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How Do You Renew Your Enthusiasm for Teaching Each Year?

The feeling engendered by teaching can span the full range of human emotion-stimulating, routine, exciting, boring, satisfying, frustrating, fulfilling, discouraging, and so on. In fact, using the language of today's bumper stickers, these feelings can range from "I " teaching" to "I'd rather be _____," filling in the blank with any activity that you are passionately enthusiastic about, be it golfing, square dancing, scuba diving, or whatever. 

Certainly all of these responses to teaching are possible, but some seem to signal a serious lack of enthusiasm for what we who read and write for Keyboard Companion are about-teaching others to play the piano. Yet, in light of the importance of athletics to many young people, the schedules kept by many of today's students, and the general cultural disinterest in the fine arts, it is no easy task to maintain enthusiasm for teaching. 

Success in the task of maintaining enthusiasm demands commitment not only to music and to teaching, but also to taking care of ourselves, a task which is made even more challenging by our often-isolated working conditions and unusual work schedules. The theme of self-care runs through the comments of both the individuals who have responded to our question for this issue, How do you renew your enthusiasm for teaching each year? 

Rebecca Johnson, our first contributor, is known for her workshops on teacher burnout. She shares some of her own ways of avoiding this problem with its accompanying lack of enthusiasm and challenges us to consider our expectations for our students and for ourselves. Are they truly realistic and achievable? If they are not, then they are likely to engender a variety of feelings which can sap our energy and reduce our enthusiasm. 

Sara Faye Blickenstaff writes as a clinical social worker, but as one who is well acquainted with the life of a piano teacher. She shares some basic principles of self-care for independently-employed professionals in any field . Of special interest is her understanding of continuing education through "supervision." This unique type of relationship is based on a sense of collegiality and mutual respect between professionals and is very different from the master/apprentice type of interaction which characterizes much traditional piano teaching. I believe that cultivation of such relationships among professionals in the field of piano teaching could add an important dimension to our continuing education. 

In some disciplines, the need for self care is openly acknowledged, and our two contributors have provided a number of suggestions of ways in which we can strive to take of ourselves as teachers. My suspicion is that as piano teachers it might benefit all of us if we took our responsibility for our own self-care as seriously as we take responsibility for preparing our students for their next performance.

Sometimes I feel like the Energizer Bunny...

by Rebecca Johnson

Sometimes, as I look towards fall and the return of all my students, I feel less than excited and enthusiastic; some yearsa great deal less! But that lack of enthusiasm is unfair to my students and unhealthy for me. I cannot radically change my students, but I can change how I perceive my students and my attitudes towards my teaching successes. The best way for me to look toward a new year is with enthusiasm, optimism, and a healthy dose of reality. 

A student's potential may be defined by his or her intelligence and innate physical coordination, but it is also heavily influenced by the home environment and the amount of time available for practice. This available practice time is a function of a student's goals for piano study. If a student is very committed to piano study, then he or she will limit, or prioritize, other activities which cut into available time. If piano is not a priority, but rather a hobby or relaxation which falls somewhere between softball and church choir, available practice time will decrease. (I once had a student who came to lessons during softball season only when it rained! Rest assured, however, the missed lessons were paid for, and no make-ups were given.) As a piano teacher, I try to make piano study as exciting, enjoyable, and worthwhile as possible, but I am not wholly responsible for a student's priorities. Sometimes, I must adjust to being the provider of a hobby or leisure- time activity. 

This adjustment is sometimes difficult for teachers whose experience with the piano has involved a lifetime of study, perhaps even a sense of passion. The dichotomy between the importance of music in the teacher's life, and its place as a possible recreational activity in the student's life, is partly due to differences in age and maturity, and partly due to the fact that most teachers were their teachers' very best students when they were young. Therefore I, as a teacher and a dedicated musician, cannot use my own feelings and experiences as a reliable guide to understanding the place of piano lessons in the lives of most of my students. Most piano teachers were undoubtedly the "cream of the crop" as children, and most teachers probably learned to play the instrument more easily than the average student. Teachers, therefore, may not be able to use their early piano experiences and their own abilities at the instrument as reference points for many of the students in their studios. 

As I look to the fall, I also must remind myself of the statistical preponderance of "average" students, the inevitability of slow students, and the hope of a few bright, gifted students. Teachers should not determine a student's learning pace by imposing a pace at which they will consider themselves to be a successful teacher. I am not a failure, and not even a poor teacher, if all of my students are not through Book II of the series by the end of their second year. Each student learns at his or her own pace, and some students need to go three steps sideways in supplemental literature for every one step forward in technical or reading difficulty. I must remind myself that a slow pace is not a discouraging pace if it is the right pace for a particular student. If each student is proceeding at a good pace for his or her current situation, and is building a solid foundation of reading, technique, theory, and musicianship, then the student and I are experiencing a successful course of piano study. 

