Teacher Experience

How to Deal with Pressure to Perform

There are so many terms for school arts programs: specials, related arts, expressive academics, integrated arts… All are attempts to describe how visual arts, music, and sometimes other content areas fit into a school culture. Most of the time, these terms describe arts programs in terms of how they differ from all other content areas, like math or science. It’s a subtle nod to the fact that most arts programs are treated like an unnecessary but nice activity to give some change of pace from the rigors of academic learning. Big eye roll! 

Of course, that’s not how arts teachers see themselves or their programs. It hurts to be reduced to background music or pretty hallway decoration. There can be so much pressure from administration to perform, compete, present, and display in order to create positive news about a school or, more bluntly, make the administrators themselves look good. 

I do not want to downplay the arts’ role in creating positive news about a school or improving students’ morale. There absolutely is value in that. However, when it seems that performances and displays are the only thing that the administration cares about when discussing arts programs, it severely limits the possibilities– not to mention, it contributes to arts teacher burnout by dismissing teachers’ value. 

Outcomes vs. Outputs

The important mindset shift for administrators (and teachers!) to make is in understanding the impact a program has beyond these flashy events. It comes in uncovering a program’s intended outcomes, rather than outputs. What’s the difference? I’m so glad you asked!

Outputs are events, tests, data points, or other summative items/activities that generate outcomes. Outcomes are the broader impacts that these items/activities have on students, the school, and the community as a whole. The way I remember the difference is that outputs are something more tangible– something you can “put” somewhere. Outcomes are what “comes” of a program– the impact that it has. 

For example: Art shows and concerts are examples of an output. They are singular, summative events. But they are NOT the outcomes, or the impact, of your program. The outcomes from arts shows or concerts might include: increased ability to speak about art in a variety of contexts, management of stage fright, involvement in community activism, connection to a variety of other content areas, exposure to careers in the arts… amongst many others. 

When advocating for arts programs, the outcomes (NOT the outputs) are what teachers are really fighting for. If administrators are putting the screws on teachers to perform, compete, and display more– point to the outcomes. “This is what my program is really about. Those activities (outputs) interfere with / don’t align with my ability to achieve those outcomes.”

Similarly, when speaking about the awesome outputs you do align with, don’t forget to connect them with your true outcomes. Ex: “Our spring art show was incredible! Students used their platforms as artists to invoke emotions about our local environment.” When you demonstrate to all stakeholders that your program has social, emotional, academic, and community-based impact, you remind them that you are more than just “background music” or “shiny art.” 

Knowing your intended outcomes is essential to designing an arts program that is based on community values with an eye for long-term health and growth of the program. If you want to establish your meaningful outcomes and build an engaging and equitable program around them– that’s where I come in. Click here to learn more about my process to take arts programs from struggling to thriving!

Classroom Culture Teacher Experience

3 Ways to go Beyond Teachers’ “Why”

As a teacher, knowing your “why” – your motivation, your purpose, your mission statement– is incredibly important. In fact, I’d call it essential! It is the basis for how you navigate each day, each school year, and through your career. Teachers are people (somehow we forget this!) and therefore are not neutral– we all have our own unique perspectives, backgrounds, and viewpoints. Being secure in your “why” is the start of being an ethical and effective educator; it means knowing your own reality so you can more easily distinguish your perspective from others’. 

But! Simply knowing your “why” is not going to solve all your problems. Knowing your “why”, or even living true to your “why” is not going to help you make authentic connections with your students, identify engaging materials and activities, or fill out your lesson plans. It is not a magic wand. Knowing your “why” can make your job seem (and feel) easier, but it doesn’t actually make your job easier all on its own. 

Your “why” is only your perspective, but your classroom is so much more complex than that. I call the people and policies that impact your classroom an ecosystem. In an ecosystem, if one thing changes, the effect is felt all over the system. If you’ve dealt with breaking in a new principal, you know exactly what I mean. Each of the members of your program’s ecosystem– your students, admin, coworkers, families, community leaders, and more– has their own “why.” Those motivations explain their actions, and those actions impact your classroom. 

