Overwhelmingness or What Teaching and Motherhood* Have in Common

Do you ever feel that you’re not covering everything you should with your students? A young teacher on a forum recently said that she usually feels she has everything under control until she talks to another teacher or reads some treatise on violin teaching and then starts to feel overwhelmed – is she doing enough, has she got everything covered as these other teachers seem to have? Oh my! What to do?

Well, I say to her, welcome to the club. Teaching is very much like being a mother.* Not that we should be mothering our students (hopefully they have a mother for that), but that what most teachers (male or female) and most mothers I know have in common is a fair amount of doubt and self-doubt. In principle this is a good thing. It keeps our minds open and always in search of new knowledge we can apply to our charges. But it can easily get out of hand, due to the nature of our job.

Here are a few truths about motherhood and teaching that I have discovered in my many decades-long experience with both:

  • Whatever you do, someone is going to tell you or make you feel, directly or indirectly (reading what other teachers/mothers accomplish), that you’re not doing enough or are doing the wrong thing.
  • They’re right. No one can possibly do everything that books, methods, treatises, mothers-in-law, etc., tell you you should be doing. So, yes, your worst fears are confirmed. And the fretting and feelings of inadequacy start.
  • But before you throw yourself off a bridge, know that it’s impossible to do everything you think you should, and certainly doubly impossible to do everything that others, no matter how well-meaning (or not), think you should be doing. Remember it’s easy for them to give advice (sometimes off the top of their heads), hard for you to take it and then live with the consequences.

So what to do? In my moments of angst (and there were lots of them), I would take a deep breath and

  1. Remember that in any given moment I was doing the best I could and
  2. Hope that one day my children (or students) would forgive me.

Yours may well not until they have their own children/students. For example, I am enjoying watching my older daughter deal with her three boys’ practicing (trying rather unsuccessfully at times to avoid snickering in her presence). And watching my other violin teacher daughter go through with her students what she put me through when she was little (poker face, poker face). Ah yes, there is a sort of maternal/teacher karma payback which I find makes my offspring a lot more understanding about how I raised/taught them.

And by the way, both daughters turned out just fine, notwithstanding the dire predictions of lots of people offering free (and often unsolicited) advice about my mothering, most of which I ignored, thank God. But when I needed help teaching my children, I didn’t read a book which, by definition, is a very one way stream from someone who “has all the answers.” (How else is he/she going to sell that book?) Instead I went in person, often from great distances, to ask experts for help with my children. But the biggest help came from watching these wonderful teachers at work with other people’s children and trust me, they didn’t cover every single thing in one or even several lessons either. I learned more from them than I ever could have from books.

So, here is a useful analogy that I keep in mind in my darkest moments of teacherly self-doubt.

A new mother dog has, to her surprise (no one told her she was pregnant), her first litter of puppies. She’s sure she should be doing something, but what? She worries and frets and then out of exhaustion, she does the right thing: she lets the anguish go, lies down and her babies start to nurse. Teaching is a lot like motherhood: we often worry if we are doing the right thing. This is good in principle but the important thing is not to let this worry take over to the point that we forget that our job is to teach, instead of worrying about teaching.

I know teachers who take course after course, hoping to get some kind of illumination. While these courses are certainly useful and it’s always good to get new information, they aren’t going to teach you to teach, or make sure you teach well, any more than courses are going to teach you to be a good parent. You see, the practice of teaching isn’t about how much you know (although we certainly need to know a lot): it’s about knowing what’s appropriate to your student in any given moment and being able to transmit it to him in a way he can understand. And no course that I know of is going to teach you that.

However, if you remember the mother dog, and relax and listen to your instinct and intuition, the two biggest arrows in our teaching quiver (whether you’re a man or a woman), you will be a lot more effective and, hopefully, stay underwhelmed. The key word here is, “listen,” not “worry.” If you listen, you are tuned in to the other person or to what your intuition is telling you about that other person. If you worry, you aren’t listening to anyone but yourself: not conducive to good teaching. Yes, it’s good to question what you’re doing, but it’s possible to carry it too far and take all the fun out of teaching. If you worry or feel overwhelmed all or most of the time, you aren’t going to enjoy your students – you will be too wrapped up in your own feelings. And of course, your students aren’t going to enjoy lessons from an anguished teacher either.

Realize that you never do enough – it’s simply impossible – so you might as well enjoy what you do do and trust your instincts, intuition and experience to tell you what the right thing is for each student. By all means do the research, take the courses, consider advice given, observe other teachers with more expertise and experience than you, but also remember to listen, relax and enjoy the journey with your students because it really is, in the final analysis, all about them.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

*Disclaimer: I am comparing teaching to motherhood because that’s what I know about. I am sure that many comparisons can be made to fatherhood or parenting in general, but I can only speak from my own experience.

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29 May 2019

One thought on “Overwhelmingness or What Teaching and Motherhood* Have in Common

  1. Ester

    Wow, I’m so relaxed now…
    “forget your ego, forget your ego, forget your ego”
    Thank you Eloise!


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