Sometimes I feel like the "Energizer Bunny" -going on and on and beating my drum. Year after year of teaching can become a seemingly endless routine of contests, festivals, recitals, stickers, and make-up lessons. What keeps the routine fresh and enlivening is the recognition and celebration of the successes along the way. I must constantly watch that I do not take small successes for granted. Each achievement, no matter how small, is cause for congratulations and rejoicing both for the student and for me. I try constantly to remind myself, and my students, that they are now doing something that they could not do last year, or at least that they could not do as well. Sometimes successes are rather small, but they are never inconsequential. A student's first successful scale, a good phrase ending, a well-paced crescendo, performance of a troublesome accidentalall these things are accomplishments to be recognized and acknowledged, not only as the student's success, but also as the teacher's. 

Each student should come to my studio in the fall with a clean slate and a fresh start. Past experiences and attitudes must not influence my thinking or taint my optimism for the coming year, for self-fulfilling prophesies1 can be a very real and potent factor in a student's learning experiences. Each year in a child's development can be different. 

A student of mine started lessons when she was in second grade. For the first two years she went at a below-average pace. The third year her mother remarried, and it was a disastrous year for her piano study and her life in general. I worked hard that year just to keep her from losing ground. The fourth year she began to pull back up to a slow pace forward. Then, this year, her lessons suddenly got much better-her reading and rhythm improved dramatically. Over the summer she seemed to have developed the maturity to take the responsibility for careful practice. But I, as a teacher, had to be ready to recognize and encourage this improvement with a positive outlook, and without preconceived, negative attitudes. Whenever I find myself thinking cynical, negative thoughts about a student, I stop immediately and think of at least one positive thing about that student. I try to look at each of my students as parents look at their children, and I try to appreciate an endearing characteristic. If a little boy is ornery and wiggly, I try to enjoy his sense of humor and energy. This is not a "pollyanna-ish" approach to life and teaching, but rather it is the conscious control of my thought-life, which is the basis for my attitudes in daily living. 

I feel much more enthusiastic about the coming year when I have done my homework over the summer. Attending teacher workshops and conventions gives me new ideas and greater motivation. A day at the local music store also gears me up with beautiful new publications to try with each student. I really look forward to giving a student a new piece of music that we will both love, and that will be a break from the hashed-over music and problems from the previous year. 

Few things make me dread a new year more than knowing I have taken on too many students. It is so difficult to enjoy each lesson when I am physically and mentally exhausted. But it is also difficult to turn down new students, especially when they claim that you have come so highly recommended. Deciding your optimum student load can be a matter of economics-we all must need a certain income level to survive. Many times, however, student loads increase to overload when we force ourselves to find just one earlier or later slot so that we can open up a lesson time for that student whose parents want us so badly. Just one new slot here and another new slot there can soon blossom into an unwieldy and exhausting schedule almost without the teacher being aware of what has happened. I always know that I have overbooked myself when I start hoping that a student will call in sick or will forget to come to the lesson that day. Unfortunately, once you are overbooked, it is very difficult to rectify the situation unless you send your least favorite students on to another teacher. (It is best to do this little trick anonymously if you can!) One way I cope with a demanding schedule is to incorporate fifteen- to thirty-minute breaks into my teaching day. I find that 2.5-3 hours is about my limit. At that point I need a short break, or my diagnostic skills and my patience begin to decrease rapidly. These breaks need to be true breaks, and not just time to catch up on lessons that have run late. I get up and stretch my back and neck, get a drink of water, make a phone call-anything that will give me a physical and mental break. Then, I am glad to see my next student. 

How do I renew my enthusiasm each year? I start with optimism and hope, and I add a good dose of reality, keep my eyes peeled for successes, forget the past, kill the cynicism, look for the positive, do my summer homework, and limit my load!

1 The term self-fulfilling prophecy refers to the idea that one person's beliefs about another person can, in fact, be a powerful determinant of another person's behavior and experience. In a classic study of this phenomenon in education Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) demonstrated that those children who were expected to achieve the most in school, did actually achieve the most-even when, according to the evidence in school records, they were not the most able of students.


Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 

Rebecca Johnson has a PhD in Music Education with a specialty in Piano Pedagogy from The Ohio State University. She is on the faculty of the Community Music School at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, and maintains an independent studio where she teaches mostly adults. In addition, she is active in the National Conference on Piano Pedagogy where she serves on the Learning Theory/Piano Pedagogy Liaison Committee.

Self-care and enthusiasm are inseparable...

by Sara Faye Blickenstaff, M.S.W., A.C.S.W.

