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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: STRESS!

We have reached that season of the year when I devote a few posts related to combating the stress of the past year and renewing our spirit for the coming school season, which starts next month for many teachers and families. Today is the first such article to get the conversation flowing.

What is Stress?

Stress in and of itself is not a bad a thing. Stress is normal. Stress is a physical response to something that threatens or unbalances us in some way. For example, if we were faced with a fire in our home or an angry dog chasing after us, stress would be our body’s response to the danger. Stress causes our bodies to react rapidly to the situation with the stress response, or the “fight or flight” reaction. Stress is how we physically protect ourselves. With stress, we are able to focus our concentration and energy, gain additional strength, or move quickly.

Unfortunately, like most everything else in our lives, too much of a good thing is, well, not good. Too much stress in our lives will damage our health, our emotional well being, our relationships, and how well we do in the work situation. Also bad is the fact that stress can become a habit. We become inured to it; stress begins to feel familiar. We stop recognizing stress in its overloaded state, and so we embark on the dangerous stress road, which will wind ever tighter over time.

We respond to stress differently from one another as well. Some folks handle larger amounts of stressful events with little effort, while others need time and space to reflect. Others experience stress overload in a combination of both ways.

Warning Signs and Symptoms

We can categorize the warning signs and symptoms of stress into four categories: cognitive (intellectual), physical, emotional, and behavioral. Here are some common warning signs and symptoms:

Intellectual Problems:
  • Memory
  • Judgment
  • Negativity
  • Anxiety
  • Worry
  • Lack of concentration

Physical Problems:
  • Aches and Pains
  • Intestine Issues
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Rapid pulse
  • Frequent colds or other illness

Emotional Problems:
  • Moodiness
  • Short temper
  • Keyed up physical state
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Isolated, lonely
  • Depression, unhappiness

Behavioral Problems:
  • Eating issues
  • Sleeping issues
  • Isolation
  • Procrastination
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Substance abuse
  • Nervous habits

Stress and Teachers

So how does stress affect teachers? Stress can result from workplace difficulties, such as demanding responsibilities or unpleasant relationships with co-workers. One unpleasant co-worker can make the workplace a very stressful environment for many other people. Along with workplace stress, there is also stress due to financial worries, seasonal deadlines, extracurricular job responsibilities such as before or after school music programs in addition to the regular school schedule, and a general unpleasantness in faculty meetings.

Stress can result from a long bout of an overcrowded schedule. As the school semesters near their end, teachers face special holiday or end-of-year programs and recitals. If a teacher also performs professionally with a symphony or other music organization, there are the added rehearsal and performance schedules to fit in with the day’s work responsibilities. As teachers prepare for the summer slow down in terms of income and students, many teachers add additional performance opportunities (weddings and other “gigs”), special workshops or summer camps, or new students. The summer slow down also provides additional financial stress for many teachers.

During the teaching year, teachers often suffer from financial stress because students and their parents may not pay tuition bills promptly, or families cancel lessons that provide expected income. Most teachers would prefer to teach rather than take on the role of comptroller or treasurer, so having to keep track of tuition payments as well as other financial record keeping responsibilities for the teacher’s studio business can provide additional stress.

When I closed my law practice to focus 100% on my teaching efforts, I had about $40,000 in accounts receivable that I would never receive. This is probably a typical expectation for most attorneys. I call this phenomenon the “cave syndrome.” Remember when you last visited a cave formation and were asked not to touch things inside the cave because doing so would destroy the natural beauty? Individually we think that just to touch one little thing will not cause much damage, and perhaps that is true. Unfortunately, most everyone who passes through the cave will think that, and pretty soon, all those finger touches and hand swipes add up into a mass of destruction. When clients paid off their bills, I noticed that when they got within $100 or so of paying off the final amount, that the clients often stopped paying the remaining balance. Perhaps the thinking was similar to the cave syndrome: “It’s such a small amount. Surely the attorney can absorb that amount.” Yes, the attorney probably can absorb that small amount, however, when various combinations of clients make the same decision, the attorney winds up with $40,000 of accounts receivable.

For those teachers who maintain their own private teaching studio business, financial stress also stems from the record keeping that is associated with running a self-employment business. I find this particular aspect of teaching to be very stressful as it requires a great deal of time and energy to maintain my records in a way that will be useful and efficient when I have to prepare my taxes. I must confess that this has been the most difficult thing for me as a private studio teacher. There are wonderful services available to us, such as, but I still find the entire process time-consuming. I recently made the acquaintance of a dentist during my performance stint at a music festival in another town, and he told me that he works four days a week. He saves his fifth day for paperwork. He says he loses income with this method, but he gains peace of mind. I am seriously considering this idea for my own situation.

Other less obvious causes of teacher stress relate to students and their parents. I say that these are less obvious because they do not seem to occur to parents or students. Teachers are very familiar with the frustrations associated with students who come to lessons unprepared or parents who spend little or no time at home working to prepare their child for lessons. These two things are the most stressful things for teachers. Let us take a closer look at why this is. I will use my perspective.

