From Overwhelmed to Fulfilled in Music Education

Mental health is a serious concern for educators in general and music educators specifically. With that in mind, this spring, NAfME embarked on a new health and well-being series for music educators titled “From Overwhelmed to Fulfilled: Cultivating Resilience for a Sustainable Career in Music Education.” The content of the three sessions aimed to destigmatize mental health issues particular to music educators and connect them with resources to support their mental and physical health and well-being. When music educators have skills and strategies to be their best selves both personally and professionally, they can enjoy long, healthy careers while thriving in today’s educational landscape.

Session 1 included a phenomenal panel with information on topics such as experiencing overwhelm; the intersectionality of trauma, including secondary traumatic stress (STS); and how to recognize and avoid burnout. Panelists included Rebecca Jonas, Counselor, MA, LPCC, and former music educator; Dr. Diona Shelton, DSW, LCSW; and Dr. Abigail Van Klompenberg, NBCT. Participants were able to learn the definition and key signs of overwhelm plus strategies for handling it; dig into the concepts of compassion fatigue and post-traumatic stress; and understand how music educators are susceptible to secondary traumatic stress and how to get help. Overwhelm can appear differently in all of us. Often, it includes emotional dysregulation, difficulty focusing and concentrating, low energy, headaches and stomachaches, and lack of interest in things you used to enjoy. Some ways to combat overwhelm include practicing mindfulness, somatic stretching, grounding work, and identifying what is in your circle of control or influence. Music educators are often susceptible to secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue as a unique form of burnout simply due to the caregiving nature of our profession. Being aware of these stressors, seeking professional support, and working on our self-regulation skills are three great strategies for staying healthy when we are faced with these heavy challenges. 

Our guest presenter for Session 2, Dr. Amelia Nagoski, dove more deeply into recognizing and avoiding burnout, as our profession is certainly ripe for passionate but often overworked music educators. Dr. Nagoski drove home the idea that when we are feeling like we “need more discipline,” we actually need SUPPORT. When we wish we “had more grit,” we need more SUPPORT. If you are interested in the topic of burnout, we highly suggest reading her book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, co-authored with her twin sister, Emily Nagoski, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology.

Session 3 focused on developing healthy work habits and coping strategies, advocating for individual needs, and finding sustainable balance and fulfillment in work and at home. The presenters—music education professor Dr. Christian Bernhard II and school counselor Dr. Beth Ruff—shared tools and ideas for cultivating a state of wellness, peace, health, and joy. Some key takeaways for music educators from Dr. Bernard included understanding the absolute importance of basics like sleep, healthy eating, and physical movement. When we focus on these basics, we bring stability and health to our personal and professional lives. In addition, fostering positive emotions through engagement, relationships, finding meaning, and accomplishment all support the retention of music educators. We must lift one another up through our relationships with colleagues, celebrate small and large accomplishments, and practice gratitude for daily actions. Dr. Ruff, who infuses music and the arts into her elementary counseling instruction, took us on a musical journey of joyfulness that culminated with a fantastic collaboratively constructed “hype-song” playlist to access on Spotify whenever we need a boost. Do you have your own personal theme song or hype playlist? If not, you need to create one today! Even better, grab your music colleagues and do it together! 

NAfME is grateful to provide resources for music teachers in need. “We were astonished at how many educators signed up for and accessed these webinars,” said NAfME staff member Laura Reed. We hope to provide more health-focused offerings for members.

NAfME members and non-member subscribers can find the health and well-being series, “From Overwhelmed to Fulfilled: Cultivating Resilience for a Sustainable Career in Music Education” by going to our website (below) and entering “NAfME Academy” in Search.

Music educator health and wellness is critical. We urge you to take care of yourselves and each other so you can sustain a long, healthy, satisfying career as a music educator! What are some ways that YOU support your own personal mental health? Share them with fellow music educators in the Amplify Online Community on the NAfME homepage. 

Annamarie Bollino is NAfME Chair of the Council of Music Program Leaders and Beth Fortune is NafME Chair of the Council of Orchestral Education