RTRL.65: Reported Self-care Practices of Music Educators (Kelley et al., 2021)


Kelley, J., Nussbaum, K., Crawford, M. O., Critchfield, J. B., Flippin, S. H., Grey, A. N., & Mahaffey, C. R. (2021). The reported self-care practices of music educators. Journal of Music Teacher Education. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/10570837211056615

What did the researchers want to know?

What are the reported self-care practices of K-12 music teachers, and do they vary by teaching experience, age, gender, or level of instruction?

What did the researchers do?

Kelley et al. surveyed 337 K-12 music teachers in a southwestern U.S. state on their personal and professional self-care practices. Personal self-care includes behaviors that promote well-being, interpersonal connections, physical wellness, and leisure while professional self-care includes work-related behaviors like building professional knowledge, developing professional support systems, and work-life balance. (See table below for a full list of survey items.) Participants rated their agreement for each item on a 5-point scale (5 = strongly agree, 1 = strongly disagree) to indicate the degree to which they do or do not engage in each self-care behavior. (In other words, the closer the rating was to “5”, the more the teacher reported engaging in that behavior).

What did the researchers find?

In terms of personal self-care behaviors, the most highly-rated items were “I spend time with family or friends” (average rating= 4.34) and “I spend time with people whose company I enjoy” (average rating= 4.31). The lowest-rated personal self-care item was “I take time off when I am not feeling well” (average rating = 2.70). Participants also rated other physical and health-related items similarly low.

The most highly-rated items for professional self-care behaviors were “I participate in activities that promote my professional development” (average rating = 4.26) and “I find ways to stay current in professional knowledge” (average rating = 4.26). The lowest rated item was “I avoid over-commitment to work responsibilities” (average rating 2.79).

Kelley et al. also calculated composite scores for personal self-care, professional self-care, and total self-care by adding up the scores for the items in each category. Out of a total of 140 possible points, the average score for total self-care was 104.16. Overall, teachers reported engaging in more professional self-care than they did personal self-care. Specifically, “participants indicated the lowest levels of engagement in common self-care practices within the physical subcategory. Most participants indicated they continue to work when they do not feel well, do not maintain a physical activity routine or a healthy diet, do not take regular breaks during the workday, and over-commit to work responsibilities” (p. 8).

The researchers also conducted statistical analysis to see whether self-care differed by age, years of teaching experience, gender, or level of instruction (elementary vs. secondary). They found weak correlations between age and self-care and between years of experience and self-care, meaning that older teachers and/or teachers with more experience were slightly more likely to practice more self-care than younger teachers and/or those with less experience. There were no significant differences in self-care between male and female teachers or between elementary and secondary teachers.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Particularly in times of extreme stress, it is important that teachers engage in personal self-care behaviors. Given that Kelley et al. found teachers are more likely to engage in professional self-care behaviors than personal, it is important for teachers to consciously choose to commit time to taking care of themselves, both physically and emotionally. Most teachers are extremely passionate about what they do and are constantly striving to improve the learning experiences they provide for their students. However, given the extreme and prolonged stress of teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic, teachers must prioritize their own health and well-being. If this means temporarily dialing down efforts to advance their professional expertise, so be it! As the researchers clearly state, “we do not advocate for an additive solution to promote self-care” (p. 9). School districts should not add requirements for teachers to complete training on self-care. Instead, music teachers and music teacher educators should be encouraged and empowered to model “purposeful self-care, to promote healthy boundaries and work-life balance, and to embrace values of self-care over self-sacrifice” (p. 9).

I spend time with family or friends. (social)4.34
I spend time with people whose company I enjoy. (recreation)4.31
I make a conscious effort to appreciate positive things in my life. (psychological)4.31
I seek out activities or people that encourage and/or comfort me. (social)4.04
I find ways to cultivate a sense of social connection in my life. (social)3.84
I share my feelings with others during stressful times in my life. (psychological)3.79
I seek guidance or counseling when necessary. (psychological)3.45
I see a doctor or other medical professional when I have health concerns. (physical)3.43
I participate in physical exercise (physical)3.38
I make an effort to get enough sleep each night. (physical)3.37
I take some time for relaxation each day. (psychological)3.33
I eat a balanced and healthy diet. (physical)3.17
I make physical activity part of my regular routine. (physical)3.14
I take time off when I am not feeling well. (physical)2.70
I find ways to stay current in professional knowledge. (professional development)4.26
I participate in activities that promote my professional development. (professional development)4.26
I monitor my feelings and reactions to students and colleagues. (professional psychological)4.16
I cultivate professional relationships with my colleagues. (professional social)4.15
I confide in a trusted colleague regarding work-related stressors. (professional social)4.08
I try to reduce stress by proactively navigating challenging situations in my professional work. (professional psychological)3.99
I anticipate situations which may cause me stress at work. (professional psychological)3.98
I tell colleagues about positive workplace experiences. (professional social)3.96
I maintain a professional support system. (professional social)3.89
I make personal connections on campus to avoid feeling isolated. (professional social)3.70
I connect with organizations in my professional community that are important to me. (professional development)3.66
I choose to participate in school-related social and community events. (professional social)3.52
I take breaks throughout the workday. (work-life balance)3.14
I avoid over-commitment to work responsibilities. (work-life balance)2.79
Table 1: Survey Items and Average Responses

