You're Not Alone: Dealing with the Rough Times and Emotions of Teaching as a Music Teacher

I'm bringing this back , because I feel music teachers, actually all teachers, need extra emotional support as the COVID battle continues. Even though I'm retired, I am feeling the pain for you. I know your worries, your frustrations, your concerns, your fears. And I am going to fight for teachers in whatever way I can. Originally published on 9/24/17

This isn't exactly the blog I had planned, but it hits home. I've been behind lately because the realities of teaching this year have put me in a tired mood when I get home. And, I've noticed it quite a bit on posts in music educator Facebook groups lately. The wonder about exhaustion. The frustrations with new and differing forms of classroom management issues. The feeling of loneliness and lack of respect because the music teacher is most likely the only one of that discipline in a building. New requirements for teachers on top of what feelings like growing animosity towards teachers. Not to mention outside stressors. The political scenarios. Natural disasters. Family issues. It seems like it's just..........ENOUGH..............And I notice these posts not in a "Oh, geez, here they go again", but in a "oh, my, I'm not alone" way

YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Trust me. There are quite a few of us who feel like this. Think, for example:

  • You work your heart and soul out and one class was a thing of beauty, only to be observed in a different class, the one with the child who crawls under the piano and where the computer refuses to work. 
  • You are asked about your written data, when you, well, when you assess using performance-based standards that aren't always black and white.
  • You have screamers, kickers, and elopers in your class, and the para is stressed, or there is no para.
  • You are being compared to a former music teacher all the time.
  • You have children who talk back, and you have little or no parental or administrative support.
  • You cannot get funding for a  measly paper clip, much less a new alto xylophone.
  • The "right" child did not get a feature as the reindeer who saved Christmas.
  • You run on adrenaline and coffee because your travel and lunch is wrapped up in a neat little hour before you have to set up a different classroom.
  • You forgot what a treadmill looks like.
  • You MUST attend a mandatory faculty meeting....that covers reading data.
  • You are extremely discouraged because you do not get the recognition you feel you deserve, and others do. Sometimes it's a game of favorites. And you KNOW you're not supposed to do it for the recognition, and then the guilt kicks in.
  • You pull into your garage or parking space, and sit and stare, too tired to get out of the car.
  • Heck, you sit at your desk and stare, too tired to get INTO your car to go home to sit and stare in your car while in your parking spot.
  • You graze on chocolate and carbs while you are finally in your residence, staring at the TV, grasping at every little bit of free time that is yours because once you go to sleep, ,that alarm will go off all too soon.
  • You bark at the dog.
  • You bark at the news are tired of tweets. And fights. And nastiness. And natural disasters. And even a good M*A*S*H rerun does nothing.
There seems to be no end or no solution. And, sorry, there is no magic formula except to're not alone. I will use myself as an example. As someone who has struggled with self-image issues all my life, and minor depression, it has seemed that teaching situations get so much tougher. Things are so different than they were 32 years ago when I started. But yet...............there is something about that ONE child whose eyes start twinkling when they get it that keeps me motivated. 

My list above is actually highly exaggerated. But you know...that's how things seem when we're overwhelmed. So to counter this, what do we do? How do we survive these feelings? I am no counselor or psychologist...just a long-time teacher who has struggled with so many of these feelings and has tried to work out solutions to make myself content with myself. These are also suggestions from other teachers, so I hope it helps.

Find your faith source. I'm a Christian. I'm not going to preach. That's just my faith source. We have different faith sources, whether it be Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, Buddha, nature, or whatever. Find  your faith source. Find what it is that helps you draw strength that will not harm you physically or emotionally. Define it. Hone it. Mine has gotten me through a lot.

Journaling. At the advice of my pastor (God bless that man, and I don't mean in the Southern snarky way. He's the best!), I started a journal. I don't write it in every day, but just when I feel like the pressure cooker valve is too weak and I'm going to blow a gasket. I write, or I even dictate into my phone Word while driving. (I do not advise trying to type while driving). I'm good at rambling. So I ramble in Word. It's like a huge weight has been lifted. I don't end up saying something I would regret to a human. I can look back and see how I solved a situation. And my blood pressure lowers tremendously. I might cry. But that's OK. Speaking of....

