Close this search box.

Band Directors and Burnout

Steven P. Katzenmoyer | June 2010

    My guess is that you’ve seen it before. I’m referring to the experienced band or orchestra teacher who suffers from burnout. You may see him shuffling along at a festival trying to find a seat, looking as though he has the weight of Atlas on his shoulders. That look of exasperation and defeat takes over the person’s entire being. Other teachers may be watching, wondering if this will be their fate in 20 years – or possibly 20 months.
    If it becomes this severe, it has likely taken quite some time for your colleague to arrive at his current condition. As a result the time it will take for him to return to a reasonably productive life as a teacher is considerable.
While it would be easy to ignore the problem of burnout and let the teacher simply collect a paycheck, your students deserve better instruction. From the parents’ perspective, their children deserve better experiences than the ones this teacher is now providing. Here are some helpful suggestions from several superior administrators to help a colleague re­ignite his enthusiasm for teaching music.

“It’s not my problem”
    Helping a victim of burnout is similar to working with an alcoholic. To begin, remind him that the first of the 12 steps in the Alcoholics Anonymous program is for each person to admit that his life has become unmanageable; he has become defiant, unwilling to admit fault, and adept at shifting the blame in any circumstance because of the power of alcohol.
    You should approach a burn-out victim in a similar way, helping him to recognize that the severity of the problem is compromising his teaching abilities. Let him know the students will ultimately suffer because of his condition.
    Be prepared to give specific evidence of how his behavior is harming the students’ music education. For example, you could say, “When you frequently yell at students for minor misbehaviors, it makes them not want to be a part of the orchestra anymore” or “Your lack of organization in keeping an accurate class roster makes it very difficult for me to keep track of the incoming freshmen.” If you are uncomfortable doing this alone, ask another music teacher or someone you trust to help convey this information to the teacher.
If the confrontation becomes an intervention, so be it. If you try to help the person on your own and the results are unproductive, then I suggest you enlist the help of five, six, or more music teachers and colleagues. The overall health of your school district’s music program may depend on it.

Identify the source
of the problem

    Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury John W. Snow was known to say, “You don’t fix the problem until you define it.” Begin helping your colleague by identifying whether the problem is teaching or something personal and unrelated to school. It may be a grade-level problem, a clash with the administration, or parents who have worn the teacher down.
     Determining the source of the problem sounds logical enough. If it is personal, there are limited things you can say and do to help your colleague attempt to resolve it. Some­times it’s as easy as listening, while at other times you’ll need a person or resource to solve or cope with the problem.
    A mentor might also be helpful, for which MENC offers outstanding online mentor help at resources/view/mentors. Per­haps you can recommend a place the person can go to help resolve the issue, or look around together at some of the possibilities.
    If the problem is curricular, such as scheduling conflicts, outdated books, inadequate teaching space, or a lack of rehearsal time, perhaps you can help the person correct these problems or at least begin to change them in order to rectify the situation.
    If the difficulty is with another colleague, take the two of them to lunch and offer to help identify and rectify the problem; tread lightly and choose your words carefully, of course. Per­haps the other colleague is unaware that he is causing such stress to the burned-out teacher. If it turns out that you are the colleague, it may behoove you to admit fault, even if you don’t believe you are causing the stress; it would help the person return to productivity. As is the case with any disagreement between two people, there is always a 50% chance that you are wrong.

Get support

    Many schools offer employee assistance programs that are important re­sources. If the problem requires professional psychiatric or medical care, talk to a school nurse or counselor for advice as to how to help this person, being careful not to mention any names.
    Don’t be afraid to draw on your own experiences as well. Whether you’ve been teaching for one year or 50, you may have known someone with similar difficulties. Knowing that someone else has experienced this situation can be a strong influence in helping the burned-out teacher solve his problems.

