This is the time of year when everyone loves what music teachers do. Parents gleefully post photos & videos of their darling children onstage at winter showcases, and we're thanked. We get gift cards and mugs and flowers and thank yous aplenty. Promises that parents will come & volunteer the next time we do a thing. Whole families gather to see kids perform and cheer them on. Comments that their kids need to move up to a section where their parents can see them.
No one else sees the noxious argument between students that the teacher had to break up, in addition to putting out a dozen other simultaneous figurative fires, all of which happened backstage moments before the curtain went up. No one realizes how much more fundraising has to be done because a kid who wasn't thinking (or wasn't listening) dropped a mouthpiece or a mallet and broke it. And if a kid freaks out, like the 6th grader who pulled a leg off of a donated Hammond organ & started swinging it over his head before one concert a few years ago, there's no other place to send him. No guidance counselor on campus after hours, admin is helping with crowd control & fielding parent questions, and any other teacher in the room with you is taking rapid fire bathroom requests while trying to keep everyone in one place.
No one else knows that when it starts to look easy, it's because there were 10 years of struggle prior to this that taught a teacher how to effectively get a group of 100 teenagers (or maybe so many more!! and maybe 5-11 year olds!!) calm enough to put on an extravaganza show twice a year. And hey, if you don't have an extravaganza show, why not? The school down the street has one — you should have one, too.
Have you ever had your Winter Concert preempted so that the school administration can announce to parents and to the media that there's evidence that Legionnaire's Disease might be present in your school's water? And then seen your band parents on the 11 o'clock news that night? I have. (NB: not at my current school. I do love my current administration and I think they love me too.)
You usually don't see that side. There is a gargantuan effort made to ensure you don’t see that side. We, as music teachers, know the show must go on, and we know it's our job to not reveal the insanity that occurs backstage. The concert madness lends itself to a stressful time of year.
In addition to that, music teachers are the originators of the Side Hustle. Because we don't get paid enough at our primary jobs, we play on the side, particularly at churches, who also love us the most this time of year. Some music teachers teach because they can't get health insurance by playing their instrument alone. Musicians invented the gigging economy, and business is biggest during this time of year.
I haven't gigged lately, focusing on raising my toddler and my individual writing & research pursuits instead, but it's a tough time of year for everyone who does what we do.
As we're in the home stretch toward Christmas, we start to wear down a little bit. But steamrolling into November? I saw a bevy of marching band state championship posts, talk of big goals and bigger accomplishments, and many a humblebrag about being at work until 11pm on a regular basis.
Like many artists, we don't do it for the money. Music teachers don't motivate the snot out of their kids to win competitions or get superiors for extra money. Music teachers don't make any extra money for any of their accomplishments except possibly the bonuses some states hand out for observations — which are fundamentally unrelated to the bevy of extra-curricular activities most music teachers supervise. They motivate their kids for the sake of their own experience, for the reputation & traditions of the school, and, in a select number of cases, the director's ego.
Which leads me to the thing I'm finding most puzzling and most depressing about my peers: most of them are far more accomplished than I am, starting from when they were teenagers. Yes, some teachers are just frustrated gigging musicians who barely hold on in the classroom. But those types don't usually last in the wild very long. The cream of the crop, the award-winning chorus & band directors out there? They've been groomed to do these jobs since they were teenage drum majors and All-State soloists. And they do get some amount of glory: the band director, the chorus director, the orchestra director, the life-changing elementary music teacher, they all become celebrities in their schools, or in our age of social media, on Facebook or Instagram.
Life is good for them, with one major caveat:
They get paid mere pennies for the countless extra hours they put in, and they don't get paid enough to start with. In order to have a salary commensurate with their level of education (very frequently a hard-fought master's degree), they have to stick with the particular district they're in for decades. For a number of reasons, that sticking around is getting harder & harder to do. They have trouble paying their bills & mortgages & student loans.
