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10 minutes reading time (1957 words)

Feeling singing? Coping with burnout

As you returned from the holiday break (or madness!), did you look forward to your regular teaching schedule, or did you feel less than enthusiastic at the idea of seeing your students again? Most of us have times in our lives when we feel tired and withdrawn, not ready to face another long day of teaching. 

In this issue and the upcoming May/June issue, you will find articles discussing how to recognize and manage the symptoms of burnout that you may be feeling. We spend so much of our time learning about better ways to teach and play the piano, let's take some time to explore better ways to take care of ourselves!

Fired up!

by Rachel Kramer

Admit it—it's 2:10 and it looks like your 2:00 student isn't showing— relief (she never comes prepared and talks too much!). Admit it—you just found out that the article you have due on the fifteenth has been extended to the twentieth—breathing again (you hadn't started it anyway!). And, it's only sixty-two days until spring break. It's another year of faculty meetings with your colleagues, another year facing those students whose parents are forcing them to be in your studio, another year in the life of the professional music teacher. 

For everything in life there is a shadow side—the "dark side"—the side that is not apparent to most of the world. It is the secret side, the yin and yang. Sometimes it is a difficult thing for the professional music teacher to admit, but nonetheless it is a part of our lives. Like a relationship, the things that attract people to each other can be the very things that end up annoying them. Historically, educators have not been given "permission" to experience burnout; however, we can love what we do and still feel tired, frustrated, and even burned out. 

Your life

Let's talk about you, your life, and about taking care of yourself—renewing and recharging, relighting and igniting, so that you are the best possible person and teacher. If you are scattered, disorganized, unmotivated, depressed, angry, tired, confused, lack a sense of humor, feel obligated— your students will know! Students can sense anxiousness in their teacher, especially when it is someone they hold in high regard. They love you, whether you believe it or not, and they know when you are not present. In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes: "Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one's inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge— and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject."1

Understanding yourself and your relationship to the profession will help you become a more effective teacher, feel better, and look forward to seeing your 2:00 student. You will stop feeling "busy" and focus on what is really important. Your physical and emotional health will improve, and relationships with your colleagues will be more rewarding. Let's look more closely at the relationship between our profession as teachers and the hazards of early and increased burnout.

The flame goes out

A good teacher is like a candle—it consumes itself to light the way for others. ~Author Unknown 

When he coined the term "burnout" in 1974, little did Herbert Freudenberger know that it was going to move from the world of chemical dependency into the world of the professional workplace with the swiftness of, ironically, burning wood. Today every profession uses the term burnout and the problem seems ubiquitous; however, it may even be more apparent in the high-touch (as opposed to hightech) worlds of teaching, counseling, and health care. Teachers are nurturing individuals— developing relationships, changing lives, doing a "greater good," and making the world a better place in which to live! But all this greater good may be at a cost greater than we can afford if we are not aware of the stressors, obstacles, unique qualities, and dangerous pitfalls of this endearing and remarkable profession.

From darkness to light

In The Resilient Practitioner—Burnout Prevention and Self-Care Strategies for Counselors, Therapists, Teachers and Health Professionals, Thomas M. Skovholt offers many challenges and opportunities for teachers who are feeling burned out and frustrated.2 Here, he clearly defines the characteristics of "high-touch" professions and why it is easy to become emotionally drained or burned out. 

Good teaching includes more than technique, books, methods, workshops, and lesson plans. Additional qualities are about connections—the very things that set us on fire and then burn us out if we aren't careful and attentive. As we support and care for our students, we develop relationships that can sometimes be difficult to balance and sustain as we deal with the unique politics of our profession. 

Of course, a person must be "on fire" to burnout, so it is not suggested that we all sit back and enjoy the restful arms of mediocrity, nor is it suggested that we drop students from our studios, or stop caring about them. It is suggested, in the words of Skovholt, that we figure out when we sprint and when we jog,We must learn how to recognize when we have control and when we don't, how to identify projection and transference from others, and how to say "no" and strike a balance.We must develop ways to rekindle our fire, prevent the fire from going out, and stay away from extinguishers. 

