Starting to teach is a scary proposition. We may see it as a help to label everything and everyone. That puts order into things and makes us feel a little better about our terrifying responsibility towards our charges. The problem is that while it may seem helpful to quantify everything and everyone to give ourselves a feeling of control over the situation, it isn’t doing our students much good.*
So, is there teaching without opinions? Of course there is!
First, in order to understand your students’ point of view a little better, ask yourself a few questions:
- Do you like it when you perceive someone has formed an opinion of you? Even a flattering one which can be hard to live up to?
- Do you like the feeling of having been categorized?
- How did you feel or react if a teacher did this to you and you felt you had no chance to change her mind?
But how, you might ask, can I teach if I don’t know what I am dealing with? The truth is you NEVER know what you are dealing with. This is what makes teaching exciting. Every student is a new adventure every time you see him. So accept and enjoy it. Wise teachers know this and feel comfortable with it. And those who don’t know this make everyone’s life miserable, including their own, as they cannot teach as well as they would like to.
So here’s what happens when you base your relationship with your students on opinions:
- The student plays something badly with, say, little sound or musicality.
- You hear this and come to the conclusion that the student has no talent, is timid, or whatever negative quality you would like to assign him.
- Your student perceives this (they all do) and gives up on himself, gets discouraged, receiving confirmation of his own worst fears.
- The student is unhappy and certainly does not improve much.
The teacher may be unhappy, too, but unfortunately there are teachers who use their opinions of their students in order to abdicate their responsibility – if the student IS that way, then there is nothing that can be done about it. End of story. Next, please.
I doubt that anyone who is reading this is so inclined, so here is teaching without opinions:
- Your student plays something badly,
- You hear what he is doing and do something about it.
No intermediate steps, no judgments, no recriminations, no wondering about your student’s DNA. Just go straight to solving the problem that is manifested by what the student DOES, not by what he IS. The advantages to this are many:
- You have saved lots of mental and emotional energy that you can now apply to solving the problem at hand.
- You are now in direct contact with your student and he is going to love it.
- You are now FREE. No more opinions, ideologies, didactics – you are dealing with what your student does and not what you or anyone else may think about him. This means you are free to break the rules if you deem it necessary (and it sometimes is – remember you are dealing with human beings, not the laws of physics).
I have come to the conclusion over the years that what a child (or any human being, myself included) really wants is to be seen for what he is in that moment and not what you think he is or what you want him to become. You can’t do this if you allow yourself to get caught up in categories, theories, ideas, opinions. The only way is to watch, observe, listen to, see, and hear what a student DOES without drawing any further conclusions as to his character, defects, faults, etc. Then everything becomes simple and easy. You let go of your life preserver of opinion and learn to swim. It can be scary not to have anything to hang onto, but freedom and independence are always scary, especially at first, but the alternative is totally unacceptable – imprisoning yourself and your student in the straitjacket of opinion.
* See “A Matter of Opinion,” Part 1.