Teacher Burnout: How Do We Cope With It?


by Dr. William Leland
Las Cruces, NM  USA


number of correspondents have asked us to address the career syndrome commonly known as "burnout". Herewith are presented the thoughts of one educator who has put in more than forty years as a university pianist, music professor, and private teacher of piano. Please remember that these are the ideas of only a single teacher; your reactions and comments will be welcomed.




Career burnout. It happens all the time to all kinds of people in all kinds of professions — teachers, administrators, doctors, secretaries, factory workers, mothers, senators, even presidents. There seems to be no vocation wherein one can be immune to that numbing, panicky, trapped feeling we call burnout that can overtake us when we’ve done the same thing over and over for too long, or gotten snowed under one too many times with more than we can handle. I’m burned out!!

If you ask someone what causes it, they usually say "overwork", or "not enough time to get everything done." Could be, but there is usually something deeper involved. So--although this is hardly an original idea--I would like to begin by suggesting that burnout is more often caused not by overwork, but by frustration.

A doctor who truly loves his work and is used to long hours finds himself unable to give his patients the personal attention they need because of the mountainous paperwork involved in dealing with Medicare, HMOs, hospital administrative procedures and malpractice insurance.

An elementary school teacher who loves children cannot effectively teach children who may be drowning in poverty, parental absence and neglect, or even hunger, abuse and violence.

A skilled machinist on an assembly line repeatedly fashions only one small item, and has no control whatever over the design and integrity of the final product.

A dedicated senator quits politics because of the impossibility of fighting the abuses of the system or implementing needed reforms.

…and a piano teacher has students who miss lessons, who won’t or can’t practice correctly or consistently, or who bring in the same old excuses and make the same mistakes over and over despite innumerable corrections.

In every one of these cases, it is not the expenditure of extra time and effort that causes burnout; it is the futility of struggling against factors over which we have no control. Now, most of us have had the exhilarating experience of going way overtime with a talented and receptive student who is responding creatively. You look at the clock and say, "Good grief, we’ve been here for more than an hour!" But you never noticed the time, and you’re not tired, either, but invigorated. It's not the time and exertion at all--if all your lessons went like that you’d teach till you dropped, and love every minute of it. What frequently causes burnout is the feeling--justified or not--that we are dealing with too many students (and maybe parents) who don’t take piano lessons seriously, or who are spread too thin to put in the time, or who simply have no aptitude for it, and we’re just spinning our wheels because we have no control over their priorities and values. Why do people take lessons at all if they don’t really want to learn? Do they think they can play without practicing? What’s wrong with these people? Why am I doing this, anyway? We feel defeated, get angry, call ourselves failures, question our commitment, or simply blame our hectic modern way of life. Or maybe we just get tired of it all and then feel guilty for feeling that way.

In any case, the first order of business is to pinpoint the real cause. Is it simple fatigue and loss of interest, or is it the feeling of fighting unmanageable obstacles that block a genuine desire to teach? Perhaps both enter into it. But coping with burnout begins with knowing the reasons for it, and finding those reasons necessitates examining both the external factors and--as objectively as possible--ourselves.

So here are a few questions we might consider.

1. How well prepared am I to teach others?

It goes without saying that a solid background is absolutely essential to a good teacher. It should include, above all, years of private lessons and at least some participation in public performances, so that we have a good measure of first-hand experience in what it takes to develop the skill of performing reasonably well on a musical instrument. We have to know, personally and intimately, what it feels like. We have to know how to show a student ways of analyzing and solving technical and musical problems instead of letting him just go over and over a piece, forever stopping and starting at the same rough spots, without really knowing how to iron out the difficulties.

Then, too, our preparation should have in it some knowledge of musical style and music history, and we ought to know something about the instrument itself—the various makes and sizes, the important differences in tone and action between grand, upright and spinet, and so on. It’s no good to say, "Oh, I only teach elementary students—they don’t need all that information." Not yet, maybe, but they will--and, more importantly, we need it. A professional teacher should be wrapped securely in a mantle of thorough knowledge and skill that at least touches on all of the various aspects of his or her profession.