My Story

Many of you have come to know me personally (and if you haven’t, why not leave me a comment?). For those who do not know me well, here is my story.

I am a highly skilled musician. I have been studying my instruments since I was three years old. I am now approaching my 57th birthday (yes, Mary Kay Ashe, a woman who will tell her age will tell anything, and so I shall), which means that I have devoted 54 years to my craft. I had parental role models that showed me the value of discipline and hard work and the love of things creative, such as music, art, and education. I love my parents for providing me with the gift of the love of learning and especially music. Without my parental support financially and at home in between lessons, I would not have had the most beautiful life of music and creativity. I have had a fabulous life, and it was a real treat for me to sit on the stage at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Theater and play for my Dad this past year and to spend time with him in New York in the days surrounding the event.

I am highly educated. I have an undergraduate and two post-graduate degrees. I have played in professional symphony orchestras since I was fifteen; my first job was with the Harrisburg Symphony while I was in high school. Yes, I auditioned and was accepted for the position. I have continued my education in music and teaching with the Suzuki Association of the Americas teacher training programs. I have continued my lifelong joy of learning by reading constantly, writing, and researching.

I have taught since 1976, when I was a freshman in college. I was blessed to have an excellent set of teachers: Helen Kwalwasser on violin and Marian Filar on piano at Temple University, along with several master teachers in various music subjects, such as my music history professor. I taught at a music store in New Jersey, and it was there that I was introduced to the Suzuki Method. The store owner may have been Japanese. He handed me Dr. Suzuki’s book Nurtured by Love, and he let me watch several lessons. Then the rest was up to me. Through the years thereafter, I continued my experiential research into the Suzuki Method. I read and practiced what I read. Since I came from a family of educators – mom taught primary school, and dad taught high school biology and later worked in the department of education (PA) as a science specialist in the field of biology – I knew how to teach.


My purpose in relating my background and education is to stress my experience and preparation for my profession as a teacher. When a parent contacts me for lessons for their child, I think two things:
  • The parent wants what is best for their child.
  • The parent thinks that my teaching experience and education is the best for their child.
Notice that I did not write things like:
  • The parent thinks that I am the most convenient teacher: i.e., that I am located within a reasonable driving distance, or have the most amenable schedule or lesson schedule openings.
  • The parent thinks that I have the best tuition rate: i.e., that I am the cheapest teacher in town.
  • The parent thinks that I give violin lessons, i.e., that I am just some generic music teacher, and that the parent has done a little homework to discover whether I have value to offer to the parent and their child.
No, I assume that when a parent contacts me about lessons that they have done a wee bit of research to discover whether I would be a good addition to the child’s development and education. And so I will be, if the parent and I are on the same page.

I have one expectation in my studio, and that is that new studio parents will attend my parent education course and learn how to be the best possible studio parent and home practice partner for the child. I give a ten hour course that covers serious subjects such as:
  • learning and parenting styles
  • how to teach effectively at home and avoid unhappy practice sessions
  • how to create a learning environment that motivates the child to learn
I am in the process of writing and filming this course so that other parents can benefit from the material. Every one of my parents has come away from the course with insight, knowledge, and necessary information to work effectively with the child at home and to help create the best possible learning environment.

However, this article is about stress and in particular, about stress as it relates to teachers. Too often teachers experience stress that stems from parents who do not fully embrace the role of a parent that supports the child’s learning and development. A parent who causes stress is a parent who:
  • Forgets to bring the child’s lesson materials (or does not plan for this contingency by checking whether the student has remembered to put the lesson materials in the book bag.
  • Forgets to check on whether the child is practicing, or in the case of younger children, forgets to actually practice with the child.
  • Forgets to plan or schedule lessons, practice sessions, or other activities related to lessons.
  • Creates masterful excuses as to why the parent should not play a role in the child’s learning.
  • Creates masterful excuses as to why the parent did not execute the teacher’s practice assignment, including the excuse of “I told him to practice, but [he didn’t],” as in “”it’s his fault, not mine {even though my child is 3 years old}.”
  • Thinks of music (violin) lessons as another activity that the parent can “throw “ at the child, in the hopes that the child will grow in development (in a good way): “We do not know what the child will excel at, so let’s just try lots of different things and see what sticks."

I am a follower of the Suzuki Way. I believe that everyone has talent and that ability stems from development and practice. Hence, I developed my parent course to teach parents to be better parents and teachers in the home.

But, this post started out as a post about stress. What does this diatribe have to do with stress?

Believe it or not, what I described to you above contributes to the “big disconnect” between parents and teachers. Recently I met with a wonderful teacher at a neighboring university about a young high school student I taught at a summer music camp. I had a great picture of the student’s potential, but the student’s private teacher told me a story that shed a different light, and this sort of thing is what causes teacher stress.

The student had a lot of potential. He needed a “kick in the pants.” Unfortunately, he was not getting the necessary kick in the tush. Oh yes, his teacher did what she could, but she received no help from the family support system. Even sadder, I learned that the child’s parent was a professional musician. I have to wonder about the psychological reasons that support the parent’s lack of “music parenting” for this child.

