Dance teacher burnout and how to avoid it

Part of a dance teacher’s job is to be passionate and engaged and sometimes this can lead to over commitment of time and energy leading to stress.  It’s ok to experience stressful times, however it’s the inability to recover after the busy time is over that is of concern for many dance teachers.

avoiding dance teacher burnout

All teacher’s job demands are fluid, they ebb and flow with the school term.  Dealing with stress is about building resilience.  But, more importantly, we need to be able to identify when the stress is too much and prioritise selfcare.  In addition, dance teachers need support for teacher wellbeing from the school community and sufficient resources to ensure teacher welfare.

This week I talked with a group of ten Primary and Secondary dance teachers about their experiences working in schools.  These teachers came from both the private and public sector and from several different countries, working with a range of curriculum.

What came out of these conversations was a feeling that the role of the dance teaching artist in education is becoming more stressful and that, although there are some wonderful best practice models, many dance teachers will experience burnout at some point in their professional life.

The teachers interviewed asked to remain anonymous but were extremely generous with their time and very frank about the difficulties experienced as a part of their teaching practice.

Setting the scene for stress

Internationally COVID 19 has exacerbated many of the teaching stressors. These may include the demands of online delivery of lessons, fluctuations in their teaching environment, necessity for adaption to unknown technological based pedagogies and unplanned lesson delivery.

Teachers have become frontline workers in many schools around the world creating even more uncertainty and anxiety.

Teachers are often asked to adapt to changes, but how well they cope in changing stressful situations is in part determined by their belief that the change is necessary and significant.  Whether they resist or support changes in their environment is largely reliant on these beliefs. (Kin & Kareem, 2018)

Dance activitiesIn 2020, teachers were unable to resist massive changes to how they delivered lessons and in some teaching situations experienced inadequate support to do so. The uncertainty, and lack of corroborating evidence from peers or reliable research, that a range of new technology would be appropriate for their students, created the perfect storm of stressors.

Many dance teachers felt they were less effective teachers implementing these new technologies than they were in a face-to-face delivery experiencing ‘technostress’.  This lack of confidence and belief went a long way towards placing undue stress on dance teachers who were, in many cases, already struggling with the demands of the job.

However, as difficult as the past twelve months has been for dance education teachers, it only highlighted the burden of teaching an art form that requires high levels of emotional and physical commitment.  The emergency action of the pandemic brought to light that dance teachers were often feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, unable to say ‘no’ and unsupported or acknowledged by their peers or school community.

In talking with the teachers from both Primary and Secondary settings, it was obvious that the children and the curriculum were not the main stressors.  The causes of burnout were far more complex and ‘just coping’ was a reality within the profession.

High levels of stress over a prolonged time frame, without some respite, results in teacher burnout.

What is dance teacher burnout?

In the 1970’s, the term ‘burnout’ was identified in professions that were committed to high morals and dedication, where employees often sacrificed themselves for the benefit of others.  The teaching profession would have to be the posterchild for this, with its high levels of accountability, increased time commitment outside working hours and ongoing professional development obligations.

The signs of burnout in dance teachers include:
  1. High levels of exhaustion, both emotional and physical
  2. Cynicism
  3. Feelings of professional inadequacy.

(Maslach et al., 2001)

The teachers I talked to for this article agreed that these three symptoms are often present when teaching dance in schools.

Contributing factors in dance teacher burnout

  1. New job demands without removing other work tasks
  2. Time spent on administration rather than detailed lesson planning
  3. Unplanned changes to schedules
  4. Lack of opportunities for breaks throughout the day due to rehearsals and extracurricular dance activities like competitions and performances
  5. Time pressure (pedagogical goals, meeting needs of students with diverse needs)
  6. Behaviour management
  7. A poor sense of community and social interactions with students and colleagues
  8. Impact of work-family conflict – keeping work at work

(Rajendran, Richardson, et al, 2020 and Arvidsson, Leo et al, 2019)

What’s the problem?

The majority of the teachers interviewed had thought that their own health and well being was their own responsibility and had not raised it as an issue with the school, their Heads of Department or gone to seek health advice until they were experiencing burnout.  The dance teachers saw themselves as strong, independent, reliable, conscientious, and capable.

Some teachers even failed to acknowledge they were burned out until after they had resigned from the position.  Opportunities to reflect on their own mental and physical wellbeing were covered up by the overwhelming nature of the job and their strong sense of responsibility to their students.

Dancers, as a result of their dance training, are disciplined and very diligent.  They maintain high levels of motivation even in the face of physical and emotional struggles.

