“What if You Don’t Like the Parents?” Emotional Control

“What if you don’t like the parents?”

This is a question asked on a teaching blog I read recently. The blogger (an experienced school teacher) replied that teachers are only human but generally succeed in separating the parent from the child.

I disagree with the second part of this answer and here’s why: it should never be necessary to separate the child from his parents because we must never allow ourselves when teaching to get emotionally involved in disliking anyone in the first place. This doesn’t make us any less human but it does make us a lot more professional.

This problem can be especially prevalent for private music teachers because of the close working relationship we must often have with the parents of our students, especially the younger ones. We see our students maybe a half an hour a week and their parents must help them practice at home. This means that we are teaching our students and their parents. Given that private music study is not part of compulsory education (unless an illuminated parent sees it that way) we must often convince the parents of the value of steady practice and listening, the importance of a decent and properly adjusted instrument, etc. Therefore a good relationship with the parents is of utmost importance. No separation here of student and parent here! School teachers have their students all day and have much less contact with the parents. Perhaps they can permit themselves to like or dislike a parent but we can’t also for the following reasons.

Firstly, as most instrumental teachers have trained to perform, this means we are transmitters. Put a performing personality with one that likes to teach and you have a really powerful transmitter. This means that it is very difficult for you, a music teacher, to have an opinion or an unpleasant emotion and not transmit it.  Haven’t you ever had the perception that someone didn’t like or trust you or that you did not make a good impression on someone? Surely all of us have had this experience. Therefore do you think that you, the human equivalent of a radio station, can take a dislike to a student’s parents and they will not perceive it on some level? Never assume that you can think whatever you like and no one will know. People are a lot smarter and more sensitive than you may think.

Secondly, deciding you like or don’t like someone means you are emotionally involved which makes it much harder to teach. Very few musicians or even music teachers  teach their own children for this reason. (I did but only because I had to given our unusual circumstances.) Doctors are not allowed to perform surgery on close family members for the fear that their emotions will cloud their judgment. But they will operate on someone they are not linked to emotionally, be it a serial killer or a famous political figure, without much problem – they are paying attention to the job at hand and not to whom they are dealing with. You have to keep your head on your shoulders, otherwise you cannot work well. There is absolutely no necessity for you as a teacher to make an emotional decision about your students and/or their parents. If you do, your emotional decision about them just calls up more emotional decisions on their part and then things really get messy. We have to deal with the problems that present themselves without judging or making assumptions about who presents them.

Of course, we can love our students on a philosophical, spiritual level, but they have grandparents to love them in an emotional way. They need us to teach them and to do this we have to have a clear head on our shoulders. We have to be able to see our students in that moment, what their personal and instrumental problems are and respond to them without investing ourselves in the personal outcome or worrying what our relationship will be with them (i.e., will they love us back?). Only if we are impartial can we help them most effectively.

This goes for the parents, too. If I decide that I dislike the parents, how can I help them? Instead of deciding they are not “nice” people, I can notice that they tend to get upset very easily, or are very protective of their child, that they tend to be harder on their children than may be necessary or don’t fully trust me. I can help them with all this but not if I am minimally hostile or defensive toward them. I have found in the past that difficult people will become even more difficult if they understand that someone has judged them in some way. Conversely, I have had dealings with people who never gave me any trouble but, I later found out, others considered impossible to deal with. In my experience, people who behave badly are not happy. You not only don’t make them any happier by judging them, but make a good working relationship with them almost impossible.

How to avoid these emotional pitfalls? It’s called being professional. Whether you like or dislike someone is completely beside the point, even irrelevant – not to mention harmful to your effectiveness as a teacher. Emmanuel Hurwitz, first violin of the Aeloian Quartet who was also a marvelous teacher, once said, “I am always surprised when I listen to my recordings by how much emotional control I had!” Just as you need emotional control in your playing, you need it in your teaching. I will admit that it can be difficult not to react to certain provocative circumstances, but remaining calm, unreactive and in a state of non-judgment is also a habit that can be acquired, just like all the good habits you formed to become a teacher or a performer in the first place.

Not long ago a young teacher called me, distraught because the parents of one of her students had decided to enroll their very young child in the local conservatory and were asking her to continue giving him lessons anyway. Fine, up to this point. But her reaction was that these parents were not showing respect for her and were giving her abilities as a teacher very little consideration. Not fