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Music teachers sound alarm

·3 min read

Music teachers are reporting high levels of burnout amid a school year during which many have been displaced from their homerooms, faced ever-changing choir and instrument use restrictions, and repeatedly rushed to find online alternatives to ensembles.

A new study of well-being in the Manitoba profession found 84 per cent of teachers feel fatigued from work, while 47 per cent have considered early retirement or a change in their career, if not both, because of pandemic disruptions.

"I feel like I’m teaching with an arm tied behind my back," said Jordan Laidlaw, an elementary school music teacher in Winnipeg. "It’s certainly been challenging, and I think myself and many other teachers — music educators and non-music teachers alike, we’re all pretty tired."

Laidlaw and Sheelagh Chadwick, an associate professor of music education at Brandon University, are co-leading a series of research about the welfare of music teachers this year.

The duo polled 218 music teachers in Manitoba (there is an estimated 500 such specialized educators across the province) about their current job status, health and coping mechanisms, and outlooks on the future of arts programs via online survey, between Feb. 14 and April 5.

More than half of the respondents indicated they are teaching a new subject area this year, with about 88 per cent of these individuals saying they did not receive any professional development in the new area. Fifty-five per cent of teachers said they are not working in their usual music room.

Many arts rooms have been transformed into classrooms to accommodate physical distancing, which has led to music educators either being asked to teach other subjects or move instruction outside or onto a rolling cart that visits students.

The most recent pivot to remote learning has forced those still teaching music to find creative ways to teach their subject, which often relies on group playing and singing, neither of which can happen easily in a virtual classroom because of internet lags.

Both learning to use new means of delivery and playing new instruments — because public health restrictions have limited wind instrument use intermittently — have posed challenges.

"The resiliency and innovation from these teachers is just truly mind-boggling. That’s where the burnout is coming from," said Chelsey Hiebert, executive director of the Manitoba Band Association.

Some teachers have resorted to using buckets to teach students drums, while others who typically rely on wind instruments have taught themselves how-to play guitar via the internet, Hiebert said.

She said programs across the province, however, have suffered from drops in enrolment this year, which raises questions about the future of the 290 band programs that operated in Manitoba pre-pandemic.

A total of 77 per cent of respondents to the survey reported concern for the future of their music program.

The above stresses have prompted educators to spend more time preparing lessons at home, be sleep deprived, and use more cannabis and alcohol; other findings from Laidlaw and Chadwick’s research show walking, meditation, baking, Netflix and music have been forms of therapy.

Laidlaw, who counts himself lucky because he still has access to instruments and his usual classroom, said the aim of their research — survey, a questionnaire, and upcoming focus groups — is to advocate for continued government and school administrator support for music.

"Music teachers often feel that they are being put in a situation where they have to advocate for why music is important, why it should be in education. And this precarious situation that we’ve seen over the past (14) months has, on the one hand, highlighted what’s missing from schools when music isn’t there, and how invested teachers are," added Chadwick.

Despite all the disruptions, 77 per cent of teachers surveyed indicated their students remain engaged in music learning.

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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