This appears to be good attribute for dance teachers but highly detrimental to their ability to monitor their own stress and anxiety levels.  It is a contributing factor in dance teachers being challenged to say ‘no’ to the increasing demands that are placed on them in a school setting.

Rehearsals and extracurricular activities

The dance teachers identified that curriculum demands were achievable, but when combined with the pressure to produce high calibre performances for public viewing, that they are left to work extended hours and faced exhaustion.

“It just makes me feel really drained. Because you’re doing all of these productions and I’ve worked with a few schools that had these big expectations for productions. And you do it, and they love it. And then they (administration) don’t talk to you for the rest of the year. No one’s saying, ‘oh yeah, we’re going to reimburse you for your time, in any shape or form. You still have to do what everyone else is doing, plus all of this extra stuff (productions)”.  (Teacher 2, 2021)

dance teacher burnoutThis were common among early stage, mid-stage and experienced dance teachers and the consensus amongst the teachers was that there was a high expectation to not only cover curriculum content but to produce ‘dance extravaganzas’ throughout the school year.  This included dance competitions, public performances involving the whole school and involvement with local community performances.

The dance teachers identified that this was not restricted to the school musical or the Christmas production but ‘dance only performances’ at intervals across the year.

“I remember at one staff meeting, sitting there was about six weeks out from the Christmas concert, after being told to ‘knock up a dance’ for each grade to do. And I went, ‘One minute of choreography takes me about two hours of planning and thinking. But if you’ve got nine classes, you’re wanting me to create nine separate dances, that’s so much work outside before I even hit the classroom, and then you’re expecting me to teach that in the truncated half hour, which really only ends up being 20 minutes (for a dance class).  And when do I get paid commensurate for my skills?’ And that was met with deafening silence. Like, oh, we had no idea.” (Teacher 5, 2021)

Physical, emotional and mental demands

The research suggests that early career teachers seem more vulnerable to burnout (Brewer and Shapard, 2004).  However, there is an issue regarding the physical demands of the job for older, experienced teachers.

“…there’s so much I wanted to teach, so much I had to teach to get across in the curriculum. And then the pressures of the sausage factory and all the other things that go on with the children, their lives you have to deal with. It just became always pushing bricks uphill. And that’s incredibly tiring on your voice, on your mind. It would take me forever to unwind… that’s a lot on the body physically as well… my body started breaking down.” (Teacher 5, 2021)

One teacher identified feelings of being overwhelmed after a decade of teaching.  Her experience as a beginning teacher in a Primary school had been exhilarating and each challenge was something new.  However, each year the demands of the job became greater with a higher workload, more rehearsals, and increased administrative pressures.

avoiding teacher burnout

Physical and emotional exhaustion were common among all dance teachers in the interview however many pinpointed experiencing mental exhaustion.

“I was mentally exhausted.  Always thinking, ‘Okay, what am I teaching now? What am I jumping to now? What am I making? Being sure I’m covering everything? Have I explored that enough? Did I pick up on that kid’s cue and what they were saying?” (Teacher 5, 2021)

All of the Primary dance teachers identified that the lack of time to cover the curriculum was a contributing factor to their stress. They often only had twenty usable minutes to fulfill what needed at least 45 minutes to an hour to implement a rich arts program.

Bringing the children to and from the classroom, putting shoes on and off and feeling rushed throughout the day as they switch from one class to the next left the dance teachers feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.  They also identified that this frantic pace led to the children underrating their dance classes, putting them in the ‘not real learning’ category.

Dance and the school community

Many of the dance teachers also experienced an increase in workload as they felt they were constantly having to advocate for the Arts in the school and also in the broader school community.  This seemed to be particularly prevalent for those who were teaching in rural and remote areas.

They identified the need to be educating the whole community not just in their classrooms, about the power of the Arts as an academic and artistic subject.

“…you’re educating parents about the value of movement. The dance curriculum, for these kids, is as a way to express themselves… You’re not just teaching the kids it’s all the other stuff that comes with it.   …and so you’re either doing physical things or I’d spend my time writing things to put in the newsletters, or stuff for social media upload to the school site that lets parents and carers know the kids are doing this and why and the value of what they’re doing.  And this is how it sits alongside science or history. And so there’s that extra layer again, which I found exhausting…” (Teacher 5, 20201)

“I’m employed to teach kids, but I thought it was my duty to teach community. The place of dance in the school was so uncertain that I thought if I got the community onboard, Dance would have a more permanent place.  Also I’d have a job.“  (Teacher 3, 2021)

Having to justify their position at the school was not just a concern in relation to the community.  Many teachers felt they were underappreciated by their peers within the school.  The fact that many Primary schools use dance to give teachers non-contact time, indicts the position that they hold in the hierarchy of learning areas.