RTRL.22: Nurturing Safety for LGBTQ Students (Palkki & Caldwell, 2018)


Palkki, J., & Caldwell, P. (2018). “We are often invisible”: A survey on safe space for LGBTQ students in secondary school choral programs. Research Studies in Music Education, 40(1), 28-49.

What did the researchers want to know?

What is the nature of the role secondary choral programs play in creating safe space for LGBTQ students?

What did the researchers do?

Palkki and Caldwell surveyed 1,123 collegiate choral students from the U.S. and Canada who identified as members of the LGBTQ population. The survey included a variety of Likert-type items as well as open-ended questions pertaining to participants’ experiences as LGBTQ singers in middle school and high school choirs. 

What did the researchers find?

Quantitative data analysis indicated that high school choral programs were more strongly perceived as safe spaces for LGBTQ students than middle school programs, and respondents reported feeling safer expressing their LGBTQ identities in their high school choral programs. Through qualitative analysis of open-ended responses, Palkki and Caldwell found that “the overwhelming message … was that the singers wanted choral conductor-teachers to acknowledge and/or discuss LGBTQ issues in the choral music classroom…. Participants believed that if choral educators did not discuss [matters of gender identity and sexuality] in a culture and schools that are heteronormative and cisgender-centric, that they were not open and accepting” (p. 35). Without specifically addressing LGBTQ issues, general “no-bullying/zero-tolerance” policies were not effective in helping students feel safe and supported by the teacher. Numerous respondents indicated that directors’ failure to confront homophobic slurs hindered students’ sense of safety. Conversely, having teachers “come out” as allies for LGBTQ students is extremely encouraging. Inclusion of LGBTQ topics in the curriculum, such as LGBTQ composers/lyricists, can be “symbolic and influential” (p. 37). Additionally, “LGBTQ students may feel excluded from experiences and conversations in which they do not see themselves represented” (p. 38), such as exclusively heteronormative language or lyrics. 

What does this mean for my classroom?

Unless we make it explicitly clear to our students that our classroom is a safe space for LGBTQ individuals, they are likely to assume it’s not. Here are some suggestions based on Palkki and Caldwell’s findings:

  • Display a “safe space” sticker or sign in your classroom or on your office door, such as this printable one from GLSEN. One of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents commented, “It might sound silly, but the ‘safe space’ sticker makes all the difference in the world. Even if you don’t talk about it to that teacher, knowing they won’t tolerate any negativity about that makes a world of emotional difference” (p. 37). 
  • Be sensitive and thoughtful when choosing music, consciously considering the feelings and experiences of your queer and gender non-conforming students. As described by one of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents, “heteronormativity in songs is very troubling. And the way that traditional worship songs and outdated homophobia are linked together made singing worship songs very uncomfortable for me” (p. 38). 
  • Rethink gendered language. For example, one of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents noted, “A trope that has become standard choral parlance of referring to TB voices as ‘men’ and SA voices as ‘women’ is EXTREMELY CISSEXIST IN NATURE [capitalization in original] and [makes] me as a transperson singing in a choir feel very awkward and uncomfortable” (p. 40). Instead of referring to singers as men/women, they could be referred to by their voice parts (e.g., treble voices, sopranos and altos, etc.).
  • Choose concert attire that will allow all students to be comfortable. Avoid traditional “gendered” performance uniforms, instead opting for concert black or providing several uniform options from which students can choose. In the words of one of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents, “forcing everyone with a vagina to wear a dress is bullshit” (p. 40).
  • Include LGBTQ topics in your classroom. One of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents suggested, “When a piece by a queer composer is done, or if the text is written by someone queer, mention it. Show queer youth that, yes, this beautiful work was written by someone who is queer. Allow their dreams to be as infinite and indestructible as non-queer kids” (p. 38).