Here’s an example of how knowing your “why” isn’t enough: If you are very much motivated by the idea of maintaining the traditions of classical music, but no one else in your school is, then by chasing only your own “why”, you are going to be running an uphill battle with disinterested students. Or, say you are personally motivated by achievement (hey, me too!) and so, by being true to your “why”, you engage your students in several competitions and juried events annually. But, if your students and families value collaboration over individual pride, your program won’t click with them. 

So what can an arts teacher do?

1. Listen and respond accordingly. Listening is absolutely the bedrock of building trust and community. Show that you are listening by making necessary changes.

2. Be in the room where it happens. Become a part of your school’s community by being present as much as possible. That could mean joining a committee, attending sports games, or going to board meetings. Be there to be top of mind for your ecosystem, but more importantly, to show you are there to listen and be in community with them. You are struggling alongside them, invested in what they are invested in, and actively searching for equitable solutions too.

3. Ask questions that uncover their “why.” This can happen in periodic student surveys, at parent/teacher conferences, or in admin meetings. It might sound like, “Is that something that is important to you?” or “What is the motivation for this change?” or “What is the impact/outcome you are hoping for?” 

When you understand not just your own motivations, but the motivations of everyone in your ecosystem, you can create a classroom culture and curriculum that inspires, supports, and celebrates everyone. Knowing your “why” is important– but so is knowing everyone else’s “why”. It is the first step in making changes that benefit the entire ecosystem, which, I bet, is probably close to your own “why.” 

Go Beyond!

This is not an easy nor short process. But, I can help simplify it. My job is to guide you and your arts team toward this ground-up and values-based philosophy for more flow and ease in every arts classroom. Stop hoping that it will “get better next year” and let’s make a plan to make sure every year is better than the last!

Teacher Experience

Burnout Express: Compassion Fatigue in Music Teachers

Compassion fatigue, AKA Secondary Traumatic Stress or vicarious trauma, is a real problem for music teachers. ⁠

Aren’t we supposed to love our students? And if we love all of them, we take on their stress. We sometimes absorb their trauma. It weighs on our hearts to care so much for so many people who have so many of their own traumas. ⁠Sometimes also called “compassion fatigue”, this trauma that seeps into your bones can be the result of being constantly exposed to your students’ trauma: poverty, violence, racism, etc.

Secondary Traumatic Stress can manifest as anxiety, over-worrying, perfectionism, irritability, insomnia… all sorts of things that make being a great teacher (and a happy person) more difficult. If you find yourself frequently breaking down while thinking about keeping your students safe, you might have compassion fatigue.

Music Teachers & Secondary Traumatic Stress

Music teachers are unique because we often have the same students year after year. As a result, we become a more familiar adult presence in their lives, which can be fantastic. That also means we can become their sounding boards — or dumping grounds — for their stress, fears, and anxieties.

It is a great practice to be able to listen carefully and without judgement when our students come to us with problems, big and small. But it’s not easy to let those harder conversations roll off your back.

If you’re having a hard time after a student reveals their traumas to you… that’s normal. You should have some sort of emotional reaction because you’re a human! But if that emotional reaction is making normal life difficult, it’s time to seek additional support.

What can you do about it?

If this resonates with you, first know that you are not alone. You aren’t doing anything wrong. ⁠It is extremely common for teachers to feel the burden of having to “love” every single student. As arts teachers, that can mean dozens or hundreds of students at a time! It is not wise, nor even possible, to really love that many people at the same time.

You will need some help to work through this in order to avoid burning out, or other long-term effects of carrying unaddressed trauma. ⁠

There is a difference between caring about your students and loving them. You don’t need to give them your heart. This stress doesn’t have to be a part of the teaching profession. ⁠

Therapy helps! A professional can help you work out those emotional boundaries. You can also advocate for yourself and your coworkers for more school/organizational support. That could mean getting involved with your union, lobbying for more mental health services for teachers, or advocating for health and human services for your students.

Here are a few articles if you want to read more (all about a 5-10 min read each):

‘I Didn’t Know It Had a Name’ (

When Students Are Traumatized, Teachers Are Too (Edutopia)

Secondary Traumatic Stress (Trauma Aware Schools)

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