It seems that experienced teachers, no matter their grade level or subject area, are perpetually tired. Our brains are always focused on that one student who needs a spark, that one thing we haven’t yet found to make learning easy for them. Our students and various teaching problems and scenarios literally keep us awake at night, brainstorming and searching for the solutions. In my case, it becomes really hard to stay motivated, to give each student my best because I’m constantly thinking about ways to reach the others. And it runs me down — physically, mentally, emotionally — in much the same way as my own family occasionally does. My students are family. And maybe I shouldn’t say us, but I know these things are true for me, so I assume that it also happens to other teachers. If it doesn’t happen to you, you are a better teacher than I. I’d gladly pay you for some lessons. Heh.
So what do I do? I can’t stay in tired mode forever. It’s not fair to my husband, child, or other students. At the same time, I can’t sleep until I’m no longer tired, even on weekends. I don’t have money to go to motivational seminars that want hundreds of dollars for materials that claim to know how to manage my personal life (and in my experience are things I already knew anyway.) I don’t have unlimited “personal” time. I can’t cancel a lesson just because I’m feeling a little owlly. So what can I do?
Here are a few things I currently do, or have done in the past, to rest and rejuvenate. Feel free to take it or leave it, or modify it to fit your studio and lifestyle.
Take regularly scheduled breaks. You need them and so do your students. From fourth through twelfth grades, I never got a week off. I had a lesson every week. Even in the summer. The only time I got off was when my family went on vacation. (I think the only reason we went on vacation was so that my long-suffering parents could get a break from the never-ending practicing. The violin was not invited to accompany us. Ha.)(Just kidding, Mom, if you’re reading this.) However, never having a week off meant that my teachers never got a week off either. The longer I teach, and the more of myself I invest in my students, the more essential spring break, Christmas break, a couple of weeks in the summer, and other assorted weeks throughout the year are for my teacherly mental health. They are just as necessary as eating, breathing and sleeping. I use the time to rest and deliberately do things other than think about my students. (Interestingly, I come up with some of my best ideas for helping students when I’m not deliberately thinking about how to help them.)
I think about ME. It’s the best thing I can do for everyone, because I can only stretch so far. In the days before internet and cell phones, I used to actually go away and take a mini-vacation by myself, either camping or renting a motel room for a few days, or going to Suzuki institutes during the summer. For a few years, I did both. This is something I’d eventually like to do again, because it is probably the single most helpful thing I have ever done for myself, because its impact on everyone else in my life was so huge. If this isn’t an option for you, see if you can schedule a smaller, but regular chunk of “Me” time — make your own spa treatment, go out for lunch by yourself, splurge on a massage, take a book to a park or the library — and don’t let anything get in the way or reschedule it for you.
Try, try, try to leave students at work. This is probably the most difficult thing about working from home. Even if you teach in a remote studio, it’s really hard to leave that one student on the other side of the studio door while you’re fixing supper, handling bathtub duty and reading bedtime stories, or watching that movie you’ve been trying to see for a month. The more you can separate your income-producing work from your other life, the better.
Schedule weird lessons: Every so often, schedule a review week or a themed week. The kids enjoy the break and it brings the serious tone down a notch or two. I have had weeks where students played:
**in a certain style (jazz, etc.);
**backwards (backward bow, reversed bowings, start at the end of the piece and play it backwards, etc.);
**odd or even numbered review pieces;
**pieces or tasks drawn from the Bucket-O-Chocolate;
**games, like Monopoly or Go Fish, using review pieces or specific techniques;
Use your imagination. A fried imagination can often come up with really wacko things that the kids will have a blast doing. You’ll have fun too.
I dig into old articles and books to refresh my memory or gain new inspiration. Or troll the web. I save articles from my ASJs and reread them as necessary (which my students will eventually have access to on my website, when I finish scanning them and set up the logins). I have a decent personal Suzuki library, as well as other musical stuff to reference. And there is always something new online; even if I don’t always agree or like what I see, it gives me a different perspective and poses new questions and ideas to mull over.
I also stop and daydream sometimes, either thinking about directions I would like to pursue with certain students, or remembering old fond memories of lessons or observations.
One thing in particular that never fails to motivate me is listening. I have an old Memorex cassette tape from 1982, containing my spring recital performance of Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro. I listen to that recording and then listen to more recent recordings and marvel at how much I’ve learned and gained over 30 years. I also have a recording of the first piece that motivated me to be a violinist, and I listen to it occasionally for the goose-bumpy memories it calls up. A variation on this that I’ve used to good effect is listening to my students’ recital performances. I can hear huge differences year to year, even though it often seems like they’re not learning anything. When I’m tired or discouraged, I can count on these truths: the recordings never lie and the kids learn, in spite of me.
This isn’t something you have to spend money to do. We didn’t get into music for the piles o’ money we thought we’d certainly rake in, and many of us are frugal by necessity. However, some of the things I mentioned earlier (like Suzuki institutes) are worth what you pay multiple times over. It doesn’t cost anything to read things you already have, or to daydream, or to think about yourself for a while. Yes, it cuts into the bottom line when you take paid weeks out of the calendar, so that may or may not be an option for you. Personally, I think it’s worth far more than what I lose in income, and it’s less of an issue for parents than raising fees to cover the “paid vacation.” (Note: If you spend money on any of the things I mentioned above, keep in mind that some of the expenses could be tax deductible if you keep receipts and records. Check with your tax professional or accountant to be sure.)
The goodwill of your students and parents, your own mental health, and your effectiveness as a teacher doesn’t have a price tag. Make time for yourself, and you’ll have more to give your students.