Energy Vampires, or Letter to a Tired Teacher

“How do you keep the students who are not giving their all from draining you? Since the majority of my students are not like this, I don’t think it is anything I’m doing or not doing, but I find it draining to deal with students like this, especially back to back.”

This is a question I received from a teacher. Indeed managing and conserving our energy is a big part of teaching. How do we stop students from draining our energy? Easy – make sure you only have perfect students. However, while there are studios that will send a child away when he shows up unprepared for the second time, most of us do not have this possibility or, even if we did, do not adhere to what I call the Procrustean Bed school of teaching – do what I say and how I say, Or Else. If you are this type of teacher, don’t bother reading on. You don’t have a problem. Your students do.

If, on the other hand, you are a normal teacher (like me) and have normal students (ditto), sooner or later you are going to be faced with uncooperative, disorganized and non-compliant students. What to do? How to protect yourself?

Teaching is an ineffable thing. You can’t see it or touch it. You can only feel it if you are involved in the process, or you can see its results. It is an exchange of energy. As long as that energy flows unimpeded, then everyone is fine. However, when that energy is blocked, teachers get drained. I have and have had my share of students who don’t practice and can attest that they can be exhausting. But over the years I have discovered three Very Important Principles:

  1. I cannot make my students practice: there is no magic bullet.
  2. Nowhere is it written in stone that any particular teaching situation must drain me of energy.
  3. I cannot change my students, but I can change my modus operandi and I can always teach the student something, maybe not what I wanted to, but something that will be perhaps even more useful to him than what I had planned.

If teaching a particular student drains you, it means the energy flow between you is blocked. Why? Because what you, the teacher, want to give the student is not what the student wants to get. You see, I found out that what was draining me was not my non-practicers but my attitude towards them and my work. The conviction that I am paid to do a certain job and I’m going to do it, by God, like I’m supposed to, the student is going to behave as he is supposed to and the parents are going to get their money’s worth. However, there is no law that says a music student is supposed to give his all. If you believe this, you will be disappointed (frustrated, drained, name your own unease). The fact is that we are selling a service and the client is the student. And what do successful salemen say? “The customer is always right!” So I have learned to hit the ball back into the other court with my non-practicing and disorganized students to get them to take some of the responsibility for their own education. I ask them what they want to know or where have they have a difficulty that we can work on. Often you will find that you have to give the same lesson over again. You will be annoyed: energy flow blocked and you will get tired. Or you can decide that these students really would like to behave themselves but are having a hard time of it and need your help: energy flow, restored. Remember, you cannot make anyone learn anything and you cannot force anyone to do something that way down deep they don’t want to do. You will get exhausted trying.

And you won’t succeed.

When you ask your student what she would like to learn, you have opened a channel of communication. Sometimes a student will tell you that she would like to learn another piece of music – something outside your usual repertoire. Well, why not? You need the cooperation of the student if you are going to get her to practice and it might as well be something she wants to learn. I will even sometimes suggest pieces like the Pachelbel canon or Schubert’s Ave Maria which help get kids practicing and also to bump up their technique a notch if necessary. Maybe not much, but it’s progress. And I don’t get tired which means the student is learning something.

So the answer is to change the way we view our more difficult students. Instead of looking at them as being a problem, see them as having a problem. You can teach a person who has a problem – violin teaching is, after all, resolving one problem after another. A student you see as being a problem is another matter and this is what will exhaust you. The other day I asked one eleven year old non-practicer if she thought that she was lazy or that she was having a difficulty of some kind with practicing. I knew she thought she was simply lazy, but she replied that it was a bit of both. I told her that she was NOT lazy, but that she was having a hard time practicing like almost every other violin student on the planet, so would she be willing to practice five minutes a day – no more? She said yes. What would she be willing to practice in those five minutes and how I could support her – could she send me a text message every time she practiced? She said yes, we agreed on what she should practice and off we went! Well, it isn’t perfect but several things were accomplished here:

  1. She stopped seeing herself in a negative way.
  2. She didn’t get discouraged as I gave her something she could handle and she agreed to.
  3. She found herself taking on responsibility for herself instead of being forced.
  4. Her mother stopped nagging her as part of the agreement was that her mother could remind her only once every day.
  5. I didn’t get even a teensy bit tired, annoyed or exasperated.

When a student shows up without his music, I may take a few seconds to bawl him out but then I get quickly on to what he does have with him and we work on that. He has forgotten all his music? Then I invite him to play anything he knows from memory so we can work on his bow arm or left hand technique. Usually kids who don’t practice have a problem with both of these. You have to see opportunities in disaster. In fact, I will take advantage of any opportunity I can to teach my students something, even asking the ones with broken arms, wrists or whatever in a cast to come to lessons anyway; when a student has a broken left arm, I do the fingerings while he does the bow arm and vice versa when he has his right arm in a sling (they are almost always boys, by the way), otherwise he could go months without touching the instrument at all. Actually we have a lot of fun doing this, much to the amusement and bemusement of the parents. As one father (who teaches in the local music conservatory) said to me while I was giving a lesson to his son who had a cast on his arm: “Only YOU would teach a kid with a broken arm.” Maybe he’s right, but I hope not.

Worrying if the parents are getting their money’s worth can also seriously interfere with our doing our job properly. Why? Because we are not focused on the student but on what the parents think. What is our job? To teach the violin? Yes, but it is so much more. We are there to teach our students the habit of success. They build one little success on another little one until they create a bigger success. We need the help of the parents for this but sometimes with our older students we are on our own. So don’t let your student see that you think he is a failure or that you are for not “getting through” to him. Work with what you have in front of you: find something, anything, to work on or ask your student what you can help him with and then do it. Don’t waste precious lesson time and your even more precious energy on “shoulds” and  “ought to’s.” Concentrate on the moment and not on the big picture. After all, all we have really is the moment we are living in. Be enthusiastic about helping him. Concentrate on one little problem at a time. Use any opportunity to fix a technical problem you have been worried about. In short, just do whatever it takes to keep the lines of communication open and the energy flowing.

And remember, there is always hope. I have had many non-practicers eventually decide that the violin is pretty cool after all and start making real progress, so throw away the idea that regular progress is a universal law. Stop taking so much responsibility. Stop worrying about not earning your pay. Throw out your expectations of what your recalcitrant students should be learning and give them what they want: that you teach them however you can and in whatever way they are capable of accepting in that moment. And when all else fails, ask them what they want to learn. You may be surprised by the answer.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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31 January 2017

5 thoughts on “Energy Vampires, or Letter to a Tired Teacher

  1. Z.dolev

    Dear Eloise.
    I always enjoy reading your blog. You love your profession, you are very experienced,and you are always very positive. The students you teach are really lucky. Writing this blog is also an example of your devotion to your profession, by encouraging other teachers to
    adopt your attitude and positive approach.

    Reply

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