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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Updated: The Adventures of Mozart the Marvelous Mouth Magician: Singing in the Head Voice

First posted on August 10, recopied with a few updates:

In Missouri, one of our music objectives is teaching first graders about singing in head voice. As we know, this is important for vocal health, to save the throat and to encourage children to sing in their natural ranges. We use sirens, scarves, and other tricks.

I am always looking for new ways to utilize my ever-growing collection of puppets in new ways. This year (2016), I had a brainstorm. Two years ago, I used a Merlin cap as part of the sixth grade program. I will admit, I'm lazy. My costumes are housed in our school basement in a corner of the STEM closet. Somehow, the Merlin hat didn't make it to the box, and I really didn't want to go downstairs to put it away. So, the hat ended up on my boy Folkmanis puppet we had named Wolfie (for Mozart, from the movie Amadeus).  This year, I looked at the hat, and Wolfie, in a whole new light. The hat remained, and I renamed Wolfie to the much more dignified name of Mozart the Marvelous Mouth Magician, complete with I.D. card (well, the picture has to be taken care of first. He has a temporary one). I decided that Mozart would make a great tool to teach first graders about head voice and proper singing. The video below shows Mozart's first introduction to the first grade:

My heart almost broke when one little voice in first grade (when I talked about how Mozart was afraid someone would make fun of him) said "We would NEVER do that." Lesson in head voice AND lesson in character education! These kids were too precious. And the Merlin hat? Terrific visual in head voice! Since the superstrain of lice hasn't disappeared, the kids can't share the real Merlin hat, but we will be making our own for their next music classes so they have their own magic hat for head voice. Hopefully I will be sharing those activities as well.

UPDATE, August, 2017: The original post came out in 2016. I revisited Mozart recently, and the first graders still love it. They wondered why he always sat there last year when they were in kindergarten without participating, and now they know. The tie-in with being bullied and teased seemed to resonate with some of my students. They are very excited to make their own magic hats. I've refined the craft since I posted about this in 2016, so that's coming up soon! They especially loved it when Mozart "whispered" the idea about the kids having their own hats in my ear. Awww, the innocent hearts of first graders makes me hopeful for the future. 

So, we're going to keep on the continuing adventures of Mozart the Marvelous Mouth Magician. Stay tuned!

***Disclaimer: I will be developing activities with Mozart for future workshops and possibly other ventures. If you should choose to share this idea, I would greatly appreciate receiving credit. Thanks!

They Can All Sing-The Primary Years and Head Voice

One of the trickiest things to get kids to sing in the primary years is getting some of them in that head voice. Whether it's because they imitate the adults in their lives who might sing in a chest voice, or just may not want to sing, encouraging that feel can often be frustrating. But there are tricks to getting these kids to get within their proper range and making it fun.

John Feierabend is probably the king of the early and primary childhood voice. That was his focus of study. If you have never been to one of his workshops, it needs to be on your teacher bucket list. His props and ideas for singing (such as the hummingbird conversation idea my students love) and his resources are full of great ideas. Most likely, you had been taught to teach songs by rote, a chunk at a time (whole-part-whole). In Feireabend's opinion, this doesn't work. It reinforces the beginning too much, and you lose them at the end. Instead, he advocates introducing the song and the games right away. Incorporate the song into other activities or as an introduction. Just sing it. For short songs, I like to sing the song and tell the students, "When you know the song, follow me and sing along". As students learn the song, they get up and follow me in a circle around the room. Students who linger? I just tell them, "You've got this! Do you want a friend to help?" A friend can walk with them and sing along.

Puppets, props, and pretty little things are great tools to capture the attention and get kids to vocalize and aim for that head voice. In kindergarten and beginning first grade, I just want them to get up there. We're not too worried about pitch (although I do introduce solfege in first grade.) Here are some examples of items I've collected over the years or created that encourage sounds that get them out of the chest:

  • Yodeling goat puppet. I bought this guy at our Books Are Fun stand one year at school. (In fact, my daughter was so enthralled, she wanted to borrow it for her university band's Sound of Music Feature.

