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How to Deal with Common Stressors

Being a music educator is a stressful job. Here are tips to deal with some common stress-inducing situations.

When a 1-year-old falls and bumps her knee for the first time, she starts wailing like it’s the worst thing that has ever happened to her. That’s because it is the worst thing that has happened to her.

We all experience something for the first time throughout our lives. We don’t come into this world experienced and full of wisdom. And yes, some of these issues are commonplace, but it’s still stressful, especially the first time we deal with them.

“Stomach churners” is the term I use to describe those situations that form a knot in your stomach and ruin the rest of the day. Things like:

  • The angry parent email (I left the baritones off the program once).
  • That one class. You know … the one that just isn’t working, no matter what strategies and interventions you use.
  • The first time a kid tells you “no” or doesn’t listen.

There have been a few times in my career where something stressful or upsetting derailed my day. Then, a veteran educator helped me, and sometimes let me know that this situation was not a big deal.

In no particular order, here are some common stressors that music educators go through. This is an “includes-not-but-limited-to” list, so if you have a situation that you think should have made the list, email us at

frustrated woman with head down on her laptopKids Quitting

This is a hard one, and even veteran educators can’t help but take this personally. It never feels like the student is quitting music; rather, it feels like the kid is quitting us or quitting themselves.

The reality is that sometimes students quit. The other reality is that while music is for everyone, the medium that we are able to provide music for kids might not be the best setting for that particular student. We can take it personally, we can care, but we can also respect their choice and welcome them back if they return.

How do we get over it? Well, sometimes we don’t . But we respect others’ choices, even if they don’t align with what we would have done in their situation.

Kids Forced to Quit

This, on the other hand, is a much bigger pain to me. I understand that students have to work within the structure and confines of the school schedule, graduation requirements, the amount of time they have, etc. Many schools have that one class that causes conflicts. But consider this: Perhaps it is our class that is the source of conflict for other electives (it doesn’t always feel good to consider these things!).

The reality is that sometimes kids have to choose. Was it all really a waste if they spent three years in music instead of four?

Other situations can be dire. For example, if a specific class or program is potentially cannibalizing your program (we’re talking enrollment drops of 5% to 10% or more), advocacy, informing and even arguing must come into play. I hesitate to use the words “saving your program,” but sometimes this is the case. Even though I know my program might still be the source of conflict at this point, I understand that there is still a certain fragility to the existence of fine arts programs that are dependent on enrollment. Remember that sometimes, being in tune with our school’s goals with the resources we have can help us to combat potential issues.

Administrators or Parents Not Understanding Us

Many of us just want to be understood, respected and left alone. But consider this: Are we trying to play opposing sides?

Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” states: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” a quote that has deep meaning for me. There was a point in my career where I made some scheduling or rehearsal mistakes, and I wasn’t playing nice with some other colleagues.

The principal called me into his office, and I’ll never forget what he said. “We disagree on something right now,” he said. “I think I need to start thinking about things more like a band director, and you need to start thinking about things more like an administrator.”

This was just the advice I needed. The principal wasn’t telling me to back down or change my stance, but rather to consider other viewpoints.

We work in schools. If someone doesn’t understand something, maybe we need to inform (teach) them as best as we can.

But sometimes, others may never understand us. I called a mentor of mine once complaining that all the community cared about was the pep band and that they weren’t taking our concert literature seriously. My mentor’s response: “There are worse things than making people happy with music.”

Message received.

Although the community didn’t seem to understand our artistic concert approach, they didn’t stand in the way of it. I decided at that point that it wasn’t really important for everyone to understand that we are artists!

happy girl standing by school busLunch or Bus Duty

I’m still convinced that teachers love the actual teaching part of teaching. And then there are the duties. Not many teachers look forward to organizing mass transport of hormonal adolescents (bus duty) or supervising the collective midday feeding (lunch duty). Organizing these duties is never the same as your classroom, and there is often a lack of control and order.

