Is Integrity All You Need?

Integrity: another excellent quality for a teacher to have.

“Sure,” you say. But what does integrity really mean?

According to a very interesting book by Barbara Killinger on this subject, “Integrity is a personal choice, an uncompromising and predictably consistent commitment to honor moral, ethical, spiritual and artistic values and principles .” *

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But wait – shouldn’t we ask ourselves what those values and principles are? Lots of fine, upstanding people consider themselves to have integrity and we cheer them on. But what about all the mass murderers, cult leaders and others who have done great harm to humanity – were they not holding themselves to their own moral and ethical principles? Were they not absolutely consistent?

Now we are talking about teaching here, not about being faithful to one’s spouse or murdering someone for religious or other idealistic reasons. But being true to our moral and ethical principles and standards can often do a lot of damage if we don’t carefully consider what they are.

Here, for example, is the substance of a post I once saw on a music teaching forum where a violin teacher who teaches beginners on up talks about his program and his integrity…

He had decided he wanted a program of excellence so his students and their parents would need to follow the whole program consistently without fail. They would have to practice and listen every day, and come to group lessons as well as additional lessons outside of their regularly scheduled lessons if this teacher retained it necessary. If they complied, he promised he’d move heaven and earth for them. If, however, the students fell short on any of these requirements, he’d mandate that they follow corrective measures to restore what he considered was lacking. Failing to do so would result in everyone involved trying to find a way to “celebrate” the student in question leaving the program as the student and her family weren’t meeting the teacher halfway while he was moving heaven and earth to help them. His felt it would be a compromise of his integrity to take the student’s money, and a waste of his own time and energy, to not deliver his product of excellence that he had decided was important to him.

Let’s look at this closely. When you read this, you might say, “My, he is certainly true to his principles and ethics!” Yes, and he even uses the word “integrity” absolutely correctly. He is true to his values and no one is going to divert him from his chosen path.

A person of integrity? Absolutely, according to the above definition.

A person who is expert in certain didactic methods? Undoubtedly.

A good teacher? In my opinion, no. Here’s why:

1. He uses the “I” word all over the place in his original statement.
2. It’s all about what he wants for the student and about choosing who he wants to work with.
3. He has decided what the student needs, no, wants – no room for discussion.
4. His message is, “Do what I say or else,” which is bad enough but when he, in his integrity, kicks a student out of his studio for not adhering to his idea of excellence, he wants to make it look like a celebration! In other words, the student not only undergoes the humiliation of being kicked out, she is supposed to be happy about it.

Actually, I’m sure the student is relieved, not happy. Ask yourself, would you want a teacher like this? And, besides, who amongst us has always been the perfect music student? Be honest: some of us have even passed years without practicing properly. What if our teachers had given up on us?

But after her initial relief, I’m sure the student who leaves this teacher’s studio, undoubtedly in many cases being asked to pay for her parents’ mistakes, will feel lousy about herself for failing. Students, especially young ones, always see themselves as the cause of their failure – not their teachers or their parents.

I know a piano teacher who requires all her students, no exceptions whether they are beginning or advanced students, to execute the piece they are studying perfectly before going on to another, which means some of her students get bored, lose interest in the instrument and quit. Enjoying playing doesn’t seem to be this teacher’s priority. She does however, keep her integrity intact and although she loses students at an alarming rate, her reputation for being precise keeps getting her new students. At least it did. I have noticed lately that she has to go to other cities to teach as she can apparently no longer maintain a full studio in the city where she lives. This demand for perfection, the insistence on meeting a rigid standard, can leave a lasting mark on students and their families: I once heard a parent of one of her ex-students say, “X teacher is so precise but my daughter just didn’t have what it takes.” That’s one of the saddest things I have heard in regard to music training. How awful for a student to feel like a failure and how even more awful for her parents to agree.

Now you might think that a teacher who seems more forgiving doesn’t have integrity. He certainly may, but he has one added component that makes all the difference: compassion. Compassion is kindness, caring, and a willingness to help others,** not realizing your own ambitions via your students. It means not giving up on a student because she doesn’t share your self-imposed and arbitrary, even artificial vision. It means trying to put yourself in your student’s shoes and attempting to understand her point of view. It means seeing the student as having a problem, not being one. It means meeting her more than halfway and not caring or even noticing it.

