Difficult Student? Remember: You’re A Human Being First, A Teacher Second

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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 the above advice-asking teacher?

Here’s what I would advise a teacher facing a difficult situation. Continue reading

20 December 2018

How to Pick a Private Music Teacher for Your Child

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Parents of prospective music students often worry about how to pick an instrument and a teacher for their child. My immediate and instinctive answer to one parent who asked my opinion was, “Find a teacher you like and not care about what instrument she teaches. The teacher is more important than the instrument.” Heresy, you say. The commonly accepted way is for the parent, the student or the parent and student together to decide on an instrument and then go hunting for a teacher.

If you live in an enormous city where there are lots and lots of teachers of every ilk and instrument and you have no problems with money, time and transportation, then this is a good possibility. If, however, you live in a smaller center or have limited time and transportation at your disposal, then perhaps you had better think again.

You see, the real question is if you want someone to tell your child how to play an instrument or if you want someone to teach him. These are really two different things. You can divide teachers into two groups: the information givers and the midwives.

The Information Giver: There are lots of them around. They will tell you what they think you need to know and how to do it – and if you don’t or can’t do it, then so much the worse for you. Appearances can be deceiving as they often get spectacular results when they succeed – or rather when their students do. But take a look at how many students leave such a teacher’s studio, either having been sent away or leaving on their own because they and/or their parents feel they can’t live up to the teacher’s expectations. This kind of teacher will often have an excellent reputation. But, you have to ask yourself, reputation for what? If it’s for being “precise” and not accepting anything other than her idea of excellence, look out.

It all boils down to if you want someone who is interested in what she can do for your child or if you want someone who is interested in getting results. If the latter is your main interest, then the Information Giver may be perfect for you, but ask yourself if she is perfect for your child before you embark on the project of keeping this teacher happy. Because that’s what you will be doing. You will be spending a lot of your time and money trying to satisfy her. Her expectations are the center of her universe. She thinks that the music is all important, that the method or even the instrument and excellence in playing it are of the utmost consideration. But here the student comes last. How do I know this? I have had teachers like this, have had students who come to me from teachers like this, and have interviewed famous musicians who have had teachers like this who caused them great suffering.

The Midwife: This is a person who is interested in helping a child realize something important about and for himself. She is interested in helping a child learn to think and approach a problem. She wants your child to love music and playing it, but not at the expense of his psyche. Her bottom line is the well-being of your child, not her own. This means that she may put up with students no one else would. She may tolerate lack of practice and other common problems. Why? Because she knows that if she perseveres with her more difficult students, some of them will perk up and learn something important for them. She knows that she is giving more than instrumental lessons – she is giving life lessons. She just uses an instrument to do it.

Now I have made some gross generalizations here, and there are many subcategories that many teachers fall into and some even between the cracks. But these are the two essential categories to look out for. You want to know what is your prospective teacher’s mission statement, her mission in life. How can you know this? Ask her. Some teachers are surprisingly forthcoming about their goals and have no qualms about stating them.

There is another and better way, however. Continue reading

5 November 2018

Lesson Interrupted? How to Intercept Interference and Keep the Ball Rolling

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How do I stop parents from piping in and giving additional instructions to their children during the lesson?

Nowadays, many music teachers face this problem as we are encouraging, if not requiring, the parents of our students to be present at lessons. How to get parents to stop distracting their children with extra instructions and allow us to get on with our job?

First of all it’s important to remember that this isn’t about us or our authority. It isn’t a wrestling match to see who runs things. We may sometimes see such interruptions as disrespect for us or for the process. It isn’t. And even if it is, we gain nothing by interpreting it that way. As soon as we allow our egos to intervene, we are no longer seeing the situation clearly and can make a mistake, to the detriment of our students.

Let’s look at it from the point of view of the parent. Who has not had the following scenario at a lesson?

  1.  You ask Johnny a really difficult question like, “Where is the A string?”
  2.  He looks at you blankly.
  3.  Mother gets frustrated and jumps in with both feet.

This is completely understandable. Parents go to a lot of trouble to get lessons for their children. They don’t want to waste time or money, especially when they get from us so little of the former and give us so much of the latter. So they break in. It can be very frustrating to be a parent, to sit and watch your child struggle with something you know he knows or do something badly you know he usually does very well. After all, their child has only so many minutes with us a week and parents want to make the most of them. One thing none of us should ever forget is that it’s hard to be a parent – and there’s no training for it. Your students’ parents need your help and your understanding.

So first it’s important to remember a few basic points:

1. You are giving a service for which you are being paid.
2. You have to give customers what they want. The problem is that they often don’t know what they want and you have to help them realize what that is or change their minds if they have the wrong idea (see point 4).
3. You can’t teach effectively if you are worried about your own position or authority. Teaching is something you do with someone, not to them.
4. Teaching is essentially a sales job. We have to find a way to convince our customers to do things our way in a way that makes them think it’s their idea or in their best interests.
5. If you don’t succeed in getting them to do what you think is necessary, then go back to the first two points.
6. Contrary to what you might think from their behavior, almost all parents are there because they want you to teach their children and, by extension, them. They want their children to look good in your eyes and so try to help.
7. Even if point 6 is not true – that the parents really are evil and trying to undermine you – you still have to think that point 6 is the case and act accordingly. Sometimes truly unmanageable parents can be turned into the best behaved ones just because the teacher treats them like they are. People will live up to your worst expectations if you have them.
8. Let’s say that you just can’t bring yourself to assign good motives to some parents’ behavior. What are you going to do – make your student pay because his parents are so awful?

I’ll admit that I once had a mother I just couldn’t shut up. This mother was almost pathologically nervous and jumpy. As a result of her constant interruptions, her eight year old would talk back to her quite rudely during the lesson, not that I could blame her. It was an odd situation because normally parents will always allow me an opportunity, an “in,” to talk to them. She didn’t. So finally what I did say was this – and to the little girl, not the mother, under the guise of reproving the child for her manners: Continue reading

16 October 2018