In my experience, there are two types of parents that we have to deal with:
- The ones that see the teacher as a sort of demigod, do whatever the teacher asks and always defer to her (the ideal?).
- Everyone else (reality).
We can subdivide the second group:
- People who ask reasonable questions, always speaking up when they don’t understand something and who are generally very easy, even fun, to deal with.
- Parents who can be uncooperative, defensive, difficult and can make annoying “observations.”
- Those who never open their mouths.
Of these three, you might think the second is the most difficult for us to cope with. Not so. The most dangerous is the third. Why? Yet another Important Principle:
YOU CAN’T DEAL WITH A PROBLEM YOU DON’T KNOW EXISTS
Beware the parents who never open their mouths. You don’t know what they are thinking. And you really do need to know this as parents are intrinsic to the success of their children. Quite recently I had a student who was doing well, making excellent progress. The mother was very pleasant and seemed to be doing her part of the job quite well. After a year and a half of lessons, the mother called me to say she was not going to insist the child practice, that child hated the CD she had to listen to and hated the instrument because it is too difficult. I was really taken by surprise. (which isn’t easy). If the mother had only spoken up, or the daughter had said something, or given some indication that things were worse than the usual, “She doesn’t like to practice much” (who does?), I could have tried to do something about it before it was too late. I suspect that the problem was more the mother/daughter relationship than the student/violin relationship, but if no one speaks up, there isn’t much I can do. I didn’t even get a chance to be (or not to be) patient!
No matter how good our intuition is, sometimes one gets past us and catches us unawares. We may have great intuition but are so focused on the student, we may not get really clear signals from the parent. So give me your obstreperous, opinionated, uninformed, vocal parent any day – at least there is something to wrestle with!
One of the most important teaching lessons I have ever had in this regard, I got from my brother 35 years or so ago. We were in another foreign country at a big dinner party when one of the guests silenced all other conversation at the table by talking about what a scam life insurance was. His behavior, manner and tone were extremely offensive, loud and rude. Everyone at the table was quite shocked – except my brother, who in a previous career had been a successful life insurance salesman. He smoothly addressed every one of the protests and affirmations of this man, eventually calming him down, much to the relief of the other dinner guests. After the party, I asked my brother, “How could you put up with such an ill-mannered person?” His answer: “Oh, that was easy – when I sold life insurance I had made my biggest sales to people exactly like him.” Moral? YOU HAVE TO BE GLAD WHEN THEY SPEAK UP, NO MATTER WHAT THEY SAY OR HOW THEY SAY IT and try to turn the situation to your (and your student’s) advantage. No room for hurt feelings or professional pride here. The hardest sale* is to the customer who never opens up, never says a word. You can’t argue with him, so you can’t convince him of anything either.
This brings me to my last Important Principle:
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO ATTAIN A GOAL UNLESS YOU HAVE ONE.
This sounds ridiculously obvious, but you have to have a goal even when dealing with the parents – a bottom line. If not, you wind up all over the place, bouncing from problem to problem, reacting instead of acting. The most effective goal? You want your parents to feel good about themselves, their children and your teaching. If you keep this in mind (I will admit, it can be difficult on occasion), everything else will fall into place.
*Let’s be honest. We are trying to sell something whether we like to think of it in those terms or not.