Think Twice Before You Take Advice

There exist many excellent forums where teachers with problems, problematic students or problematic students’ parents can ask other teachers for help and advice. Often lots of interesting points of view are offered by experienced and inventive teachers. I have taken advantage of some of them myself.

However, lately there is a tendency that has been troubling me. When teachers ask advice about what to do with “difficult” parents, I sometimes find the advice given to be hurried, not thought through, provocative (in the bad sense), slightly hysterical and sometimes just plain ill-considered, and thus could cause all manner of trouble for the teacher who may choose to follow it.

Its important to remember that not everyone teaches for the same reason or has the same philosophy as others of us may have, even if everyone is using the same method. Therefore, their advice is coming from their point of view, from their idea of what teaching is, from their own good or bad teaching and life experiences (which may have nothing to do with the problem at hand), and we may have difficulty discerning any of this even though some of these teachers may have excellent reputations or at least are highly visible on the music/teaching scene.

As an example, a common response to a teacher who is having problems with certain parents is to get rid of them, or “fire” the family. Now while I can concede that there are circumstances where it may behoove a teacher to cut ties with certain families, rarely in these pieces of advice did I find any concern for the children involved. We might want to consider this, for example, before we take any advice, no matter how well-intentioned. If our philosophy, work ethic, monetary situation, studio size, ambition and life experience are exactly the same as the advice giver’s, which we have no way of knowing, then their advice may be right for us. But if our situation is completely or even partially different? What may be good advice for one person may bring total disaster for another. So before acting on any advice, I’d ask myself a few questions:

  1. As I am trying to help children and adults play an instrument well and trying to foster good relations between parent and child, do I want to bail out at the first or even second or third difficulty?
  2. Is it my style to insist on absolute obedience to myself and/or my method?
  3. Am I in this work to satisfy and serve my own philosophical principles (and to maintain them at all costs) and/or to earn a living in the least stressful way possible?
  4. Is the love that Dr. Suzuki, among others, talked about important to me? if it is, then I would ask myself where the love is in the advice I’m getting. Where is the love for my students if I act on the advice to not deal with their parents because “I’m not paid enough” to put up with certain problems or that my method “isn’t being respected?”
  5. When parents send me not very nice emails are they really “abusive” not only to me but, according to some advisors, to their child and/or spouses?  Should I call in the social services, as some have advised me, even though I have not seen or indicated in my request for advice any evidence of any child or spousal abuse?
  6. And, if the child is important to me and if a parent does try to bully me, am I really so meek  and defenseless that I can’t at least attempt to handle such a situation for the benefit of that child?
  7. Is letting a family go really the only way to handle the situation I’m asking about?

You see, many advice givers are not terribly worried about the welfare of the student. Maybe you aren’t either. But whether you are or not, before you act on the advice to “respectfully” get rid of those families, or even to call the social services, you should consider a few potentially serious consequences.

  1. That firing a family means depriving a child of perhaps the only kind, benevolent and non-judging adult presence in his or her life.
  2. That getting rid of them means depriving these difficult parents the opportunity, with time and understanding, to modify their behavior. It is possible, no matter how unlikely it may seem.
  3. That firing them means not resolving what may be a terrible misunderstanding about the whole situation: sometimes families are going through difficult moments which they don’t want to or just can’t bring themselves to talk about – death, divorce, illness, job changes, financial difficulties (often bunched together) – which may manifest themselves in ways that may make you, the teacher, think you are being mistreated and that it’s all about you, and thus not giving all this trouble a chance to resolve itself with a little time and patience.
  4. That being obstinate that your way of teaching is the only way to teach or the only way that you can teach, may not serve you or the rest of your students as well as you might think. Why? Usually being stuck in our ways makes it more difficult to learn anything new and sometimes learning that there is more than one way to do things or resolve a problem is good for us. It’s in everyone’s possibility to be flexible enough to change our way of doing things, even if only temporarily, to help another human being (or beings) in difficulty. Do you really want to make a child pay for the sins of his parents because you are unwilling to give in on something or perhaps make a few concessions for one student? Is that really a precedent that would make all the rest of the parents clamor for changes?  Plus, if you think of it, you make changes all the time to the way you teach – you can’t teach every student the same thing and in the same way in each lesson. Everyone is different, so we all make changes all the time whether we are aware of it or not.
  5. That calling in the social services can create terrible problems for innocent people. This is a very serious matter and you should only consider doing this when you have absolute proof of physical or severe emotional trauma AND after you have personally consulted a lawyer or some other professional first (I’m talking about private teachers here – I know school teachers may have a set protocol to follow).
  6. That it can all blow up in your face. Let’s say that none of the above matters to you. Consider this then: that firing a difficult family could create real problems for you, the teacher. Vindictive and nasty people can be, well, vindictive and nasty. Even normally nice people can be vindictive and nasty. They can call the social services on you. They can report you to the IRS or some other government agency. You may be as pure as the driven snow, but these allegations must by law be investigated and can cause all manner of undeserved grief for you and your family.

You see, you never really know with whom you’re dealing. When I was a child, a wise lady (who had spent a lot of time with dangerous and unpredictable people) told me, “You back away lightly from a fool.” That’s excellent advice that we would all do well to remember and to pass on. Don’t antagonize, don’t provoke and try to do the best for your student within your possibilities. If there is a heated situation, wait for it to calm down and then gently find a way to “redirect” the family, if that’s what you deem necessary after careful consideration. Using the word “respectfully,” by the way, doesn’t make your actions any less provocative or antagonistic. If you want to get out of or ameliorate a bad situation while causing the least discomfort for everyone, don’t worry about your pride and being right. Also consider that telling a family that it isn’t a fit for your program, even with respect, is effectively telling the child you don’t want to teach him. That’s what his parents may well tell him you said. Think how you will feel about that in the future once you have gotten over your relief at not having to deal with his family anymore.

Remember also that some people make rapid assumptions and give advice accordingly without really knowing or understanding the whole situation, even though may they think they do. Sometimes they even misunderstand the question. Often I see the “fire the family” advice given to a teacher who is asking how to resolve a situation with a family, not how to get rid of it.

Therefore, before deciding on what advice to take about any given problem-causing family, carefully reconsider the whole situation. Consult an expert, a lawyer or the local music teachers association as well. You might want to reconsider what may be your rather uncompromising position in your method of teaching (which you may not even realize you have until you stop to think about it). Also, consider the well-being of the child before you take any action. Some situations require a great deal of tact, diplomacy, time and good timing. You might also remember that there may be much more to any given situation than you may have perceived and can talk about about in a question to the general teaching public. After all, the well-meaning advice givers are only hearing your perhaps abbreviated side of the story.

By all means, ask for advice or opinions on the various sites for teachers on how you might handle difficult situations, but remember that the advice givers don’t suffer the consequences of their advice. You might, though. So be careful…

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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27 February 2019

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