This question implies both an absence of I enthusiasm and a hope for a solution to the complex problem of teacher burn-out. If you lack the inspiration to begin another year of teaching, you know that you have been experiencing more stress and discouragement than energy and satisfaction. 

Those whose professions involve nurturing and caring for others need to take care of themselves in order to be a resource to others. I can identify readily with the independent teacher, for I, too, am in private practice. We share many of the same professional challenges as we strive to maintain a privately-operated business. However, there are some basic principles of self-care for the professional who is independently employed which are relevant, regardless of the discipline. Let us consider several factors which are essential for the maintenance of professional lives, yours as well as mine. 

Self-care can begin with an evaluation of your studio. Many concerns can affect your attitudes about teaching: too many students (or not enough students), lack of parent support, unusual working hours, inadequate remuneration, unmotivated students, isolated working conditions, and professional competition. Even though some of these conditions are easier to control than others, one cannot deny that many have a nagging persistence. Furthermore, the incidence of these variables is likely to be unpredictable; they may occur simultaneously or in succession, and they can be a source of immense frustration. Even an unexpected snowstorm can cause anxiety over lost income. 

A major source of stress is the fact of being self-employed which means that you must initiate and manage your business alone, without the assistance of staff or colleagues. Professionally you are a teacher, an office manager, a secretary, and a bookkeeper. Even though these duties are not necessarily unpleasant, they frequently cannot be scheduled; furthermore, they often are interrupted. Being responsible for the success of a business under these circumstances causes a continuous, mostly subliminal, anxiety. 

There is also a tendency among the self employed to think in terms of contact hours and to minimize or deny the additional time spent in business management. It is commonly recognized that the total time committed to the private practice is an additional one-third of the actual contact (teaching) hours. Perhaps you would benefit from the discipline of keeping a daily log of non-teaching demands for one month (phone calls, paper work, errands, bookkeeping, lesson/ recital planning, banking, studio maintenance and professional meetings.) At the end of the month, tabulate the total time spent on your profession outside of actual teaching. Your business is part-time. You believe it and your world believes it. Keeping a daily log may prove otherwise! 

Because you wear the label "part-time," you may believe that you should be able to manage the many other part-time responsibilities of home and family, church and community. You only need to be efficient and organized. When you cannot manage it all, guilt or repressed anger become part of your increased stress. 

Teaching is imparting knowledge, supporting, listening, evaluating, structuring, encouraging, changing from one approach to another-all the while maintaining patience and control. Underlying these demands there is the awareness that if you fail to meet all of these challenges, you may lose a student. This high level of demand depletes energy. The absence of enthusiasm results from this loss of energy. 

To replenish your energy, you need to care for yourself. Most professions provide opportunities for self-care in continuing education: conferences, seminars, workshops, and master classes. Many music teachers receive tangible benefits from joining with colleagues for renewal and inspiration. They learn new ways of teaching and they enjoy professional friendships. 

Regardless of how stimulating the conference may be, however, one usually finds inspiration short-lived. Growth comes when people commit themselves to study. Continuing education, both formal and informal, supports and renews every professional, not only in terms of the subject matter but also in terms of the relationships developed over the years.

A major form of continuing education in my discipline is referred to as supervision, and it occurs at all levels of expertise. The purpose of supervision is to discuss cases in order to produce a broader understanding of the problem and to consider a different approach in order to enhance treatment. A secondary purpose is to receive positive reinforcement for what we already understand. What better way to strengthen self-esteem and motivate oneself to attain higher levels of professionalism? 

The counterpart for the piano teacher is to take lessons, perhaps even focusing on the repertoire you are currently teaching. You teach better when you are also being taught because you receive affirmation as well as information. Your own ideas are affirmed and through your new insights you improve and gain confidence. 

A more private study program of self care involves setting aside specific and regular times for listening to the recording of a piece with a score in hand. One hears of intense score study by the great artists, and you can participate in this activity in your own living room. 

One final suggestion that can lead to significant improvement in your teaching is to videotape some of your lessons. You may evaluate your tapes in private or share them with a colleague or mentor for additional comment. 

Self-care of you the teacher and enthusiasm for your teaching are inseparable. Part of your self-care is to continue the musical involvement which drew you into the profession. The other part is to acknowledge frankly that you are running a private business in your home and to work at finding a balance between your professional work and your daily life. By caring for yourself, you will renew your enthusiasm-and improve your ability to teach.

Sara Faye Blickenstaff, M.S.W. (Master of Social Work), and A.C.S. W. (Academy of Certified Social Workers), is a clinical social worker in private practice. She holds degrees from Wright State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has lectured at the national MTNA convention and the International Workshops on the subject of teacher bum-out.

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