I taught strings in grades K-college over 32 years. By my 16thyear in the profession, like many of us who teach music, I began to feel frustrated and tired. “Burned-out” is the popular colloquial term. Probably the reasons will resonate with many of you:
-my “classrooms” (I taught in janitor’s rooms, cafeterias, and boiler rooms in the basement)
– lack of supplies (whiteboards? computer? stereo? piano? Ok, to be honest, I did have chairs!),
-lack of adequate pay for the untold hours of commitment
I was ready to throw in the towel.
When I talked to a colleague who had been a teacher for double the years I had, she reminded me that if I was contemplating leaving the profession, it was going to be a harrowing adventure with its own set of frustrations, challenges, and disappointments.
“So, why not make teaching an adventure for yourself and your students?” she asked. “Stop looking at the trees and rise above to look at the forest. Then, bring what you see on the outside into your classroom.”
Since I loved teaching, and my students, but hated the conditions where I worked, I followed her advice. And when I rose above, I saw a great opportunity waiting for us. I stopped focusing on the things I had no control over in the schools, and focused my energy on bringing a sense of adventure from the outside into my program. It made all the difference in the world. I continued teaching for another 16 years, and I now have memories of some of the greatest days of my life.
The Solution to Music Teacher Burnout
I began by bringing in something new for my music program. The solution was to use what we already had in our hands. Our instruments were the keys to the universal language that opened the doors to the world. I just needed a roadmap.
On the advice of a fellow teacher at a Boston college, I contacted Encore Tours, an international music tour company. While there were several music tour companies to choose from, I relied on the recommendation of my colleague who had travelled throughout Europe with his orchestra. He had used Encore Tours primarily for their reputation as the best in overseas music travel. Encore’s team met with me and helped to design the challenge that was right for my students and my program. They knew exactly what my students and I needed.
From that moment on, I not only changed my attitude about teaching, I also witnessed what the experience of international travel gave my students:
-a reason to practice
– a sense of purpose as an orchestra
– a reason to want to be the best they could become
– a path to personal maturity on a road of great adventure.
Encore helped us gain respect from our community as we began to find reasons to respect ourselves and the good work we were capable of.
Tap Into the Power of Your Base
I learned a valuable lesson when I realized the key to success in public schools was to get the support of the parents and the community. After all, schools are a perfect democracy: the parents vote for school committee, they hire the Superintendent, who hires the principals, who hire the teachers.
It’s a cascade of power that starts with parents.
I started by organizing the power base. Meeting with the parents once each month, I proposed a concert tour of England. I would be in charge of teaching the students to perform at a high caliber, as well as teaching British culture, history, and composers. The parents devoted their energies to establishing fundraising accounts for each student, and monthly fundraisers to help them pay for their trip. Encore Tours handled all the arrangements of our adventure. They gave us the roadmap to success.
We became American Musical Ambassadors by working together over many years. It was a family effort: myself, the parents, and Encore Tours. Over the years, we took the best of our American culture to not only England, but also Italy twice, France twice, Ireland twice, Quebec, and Austria.
Every two years, our musical family worked to develop our great adventures, which always included “giving back” in the form of benefit concerts for such organizations as St.Stephen’s of Vienna Renovation Fund; the Cork, Ireland Hospice; and Europe’s Clown Doctors.
The lives of over 1200 people (and still counting) were changed because travel changes lives. And the key to this world adventure? The students spoke the universal language of music, and they held the key to the world in their hands every time they performed. Encore Tours put the whole world in our hands.
If you think it all sounds simple… well, you’re right. It was simple.
And like everything in life, the best things have strings attached. There were a lot of details, but we delegated. And Encore provided everything we needed- and more. So, after the most beneficial simplicity I’ve ever experienced, here’s my conclusion:
Feeling burned-out? Reignite the flame that you once felt by bringing a renewed energy into your life and your teaching. Bring the resources and spirit of adventure into your classroom from the outside if you’re not being provided with the resources and support from the inside. It will ignite endless possibilities.
And herein lies the secret to a memorable journey: prepare to be surprised at who you will become, and where you end up. That’s what really living is all about.
About the Author
Ward Dilmore is a recently retired music teacher from Wilmington High School, MA where he grew his string orchestra from 12 students to over 450, in large part due to his incorporation of foreign travel into the program. Ward initially traveled with other companies, but once he found Encore, he never looked back. He has taken his ‘Strings Attached’ orchestra overseas with Encore 7 times, in total taking over 1,200 students abroad during his years at Wilmington.More Content by Ward Dilmore