It's OK to cry. It's not really OK to cry in front of your students. But it is OK to tell your students "You know how you are told to ask for a break when you feel like you can't handle it? Kids, I need a minute." I have actually sat myself in the "Safe seat" when a class gets to be more than I can bear. I don't say anything. Some kids do, but the other kids give them dirty looks. Things get quiet. It's OK to let the kids know they let things go too far. Just don't get into the habit of it, or they know they can play you easily. But back to crying. I've cried in front of administrators when I've had heart-to-hearts. My principal is tough and pretty A personality, and she'll admit it. Sometimes we are at loggerheads, because she has admitted my Orff style makes her nervous because it's so spontaneous. Not to mention she's nervous about coming into my room because this pretty well describes me:

But I can dump on her, and she works me through it. I came thisclose to having something in my file last year, because I was going through the old woman stuff, and hormones and depression were out of whack. To her credit, my principal listened to me, and we worked out strategies. And nothing ended up in my file. Find that person. It might not be your administrator. It might be a colleague in another department. It might be your dog. It might be your clergy or faith leader or yoga instructor. Find that person. They're not there for advice. They're there to listen. And be a shoulder. It's OK to cry. Even you guys.

Get a Dammit doll or a stress ball or something that you can shake, hit on the desk, or throw when you're alone. Don't know what a Dammit doll is?

This sweet shapeless angel sometimes takes a lot of abuse💓💓💓But it comes in handy.

Get into good eating habits. Here's where I fail miserably. (But, I am not going to get down on myself, but take my own advice!) I have two days in a 4-day block where I don't get a plan time and only 30 minutes written in for lunch, and we know what that means. I've discovered I craved crunchy veggies this morning. When we don't eat well, it makes the depression and blues worse. Here's what Web MD recommends:
  • Complex carbs
  • Oranges
  • Spinach
  • Fatty fish
  • Black tea
  • Pistachios
  • Avocados
  • Almonds
  • Raw veggies
  • Light carbs at bedtime
  • Milk
Since I pretty much eat at my desk or in my car, I've taken to getting the little canned packaged meals of tuna, or sometimes eat salmon straight from the foil package. I also keep almonds in my desk. (WARNING: Keep nuts in a sealed container, and wipe that area down because of allergen risks). I also make  my own yogurt and try to eat eggs for breakfast for the protein. 

Meditation: I noticed a copy of Time at Target that had a header about mindfulness. I guess it's a "thing". But it's a "thing" that has great benefit. I absolutely love the Calm app and it's free for classrooms!  I've used the kids part of it for my afterschool groups, who often come in hyped from the day. Sometimes, because the woman's voice is so soothing, I listen to it in the car. No, I don't close my eyes. But it helps.
You don't need an app to meditate. You don't need 30 minutes. Just find 2-5 minutes when no one is around (yes, it exists) and close your eyes and breathe. Proper breathing isn't just for singing and instrument playing! And according to the Calm lady, it's OK if your mind wanders. When you learn to direct it back, focus really returns.

Exercise. We all know it. But we often don't do it. But it bears repeating. You need the exercise beyond the Highway Number One and Charlie Over the Ocean you do with your kids. I like yoga. I have finally found an exercise I love and am willing to do every day. Find yours.

Avoid negative people. That is tough if we work or live with negative people. If you live with them, you might need to lay down the law. If you work with them, avoid the lounge. They will drag you down. And don't watch the news when you're in a funk. Watch something dumb and silly like The Big Bang Theory. Find where you get your gut laugh and get to that source. We need gut laughs when we feel we've been socked in the gut.

Aromatherapy/essential oils. For some people, aromatherapy works. It works for me. I have quite a few friends who diffuse essential oils. I love them, and I believe there is a chemical something that works with our own personal chemistry to change moods. For me, it's bergamot, peppermint, lavender, or citrus. If you do investigate oils, make sure they are PURE essence. Don't buy them from Amazon, where who knows who might have diluted them in some way. Also, check with your school nurse to see if you are allowed to diffuse. If you are not, you can keep a bottle handy and sniff the bottle or wear diffuser jewelry. (Etsy is a good place to find this.)

Collaboration. Find the positive people who can provide objective insight into your situation. There are several good Facebook groups for music that can provide this. Yes, there are people on there who tend to be bossy and judgmental. Like life, you can leave a group and find one with which you are comfortable. Check out the National Association for Music Educators or the American Orff Schulwerk Association for mentors who can help you through the tough times. We are here together to help each other. And don't hesitate to send me a message if you have questions or thoughts about my message here.

WATER (new addition): Drink that allotment of water to help clarity, mood, and keeping things balanced. You just tell that classroom teacher who is waiting when you need to use the facility.

Allow yourself to be a student. (New addition). You don't have to take a class. But, learn those new yoga poses, those new guitar chords, or download Luminosity to expand your brain. It's a stress reliever, for it allows you to focus on something else besides school.

Brain Dance: Apply the principles Ann Green Gilbert utilizes in her sequences, like tapping. (For more information, visit this website). Tapping your forehead or your arms seems silly, but there is something very calming and controlling without being controlled that calms the nerves.

