This blog is adapted from an excerpt of Adrian Gordon’s new book, Note to Self.
Self-care is the most important guiding principle to have as a music educator. Whether you are starting from scratch, rebuilding, or maintaining an already great music program, it is important to set boundaries for yourself so that the work doesn’t become overwhelming. The work never stops, and it never will if you don’t let it. No matter what circumstance you are in during the school year, the totality of it cannot be overhauled in just a short time. Your path should look more like a marathon than a sprint. Remember, constant exhaustion is not a badge of honor—it is a sign of health problems to come.
Here are several ideas to remember about your physical health throughout the school year:
Take breaks and keep your body moving
Remember to take breaks when working for long stretches at a time. (Many smartwatches have a “time to stand up and move” function already built in.) Stand up, stretch, breathe, walk around, and get some fresh air. Your body needs this!
As busy as we get tying up loose ends, our food choices sometimes get pushed down to the bottom of our priority list. Don’t let this happen! Make time to make smart, healthy choices about how you fuel your body. Plan ahead and pack some healthy snacks. You’d put gas in your car if the fuel light came on—well, healthy food is the fuel that keeps your body running. Make sure you take care of your body.
Don’t lose sleep over it
Not only is a good night of sleep essential to your physical health, but it is essential for you to be able to do your job effectively. Don’t give up your sleep to a wandering mind. Write things down. If ideas or issues are swirling around in your head, write them down and leave them on the list. Your sleep is sacred!
Being ever-improving musicians is an important element that makes us effective music educators. We are also lifelong learners who seek to better understand the world around us by sharpening our professional skills and continuing to progress on our own instruments. It is important to stay focused on our own musical health in the midst of all the demands that our profession throws at us. Here are several ideas to remember about your musical health:
Play your instrument!
As a musician, no matter what instrument you play, it is important to stay connected to it and continue to play on a regular basis. Playing your instrument is not only therapeutic and beneficial to your musical mental health but also an integral part of being the best music educator you can possibly be. The important thing is to not give up on playing your instrument in favor of paperwork and administrative tasks. Those things will never go away, but your muscle memory and technique on your instrument will. Just remember that being and remaining a musician is a strong part of your professional health and identity. Musicians play and practice on their instruments.
So what does that priority shift look like? It can be as simple as incorporating small chunks of practice time into your days. If you can only squeeze in five minutes, then that’s all that you should do. Practicing should become more about progress and connection and less about perfection.
As you navigate through the school year, it is also important to try to recharge your professional music batteries. The list of demands that is being thrown at you on a daily basis tends to take a quiet toll on you.
One of the ways we can combat our professional exhaustion and recharge is to attend professional development conferences.
If possible, try to attend professional development conferences at least once per year. Even if the professional development you pursue is virtual, it is important to keep your teaching practices and musicianship current and fresh. Although they don’t have the same feel as physically being in a professional development conference, they help feed your musical tank with inspiration.
Mental and Emotional Health
Failing to take care of your mental and emotional health can prevent you from feeling like a whole person, let alone an effective music educator. Like all things in life, you have to find the balance in all the activities in your life to give yourself a sense of peace. Don’t be afraid to take a step back to find balance and perspective. Guard your heart, mind, and personal time vigorously from the stresses of your job. Remember to never let your workflow take over your mental and emotional stability. And if your circumstances become too much at any given time, don’t hesitate to talk to a mental health professional who can help you along your journey. Here are some practical ideas to consider to help you protect your mental and emotional health throughout the school year:
You already know the power of music in your own life. Use it! Think of it as “practice versus pleasure”.
Take some time to help reignite your own connection to music during the school year. Make it a point to spend some time each day listening to something old that you enjoy, as well as something brand new. Attend recitals and concerts of musicians you enjoy listening to. Strive to keep your music profession from becoming a source of stress that makes you forget how enjoyable music can be aesthetically. Instead, let music be a source of relief. In the middle of all the yearly business, remember to listen to great music regularly to help relieve tension and bring about mental and emotional relaxation.
Pick at least one day a week where you leave right when school gets out and don’t take any work home with you. Use this time to do something for yourself (going to the gym, reading, napping, watching TV, meeting a friend, spending time with family, etc.). Try to leave some time and energy in your day at least once a week to take care of yourself and do something meaningful for you.
Taking a Day Off
We all receive sick and personal days throughout the school year to use when we need them. If possible, try to use two of your days throughout the year for mental health rest. Consider taking one in the fall and one in the spring. Take advantage of the days you are given and use them to benefit your mental and emotional health. Your body will thank you for the rest.
One of the most important things you can do as an educator is to protect your family time. The demands of the job will continue to bombard you, no matter how organized and efficient you are. There will always be more to do! However demanding the responsibilities become in your position, it is important to remember that your family members need you the most. They should come first.
When you consistently borrow time away from your family, you are actually training the community around you to acknowledge that you are always available and that no part of your time is sacred. If you don’t establish firm boundaries around your family time, some people around you will come to expect that you give up extra time with your family to finish or fix loose errands or emergencies. This is not okay, and it will leave you bearing the brunt of a stressful situation.
Set expectations early. Discuss with your family members what boundaries are important to them and how you can achieve them. Be unavailable after hours. Return emails during school hours only. Be unyielding with regard to protecting your family and personal time. This will look different for everyone, but for the most part, protect your personal time and try to remember the old saying “A lack of planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine.
At the end of the day, remember that, in most cases, you are not getting paid any extra to be consumed by your position and be away from your family after hours.
As professionals, we also must consider that not only is it unfair to your family members to get the short end of the stick when it comes to your attention and energy, but it is unfair to you as well. You will need to recharge your batteries by being around your family members who love and care about you. Ideally, your family members offer solace. They are confidants whom you can turn to for encouragement and advice. They are also an important reminder of what matters most in life. They will help keep you grounded and make you a more balanced professional.
You have a unique role in your family that can only be filled by you. Whether it’s your smile, your jokes, your stories, your affection, your singing, your dancing, your laughing, your playing, your attention, your hugs, your encouragement, or whatever it is that makes you special to your family, let your family members get the best parts of you. No matter what your family looks like, remember that you need your family, and your family needs you!