Cellphone Serenity

Ah, the convenience of modern technology. Those smartphones can be so useful to the teacher during the lesson. I use mine to take photos. I tell my students that their position is so perfect that I’m going to take a photo of them for myself – and send a copy to their parents. They are so proud when I do this. I also offer to take a video if an older student doesn’t come equipped with a mother and a phone that can do this (it happens) and send it to them via one of those marvelous apps. I can make a video of a student playing with poor posture and then with good posture and show him the difference.  I also use my tablet with the music apps so I can keep all my scores and parts in one very small and convenient place and, being connected to wi-fi, can make corrections and send them to the student via email in case she “forgets” to bring the right part with her that day. And the apps for metronomes and tuning? Ah yes, I don’t know what I would do without my smartphone. And it also serves for me to receive urgent telephone calls from parents who have suddenly discovered their child has a fever and can’t come to lesson. It also is useful in case of family emergencies. Or text messages telling me that a student is delayed but arriving.

Yes, I love my smartphone. Thank heavens I have it at lessons and am connected to my server and wi-fi. I am smart enough to know that I shouldn’t be talking casually on the phone during the lesson. No one has to remind me of this. I am an adult, after all. But on rare occasion I have to take phone calls – for example, when my doctor calls me about something important (I have had issues), or my daughter tells me she has gone into labor so I can worry about her appropriately (this happens rarely). So why is it as a teacher, I should feel entitled to tell all the parents of my students that they can’t have their smartphones or use them during lesson time? Are they not adults, too?

But how can we deal with parents who (ab)use those pesky cell phones during lesson time?

Here are some suggestions gleaned from various internet forums:

  • Require all parents to turn off their cell phones when they enter your studio. This certainly achieves the goal of cellphone peace, but what if there’s an emergency and no one can contact them because they can’t have their phones on? Do you really want that responsibility?
  • Have a basket by the door in which parents deposit their cell phones for group lessons. Achieves the same purpose as the above, but in this day of ever more sophisticated and expensive cell phones, should we treat them like a pair of galoshes or an umbrella? Parents can’t be trusted even to have them on their person? Some parents are busy professionals, some have other children at home, some have ailing relatives, some have to take calls from their doctors or lawyers. Again, do you really want that responsibility?
  •  Put a sign on your studio door telling parents to turn off their cell phones and be present for their child. This is like accusing the parents of not ever being present for their children because they have cell phones in the first place. But with the above statement, you can accomplish the desirable result of making parents feel guilty – not a very difficult thing to do, for those of you who aren’t parents. Is this really your goal?
  •  Inform all your parents at orientation that their children need quality time (when you really mean no cell phones). I think I can safely say that all parents know this – the ones who want violin lessons for their children anyway. Among the reactions you may get to this may range from: “OMG, the scales have fallen from my eyes – I had no idea my children need me to spend time with them!!! Thank you so much for this totally new and revolutionary information!” – to making the meeker ones feel guilty which may make them easier to manage, but won’t help them help you any better. Do you really want to risk these reactions?
  •  Have your parents put their phones on airplane mode. This is a little more benign, but still, in my view, takes risks with other people’s lives. What happens outside the studio is, on occasion, more important to these parents than what’s going on in front of them. And who are we to judge? Again, do you really want that responsibility?

So what’s the common thread in all the above solutions? Teacher knows best, better than the parents, we can’t do our job properly if there are any interruptions, that the parents can’t do theirs either if there are any distractions, that parents are nothing more than slightly overgrown teenagers and must be kept in line or Lord knows what will happen. I’m a parent, too, and I can tell you that I would find all of the above solutions patronizing at best and insulting at worst.

There is also a rather uncomfortable question here which we might all ask ourselves when tempted to put in effect any of the above policies: do we want parents to pay attention to their children or to us teaching their children, that is, do we really want the child to be the center of attention, or do we want to be that center of attention? The temptation is strong. Most of us are performers and like the spotlight. So we should ask ourselves if requiring everyone to give up their connectivity may make us seem somewhat egocentric in parents’ eyes, even though we may have convinced ourselves that we really want what’s best for the student. A little reflection on this wouldn’t hurt any of us.

So, what can we do to achieve cellphone serenity?

While it may be true that we know what’s best for the student and the student’s family, or the best way to take a lesson, there is a way to achieve our goals without the rules and regulations that most parents thought they left behind in middle school. I have noticed in the past a lot of moaning from teachers not being “respected” but in these above solutions, I see very little respect for the parents as fully competent adults. Therefore, if you take the advice of some of the less militant teachers in these forums and employ respect and tact in dealing with parents, you may accomplish a lot more with very little effort.

Respect means recognizing that someone else may have a valid point of view that is different from your own, may have needs in the moment that are more important than your need for their attention (no matter how well-intentioned you are), or that their helping you to do your best job is not always their first priority for reasons that are very important to them. It also means no patronizing.

Tact is what you use to convince them to see things your way. That and logic. Laying a guilt trip on parents is not effective in the long run. Making them feel infantile, rude and stupid isn’t either. But getting them to understand that whatever you are asking them to do (or not do) is in their best interests, is going to get you what you want. That’s what salesmanship is: convincing someone that they need what you’re selling and it’s in their best interests to do as you ask. You give them a choice. You treat them like they can make decisions. Point out, if necessary, that they are paying you a lot of money for your advice, so the more they can take advantage of it, the easier and more profitable everything is going to be for them and their child.

This is something anyone can understand. We can explain to them that the closer attention they pay to the lesson, the more they get for their money. That this is an excellent opportunity to form an even closer bond with their child. We can use whatever argument that seems pertinent at the time in a respectful way. We can also ask them to silence their phones’ ringers and if they must take a phone call, then please leave the room (something all my parents do without my asking). You can ask them if they had heard that fantastic G major scale their offspring just played and ask him to do it again for the distracted mother, without implying she isn’t doing her job: “You did that so well, I want you to do it again for your mother!” In short, there’s a lot we can say to help parents help us and their children without making them feel like we are talking down to them.

I remember life before cell phones (AKA the Dark Ages). I even taught then and I find now that parents of young students are still very attentive to the lesson, even with their fully operational demon cell phone in their possession. And if they do become distracted, it’s quite easy to get their attention back if I need it. The older ones don’t usually need mom’s undivided attention anyway. In any case, cell phones are not going away and we have to find a way to accommodate modern needs without becoming draconian. Treating them as toys for overgrown children instead of as a necessity for busy parents is not going to make things better.

After all, do we want collaboration or obedience? Flexibility or rigidity? A relaxed environment or one where people are afraid to break the rules? Do we want an equilateral triangle or a dictatorship? Even on airplanes, where leaving cell phones on could be dangerous, they don’t collect them as you board. They trust that you have the good sense to want to arrive at your destination in one piece. Can’t we extend the same benefit of the doubt to our students’ parents? And deal tactfully with those who haven’t fully absorbed our studio etiquette?

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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29 April 2019

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