Watch the most foolish, inane, brainless comedy you can find on streaming, or find your "comfort" show. Mine is M*A*S*H. It's my go-to because it's like comfort food and the people are familiar. 

Or, just shut the windows, crank up the audio, and sing as loudly as you can without ruining your vocal folds to your favorite music. For me, it's "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "Dream On", so I can hit that high tessitura and laugh at myself.

We are meant to care for each other. But before we care for each other, we must care for ourselves. Take care of yourself. Your kids will thank you.


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Kindergarten Chaos: Corralling the Kittens in Music Class

Corraling the Kittens: Calming Kindergarten Chaos

We've seen the commercials, videos, and memes....

The famous commercial (that doesn't really make the teacher look that good professionally, but I'm not getting into that argument. But let's face it. I'll wager the vast majority of us know how that teacher is feeling, even though we probably have better attempts at classroom management than she does.).

Or it's like this:

We have kids who are expected to not only know their letters, but need to be ready to read by midterm. We have kids who aren't just counting, they're counting and grouping. We have kids who attending school since infanthood. We have kids who have a couple of years of preschool. We have kids who never had preschool. We have kids whose parents spent time playing music to Mommy's tummy and reading to the child in the womb, playing music constantly, and singing to their children. We have kids whose parents plop them in front of the TV.  We have kids whose parents prepared them for school through social interactions. We have kids whose parents give in at the first sign of a tantrum and "NO!". We don't do naps for kindergarten anymore. Kids don't get much explore time in public school. No wonder they go bonkers. They are live in the moment, concrete thinkers who are still learning fiction versus non-fiction.  I often say that there is a special place in heaven for kindergarten teachers (and special education teachers). So many variants of personalities. We only have to work with them maybe no more than an hour a day. And yes, you, too, can survive an hour of kindergarten.

There is an old adage about which many teachers have heard: Give students an activity that equals one minute for every year of their age. We get quite a few five years ago, so we need to consider 5 minute activities to quickly pull out when the kitty cats leave the corral and run around, lie on their backs and kick up their legs, whine to go potty, scratch their underwear, or smack their neighbor.

Class Management:
Yes, kindergartners are newbies. That being said, they need structure. They need to understand there are rules. Some will obviously take longer to learn. But insist. Repeat your rules every day. In our PBS school, most teachers have incorporated some form of the Whole Brain rules:

  • Follow directions quickly.
  • Raise your hand for permission to speak.
  • Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat.
  • Make smart choices.
  • Keep your dear teacher happy.
You are going to be tired of repeating these over and over. But, persist. And, like we say in PBS, reteach. Ask other students to explain. Today, I had one of the more active, immature students kicking up his legs, talking back, refusing to sit on his rug square, and other actions. My first action was to pick up the phone, because this youngster had had problems since Day One. I was told, "Keep him there and reteach, and call later if it doesn't work." At first, I thought, "They're all on the verge of squirrelly!" But I asked the student to sit in the "Rest and reflect" seat, because he was upset because I called for help. And I retaught. We went over the rules, and I literally used him as an example.
After going over the rules, I ignored him, except to point out to him that hanging upside down from the chair wasn't a good idea, because he'd fall and hit his head, and that would mean I'd have to call the office and tell them he got hurt because he couldn't sit in the seat correctly. That got his attention. As I started on Mortimer (a great book for the four voices, by the way), he quietly said, "Could I try again?" And, for the rest of class (about 30 minutes), I only had to redirect him once and he responded immediately. So, even the tough cookies can turn around. There are, of course, the ones who need more than what we can give them. The issue is your judgement call.