RTRL.08: “An Examination of Music Teacher Job Interview Questions” (Juchniewicz, 2016)


Juchniewicz, J. (2016). An examination of music teacher job interview questions. Journal of Music Teacher Education, 26(1), 56-58.

What did the researcher want to know?

What do principals think are the most important questions to ask when interviewing prospective music teachers? Does a principal’s school level, setting, or years of experience affect which interview questions they believe are more important?

What did the researcher do?

Juchniewicz surveyed 405 principals in North Carolina via an online questionnaire. Respondents were asked to rate the importance of 27 given interview questions and were provided an opportunity to list any additional questions they believed were important.

What did the researcher find?

The top three interview questions rated as most important by principals overall were:

  • “How will you connect with your students?”
  • “Tell me what I’ll see happening in your classroom.”
  • “How would you make sure students are successful in music?” 

This table shows the rankings and mean ratings of the top 20 most important interview questions (p. 62):


Principals rated each question on a 5-point scale
(1 = “not important at all” to 5 = “very important”).

Perceived importance of questions did not vary significantly by principals’ school level (elementary, middle school, or high school), setting (urban, suburban, or rural), or years of experience (5 or more years or less than 5 years). Among the free responses provided, “integrating other subjects into the music classroom” and “team player/colleague” emerged as common themes.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Regardless of whether you are applying for a music teaching job in an elementary, middle, or high school or in an urban, suburban, or rural area, certain questions are likely to be asked in the interview.  “Music teacher candidates should pay particular attention and be prepared to respond to several of the interview questions … rated as very important by principals of the present study” (Juchniewicz, 2016, p. 66).

RTRL.07: “Teachers’ Beliefs Regarding Composition in Elementary General Music” (Shouldice, 2014)


Shouldice, H. N. (2014). Teachers’ beliefs regarding composition in elementary general music: Definitions, values, and impediments. Research Studies in Music Education, 36(2), 215-230.

What did the researcher want to know?

How do elementary music teachers define composition, what relationships exist between their beliefs about the importance of composition and their use of composition, why do they believe composing is valuable, and what prevents them from incorporating more composition in their classrooms?

What did the researcher do?

Shouldice surveyed 176 elementary general music teachers from across Michigan via an online questionnaire, which included items such as the following:

  • Please describe the characteristics of music composition. (e.g., What is composition? What does it entail?) 
  • Why do you feel composition is or isn’t important for elementary music students? 
  • What influences your decision to NOT incorporate composition in elementary general music? (OR what influences you to not incorporate composition more frequently?) 

What did the researcher find?

Definitions of Composition:

Many teachers agreed that composition involves creating, self-expression, and replication.  However, they differed in their beliefs about the complexity of composition and/or whether it requires notation.  While some teachers believed that composition involves the creation of a complete piece of music, others believed it could be as simple as creating a melody or an ostinato pattern.  Similarly, while some believed that composition by nature involves the notating of musical ideas, others believed it could be strictly aural/by ear.

Use and Importance/Value of Composition:

Teachers’ use of composition increased with grade level.

There was a positive correlation between teachers’ beliefs about the importance of composition and their use of composition.  Teachers who believed composition was more important were more likely to include it in their teaching and to do so more frequently than teachers who believed composition was less important.  Many teachers expressed beliefs that composition is valuable because it helps students develop, demonstrate, and apply their understanding of musical concepts and skills; develops creativity; allows self-expression; and lets students take ownership of their music-making.

Impediments to Composition:

When asked what keeps them from doing more composing with their students, many teachers mentioned time (amount of contact time with students and/or feeling that composition takes too long).  Another common struggle cited was logistics, including large class sizes and a lack of resources (e.g., instruments, technology).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Elementary music teachers who don’t believe composition is important may be less likely to provide their students with composing experiences.  Therefore, helping teachers see the value of composing may increase the likelihood they will teach it!  Click below to view a presentation slide deck for this study, which includes direct quotes from teachers who participated about why they believe composition is important:

Teachers’ conceptions of composition likely influence whether, when, and/or how they teach it.  Given that more teachers in this study incorporated composing into later grade levels than early grade levels, it might be because many believe composition must be complex and/or notated, whereas teachers who incorporate composing in early grade levels may be more likely to do so in simple, aural/ear-based ways.

Broadening teachers’ conceptions of composition may help alleviate perceived impediments.  How might elementary music teachers incorporate composing in ways that are simple, quick, don’t involve notation, and don’t require instruments/technology? 

