I’m Sick of Being the Expert

On a teaching forum a totally exasperated and earnest teacher asked what to do with an 8 year old, disruptive, rude and disrespectful kid. Oh boy, have I been there!

The first step is to decide that this child isn’t a problem but has a problem, or better, a series of problems.

What could they be? He is really smart, knows he doesn’t know everything but won’t admit it, doesn’t have the discipline to accomplish what he wants, doesn’t like authority figures telling him what to do, his mind moves much faster than his body could ever do, he can’t control himself well (and he knows it), and he is precocious in some ways but is still a little boy. And this is just for starters. He may also really want to play the violin but doesn’t want to let on (that would give you power), is afraid he can’t do it and doesn’t like failure. In fact, he’s terrified of it. This kid is a mess and if someone doesn’t help him get a handle on himself quick, he could be headed for trouble.

What to do?

Well you could pull the old “I’m the boss here and you’ll do as I say, or else,” schtick but it probably won’t work in cases like this and you’ll wind up “firing” the student or getting fired yourself. Or you could try this:

Stop being an authority figure. Step out of his idea of what you are so he can stop rebelling against it.

I have been telling some of my students lately that I am sick and tired of being the expert. Ours is a collaboration and I can’t do my part if they don’t do theirs. I ask them if they think they have to obey me. They answer “yes.”  I then tell them that I am not their school teacher and they do not have to do as I say. However, if they want to play the violin well, I am thrilled to help them any way I possibly can. We are collaborators and no one, absolutely no one wants them to play well more than I do. If, on the other hand, they can’t invest the time necessary or aren’t interested in playing really well, then I’ll help them achieve whatever level they want. I’m there for them at their complete disposition for anything regarding the violin.

When you tell a child or adolescent this, their first reaction is shock. Then disbelief. Then they realize that the ball is back in their court and now what? They are going to have to take responsibility for themselves as you are refusing to do it for them. For example, the first thing I ask them when they come to lesson is where they had difficulties in their practice during the week. What is it they would like to know or learn? I am often amazed at what they tell me. Sometimes they want to learn a piece way beyond their technical level. Fine, I say, and give then a few bars of it at a time. When they run into problems I’ll say, “I know a really cool exercise that will help you resolve this issue, if you want to try it…” The choice is theirs.

The one-on-one relationship that a student has with his instrumental teacher is and should be a collaboration, not a dictator and her prole. Children like the one mentioned above rebel against authority figures, but not against themselves. When they realize that they have an adult who is there only for them and is very happy to help them help themselves, the dynamic of the relationship shifts. They begin to see themselves in charge of something instead of being subjected to more rules and regulations where they have no choice in the matter. You willingly let them have power  – something they probably aren’t used to at school or in their other activities. After all, where is it written that a student must practice so much or it’s a waste of time? Where is it written that so much progress must be made in a set amount of time or it’s again a waste of time and money? Where is it written that helping a child to learn to control himself, instead of you controlling him (and not succeeding), is not an excellent goal for any teacher?

We private teachers are indeed fortunate in that we don’t have a curriculum or anyone official standing over our heads demanding certain results in a certain amount of time. We really can teach our students according to their needs and possibilities. But first we have to recognize that we can help our students a lot more by convincing them that we are there for them, instead of them being there for us so we can have someone to make miserable, as they so often wrongly assume.

Most children do very well in normally structured situations, willingly accept the teacher’s authority and thus don’t need much flexibility on the part of the teacher. Others, however, challenge the very fabric of the teacher-student set-up and if we don’t know how to dance around this, keep one step ahead, and help them form their own structure, we can find ourselves butting heads with these difficult children instead of helping  them to help themselves.

And the last thing you want to do is have a confrontation with them. I always remember the Roman general, Fabius Cunctator – Fabius the Delayer – whose tactic with Hannibal (who hung around the Italian peninsula for 18 very long years) was, “Don’t fight today – wait until tomorrow and let’s see what happens.” It turned out to be a wise strategy – finally adopted after another more impetuous Roman general got his army massacred – and Hannibal eventually got fed up and went home. Okay, I’m simplifying a bit, but the point is if you give your student nothing to fight with, nothing to rebel against he will have to stop fighting and start cooperating – slowly slowly perhaps, but what other choice does he have? All of a sudden he’s in charge (with your guidance) and how can he be rude and disrespectful to himself? Of course there are those students whose main goal is to torture the teacher, but with this tactic they will either cooperate or quit altogether as there’s no one to fight with and it’s no fun anymore.

In either case you have saved your sanity, your temper, your professionalism and hopefully your student. It’s worth a try.
Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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27 June 2018

5 thoughts on “I’m Sick of Being the Expert

  1. Carol de la Haye

    Exactly my tactic with difficult pupils — put the ball in their court. Makes it so much easier and more effective than years ago when I tried doing it the old way… Another excellent piece of advice, Eloise!

  2. Kerry Craig

    So much of this is exactly my philosophy..
    At some point I tell all of my students,
    “I am not the boss, WE are the boss”.
    I tell the parents that I am trying to get the student to take “ownership” in the process. I want the students to know that they have some control over their destiny.
    As a part of that, I want to figure out what it is that made them want to play their instrument in the first place. Whatever that is, I want them to feel like they can bring that to the table. If a student is doing what he loves, he is always willing and ready to work harder at it. It doesn’t mean that I’m abandoning growth through a method. I am augmenting it.
    A side benefit of this is the student really feels his or her Journey is unique and special.

    It’s the same thing with practice time. At the end of a lesson and in front of the parent, I will ask if the student is practicing and how much. Most of the time the student is not practicing often enough or putting enough time in each practice.

    Here is where I put the ball squarely in the students Court.
    I ask them to commit to an amount of time that they are going to practice and how many days of the week they’re going to to do that. I also tell them to make sure it’s realistic and something that they are actually able to do.
    Once we’ve done that I shake hands with the student and tell them they have made a promise with me and I expect them to keep it.

    Again, I have put ownership of the process in the student’s hands, and when a student takes personal ownership they are much more likely to feel invested in the process and hold up their end of the deal.

    And in the end, isn’t that what we are trying to do anyway?

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      You are obviously a good and committed teacher! The problem comes when we get a student who either didn’t ask to play the instrument in the first place or no longer really wants to (other interests intervene, like adolescence) or are too young to make a deal without help. So the idea is to tide them over until they discover or rediscover their passion by doing what you’re doing and helping them be accountable by either filling in a chart, calling you or sending a text or email every time they practice. I have found that this works with the little ones too who just love using mommy’s or daddy’s phone. And I’ll often start with agreeing to practice very little (like 5 minutes) so that when they go over that, they can feel proud of themselves for exceeding expectations! Thanks so much for your comment. Keep up the good work!!!


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