“Do you worry that your poor students will ruin your reputation? I am trying to build my studio and worry that these few students (among many who are good students) may affect my ability to earn a living.”
A young teacher, rightly concerned about building her studio and keeping it thriving, asked me this question.
My answer? It all depends on what kind of reputation you want. There are lots of different ones and some of them can be combined while others are in a class all by themselves. Here are a few examples:
- one who turns out only competition winners
- one whose students all play well up to teacher’s very high standard
- one whose students faithfully obey all teacher’s studio strictures – or else
- one whose students enjoy playing music at any level
- one who wants her students to love music as she does
- one who will teach any student who wants to learn, no matter what
- one who will teach any student as along as the parents are willing to continue, no matter what
The first three don’t have to worry about poor students: they don’t have them. Who might worry would be those in the last four categories. So I will address this to them and my young colleague who said that she believed all students should have lessons as long as they enjoy them.
If you worry about your reputation while you’re teaching, you are focused on yourself and your goals instead of what you should be focusing on: your student. The one thing you should never worry about is what other people think. If you do, that’s a guaranteed recipe for disaster. Why? Because your thoughts are putting you into a different teacher category than the one you may want to be in. You stop doing whatever you are doing for your student and start doing it for yourself. Is that what you want? No, I didn’t think so. So here’s how to build a good reputation:
Have you ever heard of Tchaikovsky’s white horse of happiness? He said it was on his enormous estate and you could only find it if you didn’t look for it or think about it.* So don’t think about it – or your reputation. Decide what kind of teacher you want to be and then be it without worrying about how you look or even thinking about yourself at all. This may mean you wind up teaching poor students, i.e., the ones who don’t practice, listen to you, take your advice, etc.. This can be hard on you, if you let it, but it surely be difficult if you are worrying about how that student will make you look. You are in a service profession which means you should be worried about your clients’ (i.e., the students’) problems, not you having a problem with their problems and what that means for you.
All the teachers I consider to be good teachers have good and bad students (as well as those who fall in between). You may even wonder why they keep the “bad” ones. I did. Many, many years ago, in my callow youth, I would regularly go to London, from the remote places I lived, for the purpose of taking courses and observing teachers in that method. I planted myself in their studios for hours on end. I remember that sometimes I would wonder why they put up with some of their students. As we all know, it’s a lot harder to teach a student who doesn’t practice, or practice well, than it is to teach one who obeys your every directive. So did they keep these students for the money? Certainly not. How do I know this? They had waiting lists of people anxious to start. I really didn’t understand these teachers until I started teaching myself. I then realized, on reflection, that they weren’t thinking about themselves, their frustration levels or their reputations. Their focus was completely on their students and on helping them. I doubt the word “reputation” ever crossed their minds. It’s dedicated teachers like these who simply don’t give up on anyone, no matter what it looks like to others: the student is far more important than reputation, method, music or even the violin.
And guess what? All these teachers have/had sterling reputations as good teachers, with very long waiting lists.**
Now this is not to say that in your down moments you don’t have a pang of apprehension about an unprepared student doing an orchestra audition no matter how hard you tried to dissuade him. Of course this happens. But when you are teaching, your focus puts that all out of your mind. Concentration on your student leaves any thoughts about yourself out in the cold – or if they intrude, you ignore them. But know this! If you are doing your job properly, even your most horrible students will demonstrate your “school.” Your preparation and competence show even on your worst students. They will show a love of music that you have instilled in them. There will be glimmers of the technique you have been trying to get them to observe. The fact that they even want to do that audition speaks well for you, even if you feel their performance doesn’t. Yes, people judge your work on how well you prepare your students but also on what kind of teacher you are, that is, what kind of human being you are. In a recent post I talked about how to pick a teacher and that the most important quality is her humanity. You can and undoubtedly will have all kinds of students from absolutely appalling to truly wonderful. People will judge you as a teacher on how you handle all of them, not just on how good your best student is. On occasion I have been amazed to hear positive comments about a poor student’s recital performance – maybe that student is better than I thought. Maybe he manages to get something across to the audience that I didn’t hear because I was concentrating too much on his awful bow stroke. So my definition of “poor” may be someone else’s definition of “very nice indeed.”
Sometimes our noses are so close to the grindstone that many of us forget that most parents are not trying to make little Paganini’s out of their children. They are far more aware of their children’s drawbacks than we may think. They are looking for a teacher who will certainly teach what is necessary to play the violin well, but also for a nurturing human being who is more interested in her charges than she is in herself, at least in the moment she is teaching. And they all know it when they see it.
So don’t worry about your reputation. Do the best job you can in the most humane way possible and you will wake up one day to find you have an excellent reputation, much to your surprise.
However, if you think constantly about your reputation, and act in function of that, you will certainly get a reputation, but it may not be the one you want.
Post author: Eloise Hellyer
*This may be apocryphal.
**Some of these teachers are no longer with us but are fondly remembered even though it was a long time ago.