Integrity is all about how good, honest and correct you are. Add compassion to the mix, and the focus is directed to others. A person can be of great moral and ethical integrity but never do anything for his fellow man. A compassionate one with integrity is another matter. It changes the reason why you do what you do, which in my opinion is often even more important than what you do.

I see no compassion for the student or her parents in the above account. The teacher talks about the experience of excellence because he has decided he wants it in his studio. Well, any teacher can play God and decide who plays and who doesn’t, what excellence is and isn’t – and he or she has a perfect right to choose whom to teach. But before you cherry-pick your students too much, there are a few things to consider:

  1. Not all students want, need or are indeed capable of, for one reason or another, the kind of excellence he talks about achieving. Don’t they deserve teaching, too?
  2. In many cases teachers like this will not have a full studio as very few students and their families can meet such standards and maintain them for long periods of time. (Perhaps the ones who live in big cities where there is a large pool of ambitious and/or obedient parents to draw from.)
  3.  What a horrible feeling to be in constant fear of not living up to a teacher’s rigid expectations or she will give up on you. This also does nothing to promote the love of music and the violin which I’m sure most of us can agree should be our primary aim in teaching.
  4. A student doesn’t always need a teacher who will move heaven and earth for her. (And is it really for her, or for the teacher’s own satisfaction?) A student needs a teacher who will give her what she needs, not necessarily what the teacher wants to give her.
  5. Teaching is not a one way street. If you make it that way, then you will never learn anything from your students.

I have had many students who, according to the above teacher’s paradigm, I should have kicked out of my studio for not following “The Program.” Some of them have gone on to fine professional careers and others to simple enjoyment of playing as amateurs who love music. Hmm…Excellence at 8 years old (with fear of magisterial abandonment) doesn’t predict excellence at 15 any more than lack of excellence at 8 years of age means that the student won’t wake up, make her own choices, take matters into her own hands and thus produce excellence at, say, 14 years old and on for the rest of her life. In the first case, the student and his family worry about realizing the teacher’s goals. In the second, the teacher facilitates the student in realizing her own goals.

To teach the instrument, an idea or an ideal, you need integrity. To teach the student, you need compassion, too. Integrity and compassion together will tell you the right thing to do in any circumstance: the right thing for the student, not yourself. And isn’t this what we should really all be aiming for?

We should invent a new term for these two qualities, compassion and integrity, together.

But now that I think of it, there already is one that should cover it: a teacher.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

* Integrity: Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason. McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2010. p. 12. ISBN 9780773582804.

** Registered & Protected  MSSU-D6QY-TKLN-JYT7

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14 November 2017

5 thoughts on “Is Integrity All You Need?

  1. Elise

    Beautifully said. Thank you for talking about this important but often hidden dynamic. While the teachers you mention are extreme examples, I think we can find times in our own relationships with students that have veered too far toward integrity (without compassion) or permissiveness (without integrity). Also, there are other ways to hold families accountable besides expelling them from the studio. A gentle email or verbal conversation still preserves integrity by reminding the parent of the expectation and problem-solving with them how they can meet it next time … or creating a new agreement that they can consistently meet.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Thank you. You are right that all of us have to exert discipline on occasion to keep on our “straight and narrow” chosen path, but keeping always in mind the good of the student makes it a lot easier. And those extreme examples are a lot more common than you might think, unfortunately, which is why I felt the need to write this post. Sometimes there is no real agreement you can reach with parents who won’t cooperate and then our integrity and compassion are really put to the test. One little girl I brought along practically on my own from the age of 4, wondering why her parents even brought me this child if they couldn’t/wouldn’t help her practice. Well, now she’s 17 and God help whoever tries to take her violin from her. Thank heavens I didn’t give up. Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comment.

  2. Carol de la Haye

    Bingo! Eloquent, succinct, and right on target, once again, Eloise. I LOVE these wisdom nuggets of yours!
    I sometimes wish we could meet and chat face-to-face; we seem to have much in common in some of our beliefs and approaches, yet enough variables to make for some enjoyable exchanges. Thanks, again; I’m already looking forward to your next ‘message in a bottle’.


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