For the most part, this blog has always been devoted to what music educators can do for their students to improve teaching and learning. I have discussed a wide range of methods, materials, and experiences with the intent of serving my audience of music educators and music education majors. Through it all I have neglected in my writing what is all to easy to neglect in our careers, and that is taking care of ourselves so that we can better take care of others.
Whenever you fly, the pre-flight briefing always includes instructions on using the oxygen mask in case of an emergency. Among all of the directions, one stands out: place the mask on yourself first, then if necessary, help someone else next you put on their mask. This is because if you faulted for lack of oxygen, not only will you be in jeopardy, you will be unable to help anyone else. Take care of yourself first so that you will be able to take care of others. This is good for us as teachers to remember too. When we are fatigued, stressed, dehydrated, out of shape, or under nourished, we cannot possibly be all our students need us to be, or all we are capable of being as teachers.
With this in mind, I want to share with you some things I’ve learned make a big difference in my performance at school, and in my overall contentment and quality of life.
- Take time to refresh at lunch. Teaching music is physically and mentally demanding. You may have an array of things that you feel you must do and won’t get to if you don’t work through your lunch. It’s not worth it. I worked with an Art teacher who worked through lunch nearly every day. She went into lunchtime frazzled and came out of it more stressed with not much accomplished. You need time to refresh your mind as much as your body. I developed the habit of remaining in the teachers lunch room for the entire lunch time, even if I finished dining early. I’d just kick back and socialize with colleagues, or move to a more comfortable chair and just relax with some deep breathing, and meditation, even if just for 5 minutes. It reset my mind, and allowed me to enter into my afternoon schedule with a good attitude.
- Plan your planning periods. Planning or preparation periods are meant for all those outside-of-class tasks teachers must do, such as planning instruction, setting up your room for the next class, grading assignments, giving extra help to students, and so forth. These things must be done, and the planning period is the time to do them; however, don’t cram every second full of this work. Plan to end ten minutes before the end of the period. Use that time to get out of your classroom and take a walk around the school, or step outside for a few minutes if it’s a nice day, and then return to your classroom and have a few minutes to pause before your next class arrives. This takes the hurriedness out of that transition to the teaching period, and will result in your next class getting off to a good start, because you will get off to a good start. Students know when you’re calm and ready to teach them, and when you’re still not quite their when they arrive. Be emotionally ready.
- Have something to do outside of school that you really enjoy. This is a lifesaver for many. For this one, I don’t mean getting home, or seeing your children or spouse. Those things are great, and we look forward to them for sure. For this I mean an extra-curricular activity that you so love doing that it motivates you to come to school even though you’re under the weather or have a meeting that day you’d rather not attend. I have a friend who goes to yoga class twice a week after school. He shoots out of the building and can’t wait to get there. Yoga class is wonderful, because not only is it enjoyable while you’re there, you also learn skills that you can draw upon at any time during the day, such as meditation, deep breathing and just returning to a peaceful state of mind. You can even practice these things with your students, having them do meditation for the first 5 minutes of class. It’s a great way for everyone to settle in before starting the day’s lesson. For me it has been music directing the drama club for 90 minutes after school twice a week. Even if my teaching day has been rough, and I feel fatigued at the end of the school day and would really like to go home, once those rehearsals start and I always find a second wind and new life. I love teaching, but directing shows is something I have always enjoyed, and it gives me a lift to do it with my students after school. It’s also great for the kids to seem me in this kind of setting where I am more relaxed and casual. It has paid great dividends to me personally and to my relationships with my students, which then carries over to my classes with them.
- Be social, not a hermit. It’s so easy to “go it alone” when you are a music teacher. Our rooms tend to be away from the rest of the classrooms so the sound of our music is isolated where it won’t impede other classrooms, and we teach a subject that most of our colleagues know very little about and often find hard to relate to. These things don’t matter. When there is a faculty holiday party, go to it. When teachers go to a restaurant Friday afternoons after school, join them. When there is a faculty v. students ballgame, play in it. Our psychology is such that we are happier, more content, and more effective as teachers when we know we are part of a family of teachers, and not the lone music teacher in the building. If someone invites you to join a group of them, say yes. For me, that is how I started playing golf. They didn’t care that I hadn’t played in years, they wanted me to join their company. It had nothing to do with my golfing skill.
- Be content with what you have. This was a tough one for me early in my career. I convinced myself that I needed a whole list of “stuff” in order to be successful. I needed the perfect classroom, I needed a large budget for purchasing music and instruments, I needed this, I needed that, and when I couldn’t get it, I let it drag me into a bad attitude toward my work. I had to learn that having all that would be nice, and might even make what I did better, but it was far from necessary. What was necessary was for me to do the best I could with what I had. I learned to succeed with a great music room, and on a cart, with a big music budget and with no music budget. I learned what pleased principals and what annoyed them, and tried to please and avoid annoying. The support that resulted was worth more than any amount of “stuff” they could have bought me, and it made for a much happier and effective me.
Contentment is one of the most important skills we can learn and practice. It improves every facet of our existence, and flows form the other four points I have discussed here. When your teaching seems to be spinning out of control, and I know it happens on occasion to all of us, returning or beginning with these things is a wonderful way to respond.