2. Am I in a rut?

When was the last time you took any kind of a refresher course, had a piano lesson yourself, attended a workshop, or read a worthwhile and informative book about music or music teaching? Most state boards of education require their school teachers to add some college credit hours on a regular basis; private teachers also should hold themselves responsible for renewing and improving their skills from time to time. One of the most important things of all is to listen to good music frequently--attend concerts, hear great music played by skilled performers, stay in touch with good recordings, and so on. Turn off the TV once in awhile and listen to a good music program on NPR instead; stay quiet and let yourself become immersed in it.

What about teaching materials? Do we stick with just a single method or one group of compositions, pasting the same stuff onto every student, merely out of inertia? Or do we explore new approaches and different literature now and then? Regular contact with new ideas and developments in the chosen field is essential to vital teaching of any kind.

3. How does teaching fit into the rest of my life?

This is a very broad question, which of course can only be answered by each individual. But there are a lot of possible ramifications here that can have an effect on burnout. For instance, if teaching is your principal source of income, or provides supplementary funds necessary to the family budget, you may feel trapped. My suggestion here is, first, to determine objectively whether you may be taking more students than you can comfortably handle; and, second, to find some other area where you can cut household expenses (we can always find plenty with a little self-discipline!) and then pare down your teaching load. It could make an enormous difference to your energy level as well as increase the amount of attention you can give to other home priorities, thus easing the sense of being frazzled and burned out.

On the other hand, there are teachers who approach their work primarily as a sideline or even a hobby. This by no means implies that they are less dedicated or conscientious; many people teach simply for the love of it, when there is no economic necessity or when a former need for supplementary income no longer exists. This is a perfectly good reason to teach--in fact, in an ideal world it would be the only reason. How, then, can such a person experience teacher burnout?

I can think of two reasons. One of them involves the rueful clash between idealism and reality that teachers, especially young ones, often experience. This is most common in the public school environment, but it often affects private teachers as well, especially if the chief reason for teaching is simply their love of it. We come fresh out of college or conservatory, brimming with hope and expectation, and ready to share our inspiration with those fresh, eager minds and talents. Then we run into kids who have no coordination, or zero sense of rhythm, or who only take lessons because Mama makes them, and practice as little as possible; or who are into soccer, basketball, choir, scouts, ballet and who knows what else, and don't have the time or concentration to do any one of them in any depth; or who have just discovered the opposite sex and can't think of anything else. Suddenly the pat formulas we learned from our Psychology for Teachers textbook don't seem to work very well, and the frustrations begin to pile up.

The other reason might stem from the fate that frequently befalls all peripheral activities: when the central duties and priorities of everyday living demand more of us from time to time, the peripherals invariably get less attention. That can distract us and make us temporarily resign ourselves to a less rigorous preparation for our teaching sessions, or have a lower level of concentration, or just be less thorough in the lessons than we should be. Then we discover that it's much easier to get tired of something we're not doing very well, than of something we have given our best effort to and feel good about.

It would seem, then, that any remedy for teacher burnout must be found in both places: in the external conditions, and in the teacher herself.

First of all, it is the teacher's responsibility to examine, thoroughly and objectively, his or her own motivations, values, and level of knowledge and competence. Perhaps a refresher course or a few private lessons with a good teacher are in order, so that skills can be upgraded and expanded. Or maybe the teacher just hasn't heard enough good music lately. It can be terribly deadening to hear no music at all during the week except the playing of your students, you know, but this fact and its obvious remedy--the listening experience--most likely occurs to us less often than anything else, and it's of vital importance. You need to hear masterworks performed by expert players on a regular basis, so that you can keep those ideal sounds in your head and remember why you came to love music in the first place. To be musicians we have to experience the profound feelings that only great music can generate in us, yet too many teachers spend all of their professional time listening only to students and doing all the busy work that a studio entails, without ever getting personally in touch with music themselves. It's not enough! We must refresh ourselves musically, and do it often.