    This is an exercise in listening. The goat "sings" The Lonely Goatherd. But my students are to NOT sing the regular words, but only echo the yodeling. Here's an example from class today:

This was a second grade class. And they were captivated. The goat is so much fun, the tough guys don't realize they're singing in head voice.

  • Sing-a-Ma-Jigs These toys apparently come in a variety of styles and it appears some have become collectors' items since I first purchased one about 10 years ago! When you squeeze the tummy, the toy "sings" a particular song (although you have to squeeze for each pitch). Squeeze its hand, and it sings individual pitches for matching. Squeeze its hand again, and you get vocalese exercises, which is what I used here with kindergarten.

Another great little toy--a versatile one--is a Hoberman sphere. Kids are fascinated by this expandable toy. I've used this for dynamics, movement cues, and for getting into the head voice, as this video shows (with first grade):

Finally, I love telling little stories in class to get the students listening and participating. I developed a little Dino Dance story, using visuals, to get my students to not only read, but to note the visual cues that indicate whether their pitch should go higher or lower. Here is a sample from class:

Vocal exploration stories are fun, short, sweet, and are actually something you can incorporate with your students later as they begin to write. They can write their own vocal exploration stories. You can find the Dino Vocal Exploration Packet on Teachers Pay Teachers. 

Share your vocal exploration ideas here for the chance to win a $10 TPT gift certificate! Contest ends September 1.

Next time: A revisit to Mozart, the Marvelous Mouth Magician. I introduced him last year, and it's time to see what's going on with him this year.

They Can All Sing....Part One: Intermediate-Ages 4-6

True confession time: as a former band director and one who really only sang in church choir and the bare minimum to get vocal certification, I was (and often still am) a nervous singer, especially solo in front of other adults. More on that later.....

As a teacher, though, I've found my voice and courage to sing in front of my students. I honestly believe, because of my background, I have an understanding of how my older intermediate students feel about singing. As much as I encourage them to sing, I know, for various reasons, many are nervous or refuse to. It can be as simple as that dastardly voice change (which happens younger and younger....but that's for another blog), parents who didn't sing to them, social pressure that singing isn't "cool" (baloney!), or just plain shyness. As I tell my kids, I understand why they feel that way. The voice is the instrument that is at true extension of oneself. Make fun of that instrument...make fun of that person. You can't disconnect yourself from your voice.

So, in a class where we strive to make our kids feel safe, have fun, and be relaxed, how can we encourage reluctant singers to participate? I'm going to be running an ongoing serious of helping students find their voices, discourage bullying, and dealing with various voice issues. Today, I'm focusing on a group that I have found challenging in the past, but actually enjoy helping find their voices now: that intermediate age of grades 4-6.

First of all, I LOVE showing them YouTube videos of vocal folds. The boys get a kick out of it, the girls get grossed out, but they need to learn what is in there and why they should take care of it. I don't think they have any idea. For the longest time, I thought of vocal chords and long, tendon-like things in the throat. How can you care for an instrument if you don't know how it works? Here's an example of a video I like to show.

Another thing I discovered besides the fact that preteens like to get grossed out: they are pretty competitive and silly. They'll buy into something if it involves competition and a unique way method of presentation. So, over the years, I've developed some rather unconventional ways to get most reluctant singers and participants to become engaged, at least more than they had.

For quite a few years, I have used a Vocal Football bulletin board system, very similar to the Recorder Karate system. I set up a bulletin board much like this:

Each student in grades 4-6 has a little paper "football jersey". I keep them in envelopes by class. As individual students sing various warm-ups or solfege patterns, they pin their "shirt" on advancing yard lines, aiming for a goal. Once they hit the goal, they are eligible for the Superbowl of Vocal Football. Those patterns are even more difficult. If they achieve that, they get a bonus, such as free seating or a prize, a certificate, and their name posted outside my room. This year, I needed that bulletin board for something else, so I am developing the same activity in Smartnotebook, where each class can have a file. I actually have a Vocal Football packet on Teachers Pay Teachers, which you can get here.

