Lesson Interrupted? How to Intercept Interference and Keep the Ball Rolling

How do I stop parents from piping in and giving additional instructions to their children during the lesson?

Nowadays, many music teachers face this problem as we are encouraging, if not requiring, the parents of our students to be present at lessons. How to get parents to stop distracting their children with extra instructions and allow us to get on with our job?

First of all it’s important to remember that this isn’t about us or our authority. It isn’t a wrestling match to see who runs things. We may sometimes see such interruptions as disrespect for us or for the process. It isn’t. And even if it is, we gain nothing by interpreting it that way. As soon as we allow our egos to intervene, we are no longer seeing the situation clearly and can make a mistake, to the detriment of our students.

Let’s look at it from the point of view of the parent. Who has not had the following scenario at a lesson?

  1.  You ask Johnny a really difficult question like, “Where is the A string?”
  2.  He looks at you blankly.
  3.  Mother gets frustrated and jumps in with both feet.

This is completely understandable. Parents go to a lot of trouble to get lessons for their children. They don’t want to waste time or money, especially when they get from us so little of the former and give us so much of the latter. So they break in. It can be very frustrating to be a parent, to sit and watch your child struggle with something you know he knows or do something badly you know he usually does very well. After all, their child has only so many minutes with us a week and parents want to make the most of them. One thing none of us should ever forget is that it’s hard to be a parent – and there’s no training for it. Your students’ parents need your help and your understanding.

So first it’s important to remember a few basic points:

1. You are giving a service for which you are being paid.
2. You have to give customers what they want. The problem is that they often don’t know what they want and you have to help them realize what that is or change their minds if they have the wrong idea (see point 4).
3. You can’t teach effectively if you are worried about your own position or authority. Teaching is something you do with someone, not to them.
4. Teaching is essentially a sales job. We have to find a way to convince our customers to do things our way in a way that makes them think it’s their idea or in their best interests.
5. If you don’t succeed in getting them to do what you think is necessary, then go back to the first two points.
6. Contrary to what you might think from their behavior, almost all parents are there because they want you to teach their children and, by extension, them. They want their children to look good in your eyes and so try to help.
7. Even if point 6 is not true – that the parents really are evil and trying to undermine you – you still have to think that point 6 is the case and act accordingly. Sometimes truly unmanageable parents can be turned into the best behaved ones just because the teacher treats them like they are. People will live up to your worst expectations if you have them.
8. Let’s say that you just can’t bring yourself to assign good motives to some parents’ behavior. What are you going to do – make your student pay because his parents are so awful?

I’ll admit that I once had a mother I just couldn’t shut up. This mother was almost pathologically nervous and jumpy. As a result of her constant interruptions, her eight year old would talk back to her quite rudely during the lesson, not that I could blame her. It was an odd situation because normally parents will always allow me an opportunity, an “in,” to talk to them. She didn’t. So finally what I did say was this – and to the little girl, not the mother, under the guise of reproving the child for her manners:

“Maria, if you talk back to your mother, then people will say, ‘That poor mother – to have a child like that!’ But if you stay quiet and put up with her behavior, then people will say ‘That poor child – to have a mother like that!!'”

It rolled right off the mother’s back, but that little girl got the point. So, together we ignored her mother the best we could, like an annoying fly in the room, and the lesson was no longer interrupted by talking back. I wasn’t going to stop lessons with a child who really wanted to play just because no one could control the mother. She herself had no self-control which was the real problem and there was little I could do about it. She definitely was not the sort of person whose mouth I could tape shut, as one inventive teacher did (how I envy her). That little girl is now a grown woman and plays professionally in a very good orchestra. If I had given up on her? In the most trying circumstances it helps to remember that we only have to put up with the parent at the lesson – and we are grown-ups. This poor little girl had her mother 24/7 – until she grew up, went to conservatory and left Meddling Mom far behind. Yes, sometimes we have to help our students survive their parents.

However, this is an extreme case and the only one I have had in the many years I have been teaching. How do I deal with the problem normally? First of all, I never talk about it to the parents outside the lesson. If I were to do that, it would look like I’m bawling them out for bad behavior or that they have committed a serious offense that can’t be talked about in front of their children. Too much drama. It’s no fun to have a teacher take you aside and, no matter how diplomatic she is, tell you your sins. I have found instead that a quick comment on the spot, humorously put, will do the trick. So I say the following:

“I know and appreciate that you are trying to help and want your child to do well, but science has shown that a child cannot pay attention to more than one person at a time. I’m sure you have seen this in your own life. You are, however, welcome to talk to me at any point during the lesson.”

Apart from the above exception, this has worked every time. Disclaimer: I doubt that science has officially shown any such thing, but putting it that way makes the parents laugh, achieves my purpose with no hurt feelings and doesn’t make me look like a control freak and a megalomaniac – it’s about the child, not “Who’s the teacher here????” It also redirects that parent’s talkitive impulses toward me so I can then explain what I’m doing, if necessary  – after all, we’re teaching the child and the parent.

On other occasions I may ask a student a question and the parent answers. I tell the parent that I really do know the answer to the question and I’m very glad she does, too,  but that I want to make sure her child does. She usually laughs and returns to silence.

Sometimes there will be an outburst anyway in which case I just mildly quiet the parent by raising my hand, without missing a beat or taking my gaze off the student. I have more than one student who appears to have an on/off switch in his brain, but one in particular stands out. His father, a very high-powered person, understandably gets frustrated and exhorts his son to action. I shoosh him softly without turning my head and everything goes on nicely.

So to boil it all down, don’t be rigid, roll with the punches, don’t take anything personally (it isn’t about you), keep your sense of humor and use it, remember that parents are there because they want you to teach their child, and that even if you can’t quiet a pathologically interfering parent, you can still teach the child effectively.

And on the rare occasion I am tempted to forget my own advice, I remember the time many years ago at my daughter’s violin lesson, when I found myself telling her teacher (much to my amazement at hearing these words come out of my own mouth): “But she played it so much better at home!”

Well, she did.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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16 October 2018

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