Value the experiences
of veteran tea­chers

    To my knowledge teachers who have many years on the job are more likely to suffer from burnout than those with only a few years of experience. While some younger teachers burnout fairly early, I believe there is a greater likelihood for senior teachers to burnout than there is for inexperienced teachers.
    I encourage you to listen when a veteran teacher starts waxing philosophical about, “It was so much better when Superintendent Smith was here” or “It was so much easier to do this job without computers.” Don’t argue;
listen. Don’t disagree; listen. Don’t try to prove otherwise; listen.
    Technology is here to stay. Whether you believe computers make our lives easier or harder, the aforementioned teacher may believe they made his teaching assignments more difficult. You should try to realize that is this person’s perspective, and try to understand it. Then show him one or two small ways to use the computer that would make his teaching assignments easier.
    Begin by demonstrating how the computer can be used to do several things. Maybe the teacher will never use a computer to the extent you do,  but paying respect to the knowledge and background of the teacher may pay valuable dividends later.
    At home your stressed-out spouse or partner sometimes needs to vent his frustrations while you sit and listen. Half-an-hour later he will be smiling and feeling much better. Maybe this type of exercise would release some of the pent-up frustrations of a burned-out colleague. At worst, perhaps you’ll realize you don’t have it so bad after all.

Get the teacher involved
in his area of expertise

    Doing something new often energizes people. It could be something as complex as rewriting a curriculum to implementing a new meth­od series or as simple as asking for a  recommendation for the brand of coffee that works best in the coffee urn.

    In keeping with the spirit of respecting and valuing the experiences of veteran teachers, you should remember that happy employees are usually motivated employees. Find out what types of things will motivate the teacher to excel in his job, and ask what he would like to do in his profession. If the person mentions six things, perhaps you could make one or two happen or ask an administrator to help bring one or two of them to fruition. Think of it this way: have the teacher help to write the prescription to cure the condition.

    If the teacher has lunch duty every day of the week and would rather direct a clarinet ensemble during one of those times, it would help to make that happen. With the teacher’s permission, you could ask an administrator to reduce the veteran’s lunch-duty load so that he could teach the clarinet ensemble. Even if the answer is no, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

    Maybe the next time you request something similar from the administrator, the answer will be yes. Children know how to keep asking and are great at this. “Can I have a candy bar?” “Can I have a candy bar?” “Can I have a candy bar?” Finally, the answer is yes. The teacher may not openly show his appreciation for your efforts, but the example you’ve set by completing the task will motivate him to achieve more each day. Everyone wins!
Create a family
type of environment

    Be the person who fosters a friendly atmosphere in the music department and asks “what’s wrong” when a colleague looks forlorn. Consider the value of coming to school ten minutes early to sit and talk with the other music teachers (if you’re the only music teacher, then talk to the art teacher), and be the one who brings a dozen donuts to school for no particular reason at all. Show that you care about your colleagues by asking about their spouses, children, and grandchildren.

    Your goal should be to create a family environment among your teaching colleagues at school. If your spouse can name each person on the music staff, then you know you’ve reached that goal. It’s even better if your spouse asks how specific people are doing or how a colleague’s son played at the weekend soccer game.
    Human beings have a need to feel loved and to be accepted. That acceptance can come from a number of places. If a colleague suffers from  burnout, try and instill the sense that you, the students, and the entire school needs him. Involve this teacher in a special project, something big or small, and let him know that the success of the task is contingent on his expertise. I suggest you approach him with a genuine need for help, and above all, do not be manipulative.

Ask for help
if your efforts fail

    Music teachers are not professional psychiatrists or psychologists. This type of situation can become exhausting, emotionally and physically, so don’t be afraid to ask for help for your burned-out colleague and for yourself. If your physical or emotional health is suffering, remove yourself from the situation, get help, and focus on getting yourself well.
    If you’ve noticed that your colleague is on a dangerous path, most likely others have noticed as well. Suggest that the teacher enroll in an assistance program; be a friend, and help when appropriate. Above all, let a professional or group of professionals do their jobs and continue to be as supportive as you can. After all, you would want someone to do the same for you.   

    Contributors to this article include Nancy Allmon, a 36-year veteran of the Pennsylvania public school system who was superintendent in the Fleetwood Area School District.
     Stan Kita is assistant executive director at the Berks County (Pennsylvania) In­ter­mediate Unit and a former superintendent in the Fleetwood Area School District.
     Chris­topher Redding’s career in public education spans 21 years. He has been principal of the Fleetwood Area Mid­dle School for the past 12 years and has two children who participate in the school district’s instrumental music program.