MONTCLAIR, NJ — Anyone that’s ever stood at the front of a school classroom and led a middle school band through a round of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” knows that things can get loud. But to a music teacher, it’s a welcome noise… until it begins to make you literally get sick.
After years of teaching middle and high school band classes in Pennsylvania, Montclair resident Sandi Zellner was forced to find a new professional calling after a rare medical condition brought her educational career to a grinding halt.
Zellner is diagnosed with Syringomyelia and a Chiari malformation, a neurological condition caused by an anomaly in the shape of the skull. The condition required the talented flautist to undergo life-saving brain surgery in 2011, which ended successfully. But there was a price to her recovery… her job.
“The damage to my neurological system caused me to no longer be able to handle situations that are overly noisy or have multiple types of sounds in the same place,” Zellner told Patch.
Unfortunately, that’s something pretty common in band and orchestra classrooms, she said.
“My brain could no longer focus correctly or filter the sounds around me while I was in large group teaching environments and that would lead to me becoming nauseated or disoriented,” Zellner recalled.
It was a seismic change that left the seasoned educator scared and biting her lip with doubt.
“Coming to grips with the fact that I needed a new career to be able to support myself was a frightening experience,” Zellner said. “All of my prior training had prepared me for a very focused skill set and I was unsure of what I would do next.”
She ended up relocating with her family from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, eventually settling in Montclair. From there, she began volunteering at a Verona-based music education nonprofit, Little Kids Rock, which used a customer relationship management software program called Salesforce.
And that’s when her self-described journey as an “accidental admin” blasted off.
Shortly after receiving her first Salesforce certification, Zellner was hired as an administrator for a public school system. Today, she serves on the board at Rutgers University and works in an executive position at ConnectOne Bank.
“Now, with multiple certifications and a few years of hands-on experience, I am very happy in the work I do every day,” Zellner said.
Eventually, as time passed and some healing occurred, the classically trained flute player was even able to return to playing music again, finding a role with the Manhattan Wind Ensemble.
But it’s an experience that’s taught her to never fear asking people for help, she said.
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“Making a switch like this is hard but you don’t need to do it alone, and keeping it all to yourself isn’t good for your health,” Zellner emphasized. “While the learning materials are out there and you can make great strides learning new skills on your own, I highly recommend reaching out to those within the field you are interested in and your friends and family. Talk about your challenges, your successes, your fears and your goals.”
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