As far as those 5 minute activities? Here's a typical music class for kindergarten at the beginning of the year:
  • I start with my Hello Song,accompanying myself on ukulele. If you can play an instrument while singing your hello song, the kids are fascinated.
  • I taught the kids the Echo Roll Call song from One Two Three Echo Me. Yes, it takes a little time, but it's a way to assess singing voice versus talking voice. It's also a way for me to reinforce that we all get turns singing or talking and how to wait your turn.
  • My reward for coming in quietly is Puppet Masters. If a class, for the most part, comes in quietly, sits in assigned squares, and looks ready to go, and I use the scrambler in iDoceo and pick 4-5 names. These students get to hold a puppet during class. They learn the proper way to hold a toy while listening. Students who have come to class in an improper manner know that if their name is picked, it will be skipped. And I do. I don't tell them, but if they complain about it, I can tell them it's because either the scrambler didn't pick them or they did something that wasn't a good choice. And the kids learn to reflect on that. I'm also big on chanting, so to be proactive, I taught the kids to say "Maybe next time" if they didn't get picked. If they pout, I merely say, "Sit in the chair until you're over it, and then you can join us."
  • We sing "This is  my place, this is my space, my place, my space, nobody but me." I learned it in Kodaly level one, but if anyone knows the actual source, please let me know! We put our bubble gum in our mouth, blow our bubble, and get ready for our opening movement activity, usually Tempo from Eric Chappelle's Music for Creative Dance: Contrast and Continuum, Vol. 3. (You can purchase this from West Music or download it on iTunes.)
  • I am big on drums and chanting. The less silence in transitions, the less of an opportunity the kids have to fill in the silence. For getting into self-space, I tap a ta, ti-ti ta rhythm and say "Find your own space, find your own space in five (ti-ti-ta ta) four, etc." I continue to play the drum during the movement activity for focus and to help control their bodily tempo. My good friend Joshua Block has a method for getting those runners and bumpers in check that I have used, and it works well. He tells those who break other students' bubbles that they need to "sit down and watch until they learn how it is done". No argument. They sit and wait, and ask to get back in. I have kindergartners who get to the point where, if they bump into someone, take themselves out of the movement.
  • During the lesson, I make sure I intersperse some breaks or use diversified teaching. For instance, we are now starting on the four voices. We sing the song/chant "This is my speaking voice. This is my whisper voice. This is my singing voice. This is my calling voice." (again, if you know the source, please let me know so I can give credit). I show a Power Point with clip art of children using the various voices. I change my voice and ask them to tell me what voice I'm using. I use pointer pages to have them point to the correct picture that represents the voice I'm using. I read Mortimer.
What about fillers? Here are some of my favorites:
  1. Mr. Stick. Mr. Stick is one of those poseable mannequins that artists often use. I use it to get the kids to contort into various poses (and yes, I give them the opportunity to even lie down!" My chant for Mr. Stick:
              Mr. Stick, make it quick.
              Show me a pose and make it slick.

The kids ASK for Mr. Stick. One day, I forgot it when I went to my second school. The downcast faces were heartbreaking. You bet I have him in my rolling cart now! Here's a picture of some of my kids posing like Mr. Stick (yes, the kid in the back? There's always one):

2. Vocal exploration. Checking back to my previous blog post on this topic, I use a variety of props. If kids seem to get twitchy, I break one of those props out.

3. Movement songs. I use the following sources and keep them handy for a quick filler:
             Eric Chappelle's Music for Creative Dance CDs (available from West Music)
             Anne Green Gilbert's Brain Dance sources
             Movement Songs Children Love from Theme and Variations (Denise Gagne)
             The Music Effect, Books One and Two by Joy Nelson
             Movement in Steady Beat by Phyllis Weickert
             John Feierabend books, such as his book of Echo Songs and Circle Games
            Highway Number One from Folk Dances of Terra Australis, Vol. 3, by Shenanigans

Charlie Over the Ocean is a BIG hit. But, the students know that if they have been rambunctious, I will tell them that I don't think they would be able to play safely.

To be honest, I have tried to use GoNoodle. But, I feel like classroom teachers use this resource enough and as a music teacher, it's my job to teach traditional game songs and nursery rhymes.

Other games my kinders love: The Old Gray Cat, Naughty Kitty Cat, Bluebird through My Window, and Circle Round the Zero.

Finally, another one of my saving graces when the kids need a break: The ORIGINAL Pete the Cat books. Yes, the Eric Litwin ones. Is your voice tired? There are recordings! Chances are, you have kids who can recite the stories word for word. Mind occupied. Singing voices ensue. Your voice can relax a while.

Other great books with recordings (that also make super sub plans):
John Lithgow books (such as I'm a Manatee)
Octopus's Garden by Ringo Starr

How do you know when to and how to pace? You don't. If you notice them getting twitchy, don't worry about breaking your lesson plan sequence. Break out a movement activity. Don't worry about doing it over and over each day. Yes, you will tire of it before they do. Consider that kids this age love repetition. And chances are, you have 3-4 kindergarten classes in your allotted block or week time frame. You can handle it. So, redo that Tempo Tantrum. It's OK.

Above all, keep them busy. Watch your downtime. If you find unexpected downtime (like technology glitches that need to be fixed), chant. Make it up. Say things in a chant. Sing things in a chant. When my computer would act up, I would merely say "Come on, computer!" over and over. Kids started saying it with me, and it kept their minds occupied.

So, corral those kitties. And love those kitties. Curious. Cute. Chaotic. Cuddly. Kinders. You've got this.🙂🙂🙂