Students at all levels and teachers of all subjects struggle with the inherent complexities of teaching:  

  • Unsolvable problems—students who just aren't going to get better, lack of success by our students, and their slow, uneven pace 
  • Varying abilities—they are not all honors students 
  • Motivational conflicts—when what we want and what they want are different 
  • Projection and "baggage"—issues we take on from students, and sometimes their parents 
  • Emotions as deep and wide as the ocean—in this high-touch field, teachers are expending emotional energy all of the time 
  • Ambiguous professional loss—constant separations and new attachments 
  • Breaches in peer support—lack of peer interaction and support, divisions within the profession.4

Flying in formation

Our professional colleagues' roles in our life are as important as those of our students. Like geese, whose wing flaps, formation, dependence, care, and support of each other sees them through their journey together, so, too, are the people on a team or department who share a common direction. They arrive where they are going more quickly and easily because they are traveling on the trust of one another and buoy each other up along the way. Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the pull and struggle of trying to go it alone and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the power of the rest of the geese. If we have as much insight as a goose, we will stay in formation and share information with those who are headed in the same direction. 

Geese in the back of the formation honk to encourage those up front to keep their momentum.Words of support and inspiration help energize others—our encouragement helps them in spite of day-to-day issues. When one of us is down, it's up to the others to stand by us in our time of trouble; we stand together. We will stay in formation with those headed where we want to go. Imagine this same peer support, interest, and respect for each other in our collective journey. Wouldn't it be great to incorporate these lessons from the geese: 

  • Learn to give and take constructive criticism 
  • Everyone's time is equally valuable— you are no busier than anyone else! 
  • Follow up and follow through—if you say you are going to do it—do it!​
  • Take responsibility—don't play the blame game 
  • Beware of gossip 
  • Be empathetic 
  • Be the kind of colleague you would want to have!

Strike it up

Feelings of burnout, stress, and busyness backlog everyone's life and stymie meaningful conversation. Mindfulness, meditation, self-help, blogs, books, and Buddha— we must use anything and everything to help ease the stress, burnout, and frenetic nature of our lives. Admitting that there is room to grow, understanding that there is a shadow side to teaching, and giving ourselves permission to feel these things are first steps in learning to live with the hazards of the teaching profession and unique aspects of our "high-touch" job. Here are some things to think about as you begin your journey towards rekindling your flame! 

  1. Recognize and value clear boundaries 
  2. Understand and accept your own limitations 
  3. Recognize that attachment and separation is a natural process 
  4. Become a mentor  
  5. Develop a more diverse peer group 
  6. Have a work environment that enhances your life 
  7. Adapt to change—stop living in the past or worrying about the future—it is what it is! 
  8. Seek peer consultation 
  9. Create new experiences for yourself 
  10. Develop new skills 
  11. Develop a professional social support network 
  12. Learn to laugh 
  13. Give yourself transitional time 
  14. Embark on restorative activities 
  15. Develop self-awareness and internal focus 
  16. Learn to have professional venting sessions! 
  17. Seek feedback 
  18. Expand your imagination  
  19. Don't take yourself so seriously 
  20. Let go—you can't do it all and you don't know everything! 

Well-managed stress gives you insight and purpose—it makes you balanced and able to handle more stress. Just like muscles used in a workout, stress feeds the mind, body, and emotions. You need to be in the game and be in shape; you have to be "tough." In Stress for Success, James E. Loehr talks about "stressed muscles." A stressed brain means growth, but it needs physical, mental, and emotional recovery practices. Restorative practices are personal; for example, while some people enjoy working four different jobs, others are stressed by it—but, the important idea is to strive for a balance of peak performance and recovery. Work hard and play equally hard; go and let go; be active, then idle; make it happen, then let it happen and maintain healthy work/rest ratios.5

"Match" - point

The wellness of a professional music teacher is all-encompassing. It is about how we treat ourselves, our students, and each other. Burnout is what happens when we lose sight of the path, of the other geese, and when we move to the beat of a drummer who doesn't even want to be in the band. Understanding that so much of teaching involves the complexities of the human spirit and psyche is as important as understanding that one can damage muscles if misused or over-used in practice. 

Our job as teachers is not to be the best—it is to be "in tune" and "in rhythm" with our students and colleagues. It's not about winning and losing, as in tennis—it's about cultivating and nurturing ourselves, our students, and our colleagues. We are charged with influencing lives, with shaping the world; but we must stay in touch with our own wellness. It's about having balance, insight and awareness—it is about striking up ideas and looking for ways to stay engaged and creative. 

You chose this work and there is work to be done! So, let's light a spark and have some fun. 


Palmer, P. (1998). The Courage to Teach. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., p. 2.

Skovholt,T. (2001). The Resilient Practitioner. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, p. 2. 

Ibid., p. 139. 

Ibid., pp. 77-88. 

Loehr, J. (1997). Stress for Success. New York: Times Books, p. 4.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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