Giving Up

“How do you cope with ending lessons with a student who you so desperately want to help? I’m not reaching this student and it’s affecting me negatively at this point.”

Another excellent question from an anguished teacher. My answer? I wouldn’t give up. In fact, I never give up no matter how provoked. Before you think I’m preaching from a high horse, know that I am speaking from painful experience.

Once, at the beginning of my career, I had two students who were driving me crazy. I must have given the same lesson twenty times to each of these children. Neither had any help at all from their parents. I thought that the parents were wasting their money and when I informed them that their children weren’t getting anywhere, they appreciated my honesty and stopped the lessons. No teacher or parent has ever told me I did the wrong thing.

Oh wait, there is one: me. On reflection, I later realized that I had my priorities all wrong. What were they?

  1. My comfort. As you may have noticed above, I said they were driving me crazy so I certainly wasn’t thinking about my students.
  2. That the parents weren’t getting their money’s worth. Who am I to decide that?

This brings us to the problem of what is the teacher’s responsibility? To whom does the teacher owe allegiance and best efforts? Whom should the teacher be worrying about? What is a teacher’s bottom line?

I have come to the conclusion that my responsibility is to the student and only the student. I have now and have had my fair share of unhelpful, indifferent and even obstructing parents, parents who don’t/won’t listen or take my advice but I don’t give up. While I realize you can’t save children from their parents, you can certainly make things a little easier by having them know that at least one adult in their lives is on their side. How do you do this? You teach them no matter what. No matter if they have practiced badly or have been given the wrong information, no matter if their behavior is less than perfect, you persist. Why? Two reasons:

  1. You never know that when you least expect it, you may find you have pulled one out of the fire and a previously uncooperative student starts to experience the wonders of music. You can see the light of comprehension in their eyes that this is definitely something worth continuing. For me, it’s worth putting up with a hundred frustrating students to get one like this.
  2. Being abandoned by a teacher will be taken personally by a child, meaning he will feel something is wrong with him. He may never get over it. Do you want to take responsibility for this? Totally unaware, I did once and, as I said, I have regretted it ever since.

The only positive result from my callous action many years ago is that I began to reconsider my responsibilities and examine my motivations. Now, as long as students come to lessons, I will teach them. This isn’t a monetary question, it’s a moral one. I no longer decide who can play and who cannot, I no longer make arbitrary decisions about the right amount of progress, I no longer decide if a student is getting anything out of the lesson and if the parents are getting enough value. I have also come to the realization that part of responsible teaching is to question my own motivations constantly so that if I don’t like what I see, I can change them. Or not. The important thing is to be aware and honest with myself as to why I do what I do and why I make the decisions I make.

We teach our students a lot more than how to hold a bow. I have been told even by uncooperative parents that I give life lessons. A teacher, any teacher, always gives life lessons. Because of our one on one relationship with our students, we music teachers can certainly have a particularly important impact. We are probably the only disinterested (i.e. not family) adult in our students’ lives who has a single and intense relationship with them. Doesn’t this count for something?

So when you have these difficult decisions to make or uncomfortable circumstances to endure, decide what your bottom line is and act accordingly. You may still give up on your student anyway, but at least you will have contemplated the possible repercussions on your student and thus yourself.

You don’t want to feel guilty for 25 years as I have………

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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27 June 2017

3 thoughts on “Giving Up

  1. Danielle Kravitz

    I feel like the issue of the child thinking he is abandoned by the teacher largely hinges on how he seems to view the lessons. If the student seems to genuinely enjoy the lessons–regardless of how much practice/help happens at home–then I would agree.

    Something is also important to point out is that there are TWO people in the teacher/student relationship. It’s easy to feel like we want to save the world as teachers but the fact of the matter is that sometimes students are indifferent to lessons. This emotional output by the teacher affects all lessons, not just the one instance.

    So while you may react differently now in this situation, it is not to say that how you reacted early in your career was a bad decision. The emotional drain those two students were placing on you was affecting your teaching on the whole. So, at the time, you made the right decision.

    Reply
    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Thank you for trying to console me with your kind comment. I do not view the energy I share with my students as emotional. While teaching children who don’t practice can be difficult for a teacher, this does not mean that these two children were draining my energy so that I had trouble teaching other children. They didn’t. I simply felt, wrongly, that if they were not making the progress I thought reasonable then everyone was wasting time and money. It’s that simple. I have regretted that decision ever since and nothing anyone can say, no matter how well-intentioned (as you are and thanks again), is going to change my mind about this. It was wrong. You see, they didn’t wear me out, I wore me out by having the wrong attitude and breaking the circle of energy (or allowing it to be broken). I have since learned how to teach children who don’t practice or make progress without getting drained or exhausted. Now no one tires me, not even a child who really doesn’t want to be there and I don’t really have any of those at the moment (or if I do, they are very well behaved). I did have one little student who used to growl at me, once. I didn’t mourn much when his family decided he should quit (with no encouragement or discouragement from me – it was their decision). So you see, emotions have nothing to do with it in my case. I feel it is important for a teacher not to get emotionally involved with her students in order to keep a level head. Of course, the ideas I have in my level head were significantly changed by the experience I wrote about so at least something positive came out of it for me. But nothing changes my responsibility to the two children whose parents had them quit. I should have kept my mouth shut and kept going. I have done this many times since and have had some amazing results. You just never know. And I guess that’s the point. I, the teacher, do not know everything no matter how much experience and education I may have. It is useful to remind myself of this often so I avoid making more mistakes. In closing, I will tell you about one student I had who took 6 years to finish Book 1. Yes, 6 years. Then she started flying and by the age of 11 was in Book 6 and 7 (Bach A minor) and doing Kreutzer etudes all very well indeed. What if I had given up? No one who heard her at 8 years of age would have ever guessed. She’s now a pro, by the way and a super teacher. Thanks again for taking the time to make your comment. I really appreciate it.

      Reply

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