Another neat activity that turned out to be loads of fun (even if it was a mess) was a yarn game. Some of you might know the discussion activity involving yarn or string that is meant to encourage people to participate in discussions. One person contributes to the discussion, tosses a ball of yarn to someone else, and holds on to part of it. This continues, until the class ends up with a rather cool design. I decided to try this last year, but with solfege singing with my older kids. We sang a diatonic scale with solfege. One student started on pitch (and the class worked with that person if they weren't quite on). Once leader sang the pitch, the class echoed it until everyone was in tune, and the leader tossed the yarn, holding on to one part. The next person sang the next solfege pitch, and we continued. With my bigger classes of 28, we did have to go through the scale more than once, but it was a blast, as you can see here!:

Fourth grade class enjoys singing solfege with their yarn patterns

My last idea for today was inspired by a video by Bobby McFerrin. Bobby was demonstrating the beauty of the pentatonic scale in this video, and immediately, signals started going off in my head. I used large dots corresponding with the Boomwhacker colors and developed a Solfege Shuffle. I even use this with second grade. I started off as the conductor, using simple so-la-mi patterns (green, purple, and yellow spots). As I tapped each spot, the students sang the corresponding syllable. It helped my second graders understand that going to the left meant singing lower and going to the right meant singing higher, a nice segue for instruments later. For my older kids, as they sang various intervals in tune, I gradually started adding more dots until I had a full diatonic scale. When I was brave enough, I encouraged various students to be the conductor. I noted that the reluctant singers were not so reluctant to be conductor. Not only that, but when others were the leader, those "reluctant" singers were no longer quite so reluctant.

Student getting ready to do the Solfege Shuffle.

I love this game a lot! It's fun for me, and a quick assessment to see who was trying to do their best and who was having difficulty matching. You can find a version of the Solfege Shuffle on my TPT page here

Finally, once I encouraged students to focus through the use of audiation, singing improved remarkably. Our kids have trouble focusing, and that includes true listening. Kids don't stop to listen. By adding accompaniment as the last thing, modeling, and using student models, my students, slowly but surely, are matching better. One trick with audiation I use it to sing a pattern of a song we are learning and make them sing it in their heads before singing it back without me. When they are forced to stop and the room is quiet, pitch match is not only improved, but the ability to sing in harmony gets better because the phrase becomes innate. Stopping for silence before singing might seem like a time waster, but like stopping to review rules, in the end, it saves endless frustration and wasted rehearsal time. And the kids feel better!

Please feel free to share ideas of how you encourage your intermediate kids how to sing and participant. I love the idea shares. Next time....working with primary head voice.

Getting the Classroom Ready................

Setting up a Music Classroom
True confession time: I used to be an independent when it came to setting up my room. The one time I had to let go was when I had knee surgery several years ago, and had to trust my daughters to set it up. Cold shivers, not because they did a bad job.....I just WORRY. I live in a messy organized system. This year, I did some major room changes. (More on that when the room is completely set up!) I mentioned in another blog post my friend Sheila offered to help me with my new arrangement. I took her up on it, knowing I had to give up my independent stubbornness, and I'm glad I did. I learned a lot. She learned a lot! (And ended up with a CD rack I no longer use 😊. With her help, I moved outside my comfort zone box. Honestly, in other years, no matter how I wanted to "change my room", I never really "changed my room" except to maybe get rid of a file cabinet here or a metal cabinet there.

So today, I returned the favor and helped her set up her room. Her file organization system is wonderful. I helped HER clean out a file cabinet and learned her numbering system for octavos. Basically, her octavos are listed with an abbreviation for her school and numbered. Then, she stored these on Google Drive and shared these with her music teacher colleagues. Simple, but it's something I decided I needed to do with my own music colleagues.