When a teacher faces yet another lesson with a student who has nothing to bring to the lesson, the teacher is faced with the decision to throw out the preconceived lesson plan, come up with a new plan “on the fly,” steel him- or herself to live through the half-hour or hour lesson with little energy flow in return for the teaching energy expended, and to face a parent who can justify the situation with whatever lame excuse. THIS CAUSES TEACHER STRESS!

Teaching should be a partnership, not just between the teacher and the student, but also between every other important adult in the child’s or student’s life. Usually that other adult is the parent, even though teenagers like to show different. So when there is no partnership, then the teacher experiences stress. By the time the summer begins, the teacher experiences a great deal of the effects of stress. It is time to regroup and re-evaluate.

This is why I go away for a few weeks in early August. I have performed with the Sunriver Music Festival in Oregon since 1984. I use this time as a personal retreat. I will leave on my retreat in two weeks, and I have great plans for my retreat agenda. This is my goal-setting time, when I recharge my batteries and reflect on the past year and what is to come. This is when I catch up with some of my paperwork that is related to the start of the university semester. This is when I sit on top of a mountain or beside a large ocean, and when I consider my small role in a larger universe. [This is also where I celebrate my birthday].

Please comment below about the areas of your life that cause you stress, especially as they relate to teaching or parenting. Everything we share with each other will help to grow all of us.

Next week on Monday Morning Check In: Ways to Combat Stress (or how to handle it).


  1. wonderful post! I have had several parent/teacher issues in my studio lately. And your blog is lovely!

    1. Here's a story for you: yesterday I saw a family who recently came back from vacation. Right before they left, when they were probably at their most stressed to get ready for vacation (funny how that is), I had a stern conversation with the parent because of a very strong negative attitude that was polluting the lesson and I suspect the practice sessions at home. I felt awful afterward, and I fully expected the parent to "fire" me in the days that followed. However, the parent came to lesson yesterday and THANKED me instead and agreed that I had been right. Wow! We had such a great lesson too!

  2. Yes, I would say my biggest cause of stress as a teacher has been parent issues!

    1. Isn't that usually the way? Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your continued support.

  3. To hear someone else talk about this helps get focus on what is really going on in a student's lesson and what needs to be done. Discussion is always great for seeing things differently and seeing solutions. It give us perspective and helps to identify the problem when we hear about what someone else is going through.

    Yes, record keeping is also my big challenge and especially for those who don't really know how to keep records. I turned over a new leaf with a very large new receipt book and lost it after it was half way full. My log of payments is by the lesson and then I realized it would be better to arrange it some other way than having to page through week after week to find out if a student had paid. I'm still trying to teach myself. I will check out the site you mentioned.

    I'm thinking about ways to confront students without being too mean and still trying to let them know that I won't allow them to get away with not working. The other day a new student came for the 2nd time without preparing variation B so we fixed it in the lesson then I told her it had taken 20 minutes which made the point to her by implication that she could have done this easily on her own in 20 minutes. I also mentioned your method of checking off assignments for students to make an A and her mother was enthusiastic about this method of showing her exactly what to work on so from now on I will create columns with each specific goal.

    How to confront is a constant challenge and the goal is not to hurt but to make them aware and educate them to what is expected. I find it hard to not become a door mat and send them the wrong message by being too ready to teach the same lesson over again for another week.

    My personal stress this last few weeks however had to do with playing with a group that is already am established group. I was invited to improvise my own parts with the group by one of the members. I could tell that the soloist singers were worried about how their solos would be effected when I tried out improvising on the spot and got their glances and even one person said "no violin" and I was mortified. When they put a very live microphone on me when I was still trying to work it out I really felt on the spot. By the concert the stress overwhelmed me and I was an emotional basket case and glad it was over. The tension reached a head as the concert was underway and I couldn't help but cry through some of it, but then got through it once it was my turn to play and had my mind on playing instead. This is why your blog is timely. This has been the most stressful few weeks in a very long time. Perfect timing as I came into the library and turned right to your blog.

    1. WOW, Kathy, you really had a bad week! What an ordeal to step in and "make up" your contribution on the spot. What was that group thinking? I understand that situation completely! So glad it is now over for you, and I bet you'll think twice about doing something like that again. Of course, if you were to try it a 2nd time, you already be on the road to getting good at it by practicing it. I recall one Parelli instructor (horse woman) who told me that our comfort zone is surrounded by a larger circle area, which represents our "not in the comfort zone." It is in this area that we truly learn anything. Your situation, however, seemed to occur even further outside that "no comfort zone," and that circle contains fear, stress, and worry. This is not the place to learn anything. Hang in there. Next monday I will write about stress busters, and I have a great website to suggest with a free stress toolkit.

  4. Wow, Paula. I am SO grateful for this blog, and this blog post in particular!!! Can't wait to see what your parent training is like as well.

    Thank you for sharing yourself - as you do so, you are sure to help others!


    1. Hi, Kate! Thanks for your comment! I really appreciate your taking the time to write something in response to something I have created. I hope to finish my parent training next month. That's the plan, anyway, but you know, I have to be careful about those stress-causing deadlines too!

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