Tinker, Tailor, Teacher, Spy…

The beauty of private teaching is that you, the teacher, can be anything you want to be. We are all actors and can choose our roles. If you want to be an autocrat, go right ahead – axing your students or their parents when they don’t live up to your expectations. You can be a babysitter, wearily dragging along your students with uncooperative parents, just waiting for the half hour to be over. You can be the frustrated virtuoso who would rather be playing but has to teach to survive, and take out those frustrations on your less than perfect students. You can be your students’ best buddy, cultivating, above all, a wonderful and loving relationship with your students and to heck with any kind of discipline.

Or, like any good actor, you can be all things to all people. The bad actor is the one who can only play one role. That’s also a good description of a bad teacher, in my opinion. Yes, sometimes we have to be autocratic when the situation calls for it, i.e., when the student needs it, not when we need to do it; when the student needs to be waked up, not when we are thinking of our own comfort. Yes, we may have to be a confidante when students need this due to some trauma in their lives, not because we want or need them to love us. Yes, we may be a frustrated virtuoso, but we realize that true immortality lies in teaching so our frustrations are left outside the studio door – but we use our fabulous technique to our students’ advantage and not our own (i.e., showing off when it’s didactically necessary).

I am particularly disturbed by a recent thread on a music teaching forum where a young teacher wanted some ideas on how to deal with two hard-to-handle young students whose parents don’t cooperate. Many teachers gave great ideas, some practical and others just plain compassionate. But other ideas offered were simply, “You’re not a babysitter so get rid of them.”

Well, you’re only a babysitter if you want to be – or a dictator or any other role, for that matter. Show me another profession, however, where the professional tells his clients/patients, “Either do as I say or out you go!” Rarely would a doctor, lawyer, or dentist do such a thing. Actually, my grandfather, who was a dentist, did in his youth throw someone out of his studio. He had reason to bitterly regret this, learned to control his really pretty awful temper and became highly respected in his profession. He learned an important lesson: we are in a service profession. Meaning we serve, not we get served.

I saw the word “respect” bandied about a lot in that thread. But this was only in reference to respect for the teacher, i.e., “they (the parents and/or the students) are disrespecting you.” No one talked about respect for the student. What is this respect we are supposed to get from our clients? For me, that they pay me. I think the rest is pure ego in the sense that a teacher who is worried about getting respect isn’t worried enough about giving it.. Funny thing is that I get respected anyway. Why? I don’t see a child who misbehaves as being disrespectful or being a problem, but as having a one. He needs help and who am I to deny him this or at least not give him my best effort? It’s important for a teacher to have respect for her own professionality which in my way of thinking means having respect for the student. I don’t see much of that in: “If they don’t do it my way, I’ll get rid of them.”

So if you have difficult students and don’t want to be a babysitter. Don’t be one. You can always teach a student something. It may be not what you want to teach (and since when is teaching about us anyway?) but it may be what they need to learn. Do you really want to “fire” a family because they don’t do what you say? Or because they don’t do what is good for the instrument? Or because what they do or not do isn’t good for whatever method you are using? Have you considered the consequences of this action? Do you really want the responsibility of making a child feel like a failure at a young age, especially when it isn’t his fault? Do you really want to deny a child the chance to discover music because she isn’t doing things the “right” way? Are you really so sure you’re right about everything? Do you really want to be self righteous?

I had a student once whose family was simply incapable of discipline. Lovely people but what could I do? I pulled this little girl along for four long years (age 4 to 8) until I could teach her to read music. I remember wondering on occasion why they even brought this child to have lessons, but I didn’t give up. I don’t even know what kept me going. It was still difficult for a few more years but at age 11 she “discovered” the violin. God helps whoever tries to take her violin from her (she is now 17). I learned so much from my experience with her that I would teach (and probably have) a hundred of such students to get only one result like hers, a student who many on that thread would have made stop lessons. Another former student to whom I am very closely related, hated the violin, hated practicing, couldn’t wait to quit when she turned 14 (the age I told her she could make her own decision). Guess who is a concertmaster/soloist and has hordes of adoring students? Yes, if I had let her quit, the world could have kept turning without yet another excellent performer, but we would have lost a truly superior teacher. After all, teachers are a lot more influential in the long run than performers, an influence that can last for generations whether or not the students continue to play. We need just a few excellent performers to inspire students, but hordes of excellent teachers to turn that inspiration into reality.

So yes, you can expect respect from your students and their families. But you can’t have it unless you give it to them first. Respect your students. Respect the fact they have difficulties. Respect the fact that as a teacher you have immense power to do either good or harm. Respect the fact that the children most difficult to teach are those who most need good teaching. Respect that good teaching isn’t always what you think it is or what your didactics courses may  have taught you. Respect the fact that you are going to have to change roles quite frequently (and it’s kinda fun and you’ll never get bored). And above all, respect the fact that you don’t know everything and can learn a lot more from your more intransigent and hard to deal with students and parents than you ever will from the “easy” ones who always obey. In essence, have respect for teaching and it will respect you. If your bottom line is that your student learn something, then you will never feel disrespected.

Yes, whoever said on that thread that we are not babysitters is absolutely right. You are only if you want to be. But you can choose to be a teacher instead and try to solve the myriad and fascinating problems that present themselves instead of getting rid of students who pose difficulties. Step outside your chosen method and accept the challenges that doing things differently offers. Leave your comfort zone of what you would like or have been trained to do. You may be surprised at the results not only in your students but in your growth as a teacher and a human being.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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26 March 2018

4 thoughts on “Tinker, Tailor, Teacher, Spy…

  1. Carol de la Haye

    “Respect the fact that the children most difficult to teach are those who most need good teaching.” Bingo! Insightful, caring, and without the crushing ego of so much teaching ‘advice’. I find the ‘difficulties’ and conundrums presented to me by some of my pupils to be amongst the most thought-provoking, and ultimately rewarding, experiences of my life, precisely because the lead me onto different paths of thinking and ingenuity. Your counsel, Eloise, is wise, compassionate, and, ultimately, successful — often in ways one could never have predicted. Mille grazie…

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Thank you for your kind comment. I have often learned so much more from my harder to teach students. They have truly enriched my life.

  2. Bonny

    Well-said, Eloise. “After all, teachers are a lot more influential in the long run than performers, an influence that can last for generations whether or not the students continue to play.” True that. I think it’s more fun too with so many opportunities for personal growth and development in ways that occupying a chair in an orchestra cannot compare with.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Yes, I agree with you that it can be a lot more fun – lots of contact with interesting people as well as helping people give birth to their own expression. The responsiblity is also scary. Our capacity to do harm is just as great as it is to do good, both of which can last for generations. And the best part is the truth of what one of my college professors told me many years ago when I was expressing my doubts of my knowlege when I was about to teach undergraduates: “Don’t worry, Eloise – you never really learn anything until you teach it.” He was so right!


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