Anxious young teachers have asked me sometimes how I deal with parents who are upset that I seem to have more influence on their children than they do. That their children actually listen better to me than they do to them.
This perplexed me at first as I have never encountered such a problem. Then I realized that although these teachers were of different ages, culture, language and nationality there was one thing they all had in common: they don’t have children.
I’m not suggesting that to be a good teacher you need to have children. Of course, not. However, having children does give you an advantage over the childless teacher in that you better understand the point of view of the parent. Becoming a parent is like going to the moon. It’s a shock to your system. It changes you in ways you cannot imagine. But not every teacher can or wants to have children just to gain this understanding, so for the offspring-challenged teacher, here are some pointers to level the playing field.
First of all, parents really don’t have hurt feelings when their children heed your advice over theirs. They are not even jealous of your influence. They are not perplexed, puzzled, injured, or offended. THEY ARE DELIGHTED that their children are actually listening to someone. Why do my violin teaching colleagues bring me their children to learn the violin when they themselves are perfectly capable of teaching them? They want to have the backup and ensuing credibility that having another human being saying THE SAME THINGS can give.
When a mother says to you, “He won’t listen to me, but he does to you!” this is not an accusation, as my young colleagues fear. She’s telling you to keep up the good work. The hope is that you will convince her child to listen to her, too!
Yes, helping parents and their young children develop a solid working relationship is an important part of what we teachers should be doing. Today, unless they are homeschooling their children, parents are often discouraged from teaching them anything beyond good manners. In the old days (up until the 1900s) children were often taught a craft or livelihood by their parents. To read and write, too. Slowly, slowly this has been taken from parents. Our children rarely see what we do for a living, do not have any idea of our competence in the outside world and tend to see us as being there only to get on their nerves. We are also assaulted on all sides by psychologists, teachers, sociologists, tiger moms, etc., saying that we aren’t doing our jobs adequately. That we should do reinforcement-parenting, attachment-parenting, free-range parenting and, yes, even slow-parenting. No matter what you do SOMEONE is going to tell you that it’s wrong and you should be doing something else instead. Being a modern day parent can be downright bewildering!
So when you teach their children and are a good influence on them, parents aren’t resentful, they are HAPPY! By convincing a child to listen to his parent when practicing, you have made an ally of that parent for life. By teaching the parent to teach her child, you are returning things to their natural state: a parent actively involved in her child’s education. This is something the child will appreciate when she grows up, even if she doesn’t seem to at the moment.
When I have particularly recalcitrant children, I may even resort to this:
“Repeat after me,” I tell the child, “Mommy is always right.“ For some reason, when you get a child to say something out loud, it becomes real to him. It may seem odd, but it actually does help.
With adolescents, the game changes a bit. First of all, I never allow a new student to send his mother out of the room. I tell him that if he can play for his mother, then he can play for anyone, so Momma stays. Things start improving after that; the student starts accepting mom’s criticism at home as she is only repeating what I said during the lesson. Then, little by little, the mother may stop coming to the lesson, but the point has been made and taken that Mom is an ally, not an enemy.
Part of your job as a teacher is to foster good relations between student and parent and then get out of the way. I have been on all sides of the equation, if an equation can have 3 sides: the mother of my children (hard), the teacher of my children (hardest) and the teacher of other people’s children (easy by comparison). When I was teaching my daughters I would have given anything to farm this responsibility out to someone else, but there were no violin or piano teachers within thousands of miles. At that time we were living in the middle of nowhere, and I’m not kidding. The name of the nearest town, one hour away, can be translated as “a hole in the middle of nowhere.” We were surrounded by lots and lots of sand. And camels. But once or twice a year we made trips to London where four Suzuki teachers kindly interrupted their richly deserved vacation holidays to give lessons to my two girls. I am going to name these teachers here as I am eternally grateful for the many kindnesses they showed a desperate mother: Anne Turner, Felicity Lipman, Helen Brunner and Alison Apley. It was a long time ago and they probably don’t remember me, but I remember them! They helped me help my children. And helping parents work more effectively with their children is an important part of your job as a teacher, too. Believe me, they appreciate it!