Turn it around into something positive. A friend of mine took lunch duty as an opportunity to meet every kid in the lunchroom and form positive relationships. After a couple of years, some of these kids joined the band. Was my friend crazy about doing lunch duty? No. But her personality was such that she supported the entire school, not just the music program. As a result, more kids signed up for music.

When Things Don’t Go Perfectly

Winston Churchill said, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.”

Your perfectionism stresses kids out. There, I said it.

Let’s think about concerts. If you’re leading a group of 20 to 100 students between the ages of 4 to 18 at a specific time of day in a specific location with several parents, administrators, etc., watching … it isn’t going to go perfectly. So, stop hoping for things to go off without a hitch. As long as no one’s safety is at risk, some of these hitches can actually lead to memorable events.

Once my band was doing a recording session, and we had to use glass Coke bottles for a specific sound. After a few runs, the percussionist hit the bottle a little hard. We have the most pristine recording of glass shattering, the ensemble stopping and then everyone laughing. We took a few more months to improve this piece to play at a state festival. You know what the kids request to hear years later? The bottle break!

Another example was when I saw one of the most respected directors in the state show up to a festival, get ready to play and then realize that the percussionists left nearly all of their equipment back at the school, which was over two hours away. The director did what any of us would do. He stressed out for a bit, held his head in his hands and then asked for help. The band going on afterward offered to let the first band use its equipment. The performance was fabulous.

When all else fails, think about how an imperfect event will lead to absurd and entertaining conversations in the future. People don’t sit around the dinner table talking about the perfect events that happen. The worse the event goes, the better the story you have to connect with other imperfect human beings later!

However, this does not mean we do not have high standards.

students throwing graduation caps in the airThat One Class

We’ve all had that class, and some years, it’s harder to deal with than others. It either meets at the beginning of the day, causing stress and anxiety to your morning, or at the end of the day, serving as a final challenge to an otherwise productive day. The further into my career I go, the fewer instances I have of this, but it still comes up. I know that different classes require different approaches. The more I tried to make that one class fit the mold of my other classes that were going fine, the worse it got.

Remember: It’s not personal! Do you drive to work thinking, “I can’t wait to dump my entire life out on these kids and just take it out on the first 6th grader who crosses my path!”

Hopefully not! The same is true for our students. Yes, they can push our buttons, and yes, they can sometimes purposefully act out.

Each situation is different, but in many cases, the tried and true still works. Don’t be afraid to call home, refer the student to someone else or change seats (who says all the sopranos must sit together in every rehearsal?).

When I work with younger teachers on classroom management, I ask them how we can be proactive about behavior as opposed to reactive. For example, in one classroom, kids misbehaved most when music was being handed out. We made a proactive plan by simply eliminating this downtime. Music was prepared ahead of time, names were penciled into parts, and a few students came in ahead of time to place music on the chairs. There were two benefits from this plan: The teacher no longer had to deal with behavior issues, and she saved a good 10 minutes that could now be used for playing.

At times reacting is necessary but be careful because there comes a point when management can quickly be lost. When we must react, I strongly recommend taking a pause and thinking about the intention of the behavior, which can help you come to a helpful response. Sometimes there isn’t a clear reason why a student did something, but other times, you may find answers that lead to correcting the behavior as well as empathy.

Ever-Changing Rules and Guidelines

This is a tough one. The school unveils the new improvement plan for the year, and the new educators nod their heads because they’re all in. The veteran educators sit silently and wonder how long this new plan will last. It’s a difficult balancing act. On one hand, no one likes their time wasted. On the other hand, the less support something has, the less likely it is to flourish.

School improvement plans aren’t going away. Furthermore, if you’re an elective teacher, you have to pick a side. You know what I’m talking about. Have you voiced these thoughts out loud or at least in your mind?

  • Elective teacher: “None of this applies to us! This is a complete waste of our time, and I could be doing something better. Why do I have to be here?”
  • Same elective teacher, different meeting: “They didn’t include us in any of this! I feel like we’re on our own island and no one understands us.”