And many of them are not bothered by the struggle. Thus, the stereotype of the noble music teacher lives on — look at Mrs. So & So! All of those kids can sight-sing at a level three and they got straight Superiors last year. (Quantifying factors of a music program are big in our industry.) And she gives so much time and is so unselfish, she'll stay after school & teach a piano kid for free for six hours!
But most of us can't teach a single kid a single lesson for six hours. For a variety of reasons. And none of us should.
It's not because I'm jealous of my peers or their successes. Sometimes I feel a little twinge of what might have been in my career, but more often than not, I worry about my peers. I have seen so many of the marriages of music teachers fall apart, in no small part because of the increasing demands of the job.
Even more disconcerting, I have seen a rash of unexpected and too early deaths of music teachers across my state over the past several years. One was a community-making chorus & orchestra teacher who died from cancer this year. One was a state champ winning high school band director who died in his sleep from heart problems at age 48 — during band camp, no less. One was a super-involved professional organizer & model middle school director who died suddenly in her 40s. Another high school director, whose program was dwindling and was set to retire this year instead had a stroke in February and died shortly thereafter. My own former high school band director, who'd gotten his doctorate, worked with drum corps, and taught all around town, died before 50 of heart problems. My other high school band director had a stroke in her 40s, and while it was not fatal, she has been unable to work in almost five years.
My band director best friend recently became a mom. She flippantly joked that she had her kid three weeks early, "Like all band directors." My kid came three weeks early, too. At the end of my pregnancy (which was also at the end of the school year), my blood pressure had spiked. I cried when I was put on bed rest because I had not wrapped things up at my school yet. I cried more when I was hospitalized before her birth because I was stressed and upset and getting frantic texts from a student about my substitute.
It's great, I guess, that we're all such Underpaid Overachievers in this field. We do so much for the kids, we create so many opportunities. You know, we do so much good work. Our parents enjoy that field show and that winter showcase so much. And they're so appreciative that we risked our professional standing to drive their kids home hours after an event, because you know, they had a thing come up.
But at so many turns, we completely forget to take care of ourselves. And as schools at large are embarrassingly understaffed in terms of counselors & office staff, we end up with both bookkeeping & student emotional counseling duties (both of which we're largely untrained for) to take care of. And we love it. And we brag about it. And we don't want to do anything else.
That last part is true. I love teaching kids. I love the winter concerts, too, at least once they're over. I love being part of their journeys. My winter concert week this year began with seeing a former student at a first rate university School of Music put on a wonderful concert. I remember the time she got a superior on her Mozart solo in 7th grade and the judge told her "this piece fits your personality." I got to witness her play and talk to her about being a music ed major. I told her to pay attention to everything in her education classes, even when they seem immaterial to the world of music education, because it all ends up mattering. And then at my concert a few days later, I had an army of former student volunteers and a hug-fest prior to the show. I love being part of all of their stories, all of their journeys. That means so much to me.
But all of those wonderful feelings are not paying my student loan bills. Or daycare bills. Or making up for the fact that most nights in December, I don't get to put my own adorable daughter to bed.
At some point, we music teachers have to stand up for ourselves. We can love our jobs & our students while also advocating for ourselves. We have to maybe not aspire to attend States this year, because our needs as teachers or as people are not being met. We have to maybe scale back a spring field trip because we are unable to shoulder the burden of yet more fundraising because of all of the hoops we have to jump through. At some point, in a place I don't want to go, we have to maybe let them know what a pre-holiday December looks like without a wonderful school concert.
Just as we are reminded when we fly, as many of you are doing to Midwest this week, we have to put on our own oxygen masks before we assist others.
A friend of mine who is a mother wrote that someone else reminded her to eat this week, as in, stop skipping meals rather than continuing to put the needs of her child before her own. She used that exact metaphor in her analysis of the situation. Put on your oxygen mask before assisting others. Because you are no good to anyone you're trying to help if you are not healthy & whole.
You do so much for your students and for your communities. Keep doing it, and keep loving doing it. But remember, resting and taking care of yourself is a thing you do not just for yourself, but for your students and your communities, as well.
*Edited lightly for style & proofreading purposes, March 12th, 2019.