This lack of respect for the Arts by other teachers leads to toxic relationships in the staff room.  Some teachers reported being ‘frozen out’ of social events at the school and unsupported by Heads of Department when experiencing extreme teaching challenges.

Research points to the fact that the more exhausted and cynical teachers become, the less tolerant they are of new or even differing ideas, which acts to alienate them even further from their teaching communities. (Maslach et al., 2015).

How can we avoid dance teacher burnout?

dance teacher burnoutThe teachers that were interviewed all agreed that the school community was an important factor to coping with pressure.  Schools that had strong wellbeing strategies in place for their teachers were successful in building good peer relationships, open lines of communications between students and teachers, and healthy respect amongst all stakeholders.

Often teachers were provided with good resources within their classrooms to make their teaching environment more effective, but many dance teachers felt that issues that were not physical or directly related to student welfare were not addressed.

If a dance teacher is suffering from vocal strain or a physical injury it is far more likely to be dealt with by the school, than if they are exhausted and experiencing mental health issues.

  1. Nurture healthy coping behaviours – regulation of own thoughts and behaviour or collaboration with others or combination of both. (Pyhältö, K., Pietarinen, J., Haverinen, K. et al. 2020)
  2. Wellbeing related behaviour – for example work engagement and collegial relationships.
  3. Sharing motivating experiences with colleagues online to uplift each other as a broader dance community.
  4. Call a parent and tell them how good their child is – be really specific. This helps you feel good and is a great way of advocating for dance.
  5. Just smile more. Look purposefully for things in your teaching day that make you smile
  6. Take your own advice. What would you tell another teacher?
  7. Set limits – for everything!
  8. Check in on yourself. You often don’t recognise the signs until much too late. Mediation, mindfulness, journaling, and talking to others can help support this behaviour.
  9. Challenge negative thinking.
  10. Get outside. Find reasons to get out of the classroom through dance activities at school and at home.  Nature is healing.
  11. Avoid drugs and alcohol.

(Pyhältö, K., Pietarinen, J., Haverinen, K. et al. 2021)

Obviously, this is what you can do from a personal perspective, but it is important that wellbeing is a responsibility of administration, teaching community and the broader community.

How do we stay motivated?

Staying motivated throughout the year, despite mounting work pressures was another strategy that almost all the teachers agreed was essential to their wellbeing.  Avoiding procrastination, being productive and avoiding the distraction of ‘the shiny new thing’ were all named as helping to stay motivated.

Dance Choreography

Here are some other ideas.

  1. Take Brain breaks throughout the day. You do it with your students and you need them too.
  2. Mindfully remember why you are doing this job and what you love about your job.
  3. Do something you enjoy. Many dance teachers stated that they loved choreography and found they were most motivated when creating.  Keep remembering you are an artist not just a teacher.
  4. Get help from DTI! Each week there are new ideas for activities and lessons for dance teachers to use in their classes.
  5. Keep an “I feel good” list.
  6. Set up systems that save you time when the pace is frantic. You’ll thank yourself!
  7. Move more with joy.

Dance teachers should pause and consider their own welfare as often as they look out for their students.

Most of the dance teachers interviewed advised seeking out professional help long before you are considering leaving the profession.  If they’re not already doing it, encourage school leaders to put in place strategies that destigmatise mental health and be a role model for students about their own mental health.

Thanks go to the teachers who were interviewed for this article for their generosity of time, ideas and sage advice.

References

Arvidsson, I., Leo, U., Larsson, A.  (2019) Burnout among school teachers: quantitative and qualitative results from a follow-up study in southern Sweden. BMC Public Health 19, 655. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6972-1

Brewer, E. W., & Shapard, L. (2004). Employee burnout: a meta-analysis of the relationship between age or years of experience. Human Resource Development Review, 3(2), 102–123. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534484304263335.)

Kin, T.M. & Kareem, O.A. (2018). The relationship between emotional intelligence of school principals in managing change and teacher attitudes towards change. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 10.1080/13603124.2018.1481535

Maslach, C. (2015). Burnout, Psychology of. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition. 2, 929–932. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.26009-1929

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397–422. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.397

Pyhältö, K., Pietarinen, J., Haverinen, K. (2021) Teacher burnout profiles and proactive strategies. Eur J Psychol Educ 36219–242 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-020-00465-6

Rajendran, N., Watt, H. M. G., & Richardson, P. W. (2020). Teacher burnout and turnover intent. The Australian Educational Researcher47, 477-500. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13384-019-00371-x