We are lucky to have a Pendaflex distribution center in our county. Every so often, school personnel can go to the Pendaflex complex and gather freebies. Sheila gathered up these accordion file folders to store octavos and her Music Express copies in. So simple, but yet here are my poor octavos falling out of their silly little file folders, getting lost at the bottom of my file cabinet. So, (Dr) Stafford is probably going to make a little trip two miles from her house to see if there is surplus. Besides, my colleagues in my building will love me forever if I do. It's been a while since that's happened in my building. And organized octavos!

Something else I learned: I really need to think more outside the box with stuff that is ready to be thrown or with the freebies left in the teachers' lounge. Sheila is good at that. She discovered this treasure (and a few more:)

Cool science container can hold mallets!

She decided they would be perfect for holding mallets, since the lid comes up. So, if you see anything like this lurking around that is up for grabs (I think they might be something that science teachers keep small critters in, but it's clean!) and you want something to keep mallets in...there you go!

Sheila also has various games, but had some checkerboards and couldn't decide how to use them. After some musing, I suggested there had to be a way to use them for harmony as the game was played and a player gathered conquered checker pieces. We determined that a teacher can draw various letters for pitches on one side of a piece and a note value on another, which can then be used for change music. So, upcoming blog entry....I will tell you how it goes!

Other treasures included peel off-numbers, MANY sheets of peel-off numbers. Sheila had so many that she insisted I use some. So, we took a break, talked about various things, and added numbers on index cards. For one set, we set up cards from 1-100 for primary kids to not only practice counting, but practice syllabic clapping, a precursor to rhythm and divisions of the rhythm, a teaching technique she uses. So, now, I will finally keep track of the first 100 days of school by using these cards on the correct day for whatever kindergarten/first grade classes I have. She also uses them for 1-2, Buckle My Shoe, having a card for 1, 2 for the kids to read, and her to complete the phrase. Eventually, then the students would be able to finish the phrase. I believe I'm going to add images of shoe buckles, shutting doors, etc. I would like to do a simple call-response adaptation where I will say the number, and the students say the object, and vice versa. Then, I might eliminate either numbers or the picture to use audiation and leave out the words that aren't on the card. Many possibilities. Finally, we made several sets with the numbers 1-8 on each one so older students can work together to create polyrhythm compositions. 

Dollar Tree genius: Sheila has several of the smaller, more rectangular versions of these storage boxes from Dollar Tree.  Her instruments are set up on tables, so she puts the mallets and accidental bars in each little plastic box to set up next to the instruments for the day. Although I have my IKEA storage for mallets, I still went right out and bought more of those boxes, because I love the idea of the kids putting the bars they remove in those boxes. No clacking the bars from boredom. No leaning the bars inside the instrument. No losing bars. (I hope!) Since I have the Basic Beat instrument stands, these boxes can go right under them.

No matter how many years one has taught, there is always something to learn, especially if it's in someone else's classroom, because you KNOW it's being applied. Sheila and I not only got to know each other even better, but we were able to gather information from each other, learn from each other, and brainstorm together for new activities for both of us. A note: Sheila had been my daughter's sixth grade music teacher (and my daughter is now 25), so it was fun to go back and see the room and see how things had changed and listen to her share how she grew as a teacher over that time. WHY did I wait so long to do this?

If you get a chance, set up your room with a music buddy. If there's no music buddy, see if you can lasso a classroom buddy. You can still bounce ideas off of them and ask them how they would use objects in their own classroom. You can get a much better idea of room rearranging with help. We tend to get stuck in our ruts without realizing it. With a buddy, that rut can get shaken up, and often for the better. 

The buddy system is a good thing. Feel free to share in the comments how YOU utilize a buddy system to get ready for school.

Next time: solar eclipses ideas for the music classroom.