We’re either in, or we’re in the way. Many school improvement plans are battles that may not be worth fighting. Remember: We are employees with supervisors, and we answer to people. Nothing says you have to go all out. If there is a school improvement plan that you can totally get behind, go for it. Otherwise, complete the minimum requirements, don’t complain and use your remaining energy in other parts of your job.

The Angry Parent Email

Subject: no subject (alternate subject: the entire email just placed in the subject line).
Sent high priority.
No greeting, and a hard-to-read tone. Are they angry or IS THEIR CAPS LOCK KEY BROKEN?

frustrated woman looking at laptop with hands on her head

The angry parent email. Oof. It always comes after a mistake or miscommunication. You’ll probably make less mistakes as you continue your career, but you’ll still make mistakes. Just own it. That being said, parents shouldn’t get a free pass to abuse you. Your school may vary, but if a parent becomes verbally abusive on the phone, they get one warning, and then the phone call ends. Here’s what I say and do:

  • “Mr./Ms. Parent, I understand you’re upset, but I can’t continue this phone call if you continue yelling or swearing.” Yelling and swearing continues. “I’m sorry Mr./Ms. Parent, but I will contact you over email and make my administration aware of this so we can resolve the situation. Thank you.” Then, IMMEDIATELY notify your supervisor

Angry parent emails still make my stomach churn. There are typically two responses to these: 1) wait for a bit, and then respond or 2) just tackle it right away. I prefer the latter tactic. In most cases, I respond asking the parent when they are available for a phone call, and then I speak to them.

Nine times out of 10, they are not as angry over the phone as I perceived them to be in their email. Rather, they are frustrated or just want to be heard. We come to a solution. If I’m wrong, I admit my mistake and let them know the action I’m taking. If I don’t know the action I’m going to take, I tell them this, but that I will get back to them within a day or two to let them know. If we determine that there isn’t any fault, but rather some communication issues, I’m still sorry for the situation and the stress that it caused.

When It’s Not What You Thought It Was

I love my job, but I’ve also come to realize that it is what it is — a job. Some of us may have been sold a bill of goods to think that what we do is fun (music is enjoyable after all, and we get to work with kids, right?). It can be fun…sometimes. But, it’s still a job.

Expecting our jobs to be fun just because they involve music and kids can put unrealistic expectations on everyone involved. It is still work. It can be fulfilling, but our jobs cannot be expected to provide all the joy in our lives, and we can’t blame our work when it requires…well, work.

You may have heard some teachers say, “I’ve never felt like I worked a day in my life because I did something I loved!” I’m happy for those people, but I can’t relate to that every day. I’m certainly grateful, but everything I’ve loved, including my job, people close to me, hobbies, etc., have required work at some point. The love you have for your craft is what keeps you coming back during the stressful times.

female teacher raises handSome Final Tips

Just because you find yourself in stressful situations doesn’t mean that you are doing a bad job. However, if you find that everywhere you go and everyone you correspond with has conflict, you may need to take a hard look in the mirror. I was once bluntly told, “If it smells everywhere you go, check your shoes.”

Quadrants: Consider breaking your day into quadrants. There are certainly things out there that can ruin your day, but what if you were able to have a situation ruin only part of your day?

Communication: Many of the issues that come up stem from communication issues. When you’re in a stressful situation, consider stepping back and looking at the communication that led up to the event. Could you have communicated something clearer, or did you read something with an intention different than what the other party meant?

Stressful situations will always happen. We can wish them away and become frustrated when our life doesn’t become easier, or we can become experienced and stronger in our handling of our professional relationships.

We can’t eliminate all the stress in our lives, but we can work to actively manage the stressful situations that may occur. I share this quote with anyone feeling overwhelmed: “I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders,” which has been attributed to both a Jewish proverb and to Atlas in Greek mythology. This doesn’t mean you are constantly looking for tough situations to be in; rather, you are working to gain experience for those times when the going gets tough.

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