Ideas for Aural Composition:

Composing a Melody for a Familiar Chant:
  1. Review a familiar chant, such as “Engine, Engine” while moving to big/little beats.
  2. Choose and establish tonality and sing several tonal patterns for the class to echo. Then invite students to improvise a tonal pattern that is different from yours. Repeat several times to “get the musical juices flowing.”
  3. Invite students to improvise tonal patterns to use in the song, practicing each phrase as it is created. (Tip: I find it helpful to notate/dictate students’ ideas on the board as they create them so that I can help them retain/replicate their melody.)
Sample class melody for the chant “Engine, Engine”
Composing a Melody for a Poem:
  1. Choose a simple poem (like “The Mule” below). Have the class try chanting the chosen poem in duple meter while moving to big/little beats. Then try chanting the poem in triple meter while moving to big/little beats. Invite the class to vote to choose meter.
  2. After deciding the meter, try chanting the poem while teacher accompanies with I/V chords in major tonality. Then try chanting while teacher accompanies with I/V chords in minor tonality. Invite the class to vote to choose tonality.
  3. Optional: Sing a few tonic/dominant tonal patterns in the chosen tonality for the class to echo. Then ask the class to sing back a few patterns that are different from yours. (I find that this step helps prepare the students to improvise melodically in the next step.)
  4. Invite the class to try improvising pitches for “Voice of the mule” as a group. Invite an individual student to share their idea, and have the class echo. Have class sing again and then add on a group improvisation for “bray.” Invite another individual student to share an idea, and have the class try echoing. Continue adding on new improvisations until you have an entire composed melody! (Tip: I find it helpful to notate/dictate students’ ideas on the board as they create them so that I can help them retain/replicate their melody.)


“The Mule” by Douglas Florian

Voice of the mule: bray.

Hue of the mule: bay.

Fuel of the mule: hay.

Rule of the mule: stay.

Melody for “The Mule” composed by one 3rd grade class
Another version of “The Mule” composed by a second 3rd grade class

Shout-out to Jennifer Bailey, music teacher in the Farmington (MI) Public Schools, for this idea! Visit Jennifer’s website (www.singtokids.com) for more great teaching ideas.

Any children’s poem can work for this composition project, but Jennifer shared with me the poems of Douglas Florian, featured in books such as Beast Feast, Mammalabilia (which includes “The Mule”), and Insectlopedia After composing a few as a class, I would then let the students work in small groups to choose a poem and create a melody for it using the same process. I would give the students this checklist I created as a guide:

Once each group decided on their poem, I highlighted the text using two colors to indicate a harmonic progression. One color represented tonic and the other represented dominant. The groups would use the color-coding to play chords (on a Q-chord, iPad in Garage Band, etc.) when choosing their tonality and composing their melody. Here is an example of a color-coded poem:

Because this project took several days to complete, the groups would record their progress with an audio-recording device (e.g., small digital audio recorder, voice memos, etc.) at the end of each class and then listen to their recording at the beginning of the next class to get their melodies back in their heads. When the groups were done, they recorded a final version of their melody, which I uploaded to our music program website and also burned onto CDs for each student, titling the album “John Doe Elementary School’s Carnival of the Animals.” Here is a video of one group practicing their composition:

Third grade students working on their small group composition

Here is their finished audio recording:

Here is another group’s version of the same poem (Douglas Florian’s “The Tiger”):

Poem (“The Tiger”) by Douglas Florian, Melody by 3rd grade students

And here is one more final version of another poem (Douglas Florian’s “The Whale”):

Poem (“The Whale”) by Douglas Florian, Melody by 3rd grade students
Other Simple Composing Ideas?
  • Have students create a four-beat rhythm (chant on “bah” or play on an unpitched percussion instrument) to perform as a rhythmic ostinato to accompany a song/chant. (For more challenge/extension, have students add rhythm syllables to their ostinato and/or notate it.)
  • Combine a created rhythm with the bassline/chord roots to a familiar song to create a harmonic accompaniment. (For more on basslines/chord roots and teaching them, see this post.)
  • Create a variation of a familiar song by improvising a new tonal pattern to replace a repeated pattern in a song.

For many more ideas as well as how to help better prepare your elementary students for composing, see my book chapter:

Shouldice, H. N. (2018). Audiation-based improvisation and composition in elementary general music. In S. Burton & A. Reynolds (Eds.), Engaging musical practices: A sourcebook for elementary general music (pp. 113-134). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.