leave for a successful secondary ensemble program in a suburban community. And though she was nervous, Eleanor was welcomed in with open arms.

Eleanor described her experience as a substitute teacher as transformative and decided that her frustrations with teaching were related specifically to the conditions and environment at her previous school. She carried the lessons she learned as a substitute teacher into her next position. Though she faced some adversity, as many teachers do in a new position, she eventually settled and felt at home. Eleanor said that the open and honest communication she found from her new colleagues and administration allowed her to believe she could earn her colleagues trust and support.

What was Found?

Eleanor is now five years into a job she started after being a substitute teacher. Being at a new school allowed Eleanor to talk about her future as a music teacher with excitement rather than the dread she felt at her first job. Eleanor even had energy and wanted to add to the responsibilities on top of her teaching load.

The experience as a substitute teacher and in her new position led Eleanor to know that her frustrations from at her first position didn’t mean that she was a bad teacher (contrary to what her administrators, colleagues, and students may have said about her). Instead, changing her environment allowed Eleanor to become the kind of teacher she wanted to be.

So, what? Why Should You Care?

When things get tough, sometimes you have the luxury of quitting with no plans as Eleanor did. Sometimes that isn’t possible, and you need to do something else.

If you need tips to get you through a rough spot, Dr. Hanson has offered some research-based strategies to minimize burnout symptoms:

  1. Time management: Set limits and place boundaries on your time. Don’t work because you “need to.” There’s always going to be more you can do, but you absolutely don’t have to. There are no emergencies in music education that will directly result in death or serious bodily harm. Taking a night off is fine – encouraged even!
  2. Role stress: Sometimes we can handle putting out multiple fires at the same time. But sometimes we wind up spreading ourselves too thin. Ask for help where you can. Sometimes that help can be delegating tasks and other times that help can come from asking for clarity from your administrators on what exactly they want you to do and when.
  3. Practice Self-care: I know that we hear this a lot, but our bodies have ways of forcing us to listen if we go too long surviving on coffee and vending machine meals. Find something that makes you happy. Then do that thing. A lot.
  4. Remember why you became a teacher: Some days are better than others. Especially if you are a new teacher. Rather than just holding on and hoping for the best, try to find ways to remind yourself why you took the job to begin with. It can be as simple as saving (and actually reading) positive student, parent, and administrator messages. Other ideas include thinking back and tracking your own growth as a teacher over time. Remember that time you made a mistake in your first year teaching? Yeah, we do all. The trick is to reflect on the many changes you’ve made since then.

Burnout can be challenging, but teachers like Eleanor show us that job stressors don’t necessarily follow you into your next position. If something isn’t working, try to make a change. The change you make don’t even have to be big. If you find that small changes aren’t working, consider following in Eleanor’s footsteps and seeing if a new school can help you to get your groove back (pun intended).

And I’ll leave you with a friendly reminder. You don’t get a reward, certificate, or huge monetary bonus at the end of the year for showing up every day. Take that personal and/or sick day. And don’t feel guilty about it!

Do you have research to contribute to this column? Submit with this link so that I can share what you’ve created in a future column.