As for external factors, there are many things that can contribute to burnout that are not related to teaching at all, and these obviously cannot be addressed here. But often our frustration is directly related to the drearily familiar student problems like those mentioned above. From time to time we all get students who seem to be simply unteachable for one reason or another. My suggestion is quite blunt: get rid of them. There is nothing whatever wrong with setting standards for your work and insisting that those who you accept measure up to them. They need not be arbitrary levels of performance applied to the talented and untalented alike. It goes without saying that each student should be handled according to his or her particular needs and abilities--this is, indeed, the great advantage of one-on-one teaching. But the important thing is that the student be told from the beginning that he or she must make an honest effort to build on those abilities by regular and disciplined practice according to what is learned in the piano lesson, and that the parents cooperate in this. We teachers have not only a right but a duty to demand it.

Many teachers feel that this is too hard-nosed for them, and tend to shy away from what they anticipate as uncomfortable confrontations. But it should never have to get to that point. If there is a clear understanding of what is expected from the beginning, the pupil's status as a viable member of the studio family will manifest itself continually, in every lesson and every private practice session. How do we get to that point?

First, by having high standards for ourselves and for our teaching, by being thoroughly trained and prepared and by genuinely loving music and believing passionately that it can provide one of the most enriching and rewarding experiences available to human life.

Second, by demanding the best of our students as well as ourselves. I guarantee that your students will not only produce results to a degree that will surprise you, but that they themselves will get far more enrichment and even enjoyment out of it.  Just as with parenting, kids are much happier with standards and limits than they are when they are dealing with mentors for whom they have little respect.

Third, by making those standards absolutely clear to everyone involved before any commitment is made.  This can be done in many ways: professional advertising, for instance, and a printed brochure which clearly communicates the teacher's policy regarding fees, payment schedule, missed lessons, and all the rest.  But by far the most important is an unambiguous understanding, on the part of both students and parents, of what is expected of them.

We have a right to assume that people who are buying our services do not want to pay for slipshod teaching any more than they want to pay for shoddy merchandise from a retail store.  But most people do not really know what good piano teaching is, and it is up to us to tell them.  That means, right at the beginning, a personal interview and--if the student already has some playing skill--an audition.  It must be made plain at this time that the parent or guardian will have to be intimately involved in the learning process, even to the point of attending the lessons if the student is very young or inexperienced.  Ideally, the adult will take notes at that time or otherwise absorb the teacher's suggestions for practice techniques, so that he or she can help keep the pupil on track at home.  Moreover, the parents must be willing to insist on regular, disciplined practice in an environment conducive to uninterrupted concentration, preferably in a separate room without a TV or other distractions.  It is also a good idea to have the understanding that the first month or so should be considered probationary, at the end of which either the teacher or the parent can decide to say goodbye with no hard feelings.

It is our job to communicate the fact that we take music seriously--not with the idea that all students will become professionals, but simply with the understanding that piano study should be undertaken with a commitment to get as much out of it as possible, and that it involves hard work and self-discipline.  We all know that this gets harder and harder as society's tools for passive entertainment get ever more sophisticated and affordable, so it is especially important to establish these norms at the very outset.

This scenario is presented as an ideal, of course, and it may take time, patience or even a different student pool for some to achieve it.  Many will react with anything from skepticism to horror:  "I couldn't be that strict!"  "I'd lose all my students!"  "They'd all leave, and I need all the students I can get!"  But this is an article about burnout, and the main point is that the best way to avoid burnout is to make our teaching less frustrating.  That means two things: stimulating our own creativity, and demanding quality work from the people we are trying to teach.  There are all kinds of ways to do these things, but many experienced teachers will testify that the loss of students resulting from being more demanding is more than made up, in due time, by the reputation for excellence that is gained.  A teacher with such a reputation not only becomes sought after, but finds far greater satisfaction in both the work and the resulting relationships. 

Page created: 11/1/02
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1, http://pianoeducation.org
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