Avoiding Teacher Burnout in the Online Era

james' two cents Apr 06, 2020

For those of us in music education, this is a time of rapid transition from face-to-face teaching to online teaching. This brings exciting new possibilities but also new challenges for teaching online ukulele classes and any other kind of instrument! What I'd like to address in this video is the issue of teacher burnout in this brave new world.

Burnout has always been a danger for teachers. Now, more than ever, we need to be mindful of over-extending ourselves. The "old fashioned" causes of burnout are always present: we promise too much, we don't set boundaries or we create unnecessary extra work for ourselves. These are still issues. But there are new pitfalls as well.  Live, online lessons using Zoom* or Facetime are really good in many ways. They can help nurture that student-teacher connection that is so critical. Plus, Zoom gives us the option to offer group lessons online which I think is great. I'm a big believer in group lessons. I think fostering community through music is one of our most important jobs as teachers.

Burnout has always been a danger for teachers. Now, more than ever, we need to be mindful of over-extending ourselves.

I'm already seeing early signs of burnout in myself and in my colleagues.  We're on our screens even more than we were before these "days of distance."  Screen fatigue or "computer vision syndrome," I think they call it, is a real thing: it's when the eye muscles have difficulty recovering from the strain of prolonged screen use.  Also, for private music teachers, the comfort and consistency of a studio has been replaced by "virtual house calls" on Zoom where the learning environment is unpredictable from one lesson to the next. Plus, we're always trying to find ways of working around the latency issue, that annoying delay that makes it impossible to play music together in a way that everyone can enjoy (including the teacher). And then there's lesson follow-up. Students don't always understand what they're asking for when they say, "could you just send me a little video summary of everything we've done today? Do you mind?"  Even if it's a PDF, it's never been easier to create this additional content but it all takes time.

So what do we do about it? Strike a balance between live and pre-recorded video.  At this moment, Zoom has really taken the spotlight but you can think of pre-recorded video as the "best supporting actor" of music education.  It doesn't replace interactivity, but it can supplement your teaching and help you avoid burnout.

Here's something simple you can do right now: put together a list of pre-recorded lesson videos.  These can be videos that you create or -- since that requires quite a bit of time and energy -- how about videos you like from YouTube?  How about curating a list of 10 free lessons and performances from YouTube that complement your teaching style and goals?  Then you can direct students to these pre-recorded lessons, especially if they're on perennial topics like tuning, posture, basic chords and reading TAB. In fact, that's one of the reasons I released Ready, Steady, UKULELE! and priced it at $1. It's perfect as a pre-requisite course when you start a new student or when a student comes back to the instrument after taking a break. Pre-recorded lesson content (whether it's created by you or curated by you) makes great pre- and post-lesson material.

What we're working toward here is what I call a "Zoom sandwich." There are three ingredients in a Zoom sandwich:

  1. A pre-recorded clip before the lesson to give the student something to work toward.
  2. The live lesson itself to address the specific needs of the student.
  3. A pre-recorded clip or two to follow up.

Let's not doubt the power and importance of music at a time like this.

Live video and pre-recorded video are the two "flavours" of online lesson content. They each have pros and cons but, thankfully, they're complementary. I think that balancing these two flavours (like in my example of the "Zoom sandwich") can help you avoid burnout, can help your students learn more and can help all of us to find our feet in this new world of music-education-at-a-distance.

Most importantly, let's not doubt the power and importance of music at a time like this.  As teachers it's easy to feel discouraged and disconnected.  But make no mistake: we all need music now more than ever. And, more to the point, we need to make music now more than ever. Your students need you. They need you to listen, they need you to guide them, they need you to bring light into the dark. So keep up the good work and I'll see you soon!

* Note: Zoom has been in the news recently over privacy concerns. I'm not recommending Zoom per se but, rather, using it as a prominent example of videoconferencing software. Other options include WebEx, Jitsi and GoToMeeting.



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