On a teaching site recently, I saw a post by a worried young instrumental teacher in a remote area who asked for help with her difficulties in teaching a neurologically atypical teenager who was also, for other reasons, an extremely difficult student. One experienced teacher gave her some excellent advice, telling her that this situation may be beyond her scope but still gave some excellent pointers on how to deal with it.
In closing however, he added the following:
“Your not being able to teach her is not your or her fault.” And “Not all teachers can teach all students and not all students can learn from all teachers.”
The first statement is downright discouraging – the absolute assumption that she is going to fail. The second is a truism that I have seen all over the place in various forms and gives us the excuse to shrug our shoulders and give up when faced with difficult and recalcitrant students.
What did the advice giver mean by ‘not be able to teach’ someone? Apparently when a teacher finds herself unable to teach what she wants to or what she thinks the student ought to learn. However, I have never seen a teaching situation where the student didn’t learn something, either positive or negative. And even the most difficult students also learn from any teacher. Whatever is being taught or learned may be completely different from whatever lesson plan the teacher had in mind, but may be exactly what the student needs. In situations like this, there is no success or failure in the usual sense, but there is teaching and learning on both parts. The teacher learns a whole lot about teaching unusual students and the student may learn whatever he needs to, no matter how little that may seem to be – if you’re paying attention and notice it. If the teacher is thinking in terms of succeeding or failing, whether or not she is able to teach that student, she is thinking of herself and not what she is doing, thinking about what she wants to achieve and not necessarily what the student needs.
What is failure, or not being able to teach someone anyway? “I, a violin teacher, am going to teach you the violin. If you don’t learn it the way I want you to or think you should, if you don’t overcome your problems (behavioral or otherwise), then I have failed.” Right?
Wrong. For me, it’s in the eyes of the beholder. Success and failure are not absolutes. There are lots of shades of gray. You can make up your own definition of success and but then that means you have to decide who is succeeding – or not. Also, do you measure your success or the student’s? How do you define your success – by how many pieces the student learns, if they learn anything at all (according to you)? Is teaching about you or the student? Is there ever really any “not being able to teach a student?”
If you feel you are out of your depth, of course it’s best to refer the student to another teacher. If you’re a physics teacher, it’s probably better not to teach history. If you’re a horn player, you probably shouldn’t teach the double bass. In this case, the teacher was trying to teach a child with seriously difficult to handle issues that were beyond what any didactics course could have prepared her for. The responder gave excellent advice but at the end tacked on the above phrases to console the teacher when (according to him) she would fail, i.e., would not able to teach this child: a discouraging and very limited and limiting attitude to have about teaching.
If someone is referred to you and you can’t handle the situation as effectively as you would like, then by all means send your student to someone with more experience or qualifications (I prefer the ones with experience). But what if you’re the only teacher in the area as above advice-asking teacher?
Here’s what I would advise a teacher facing a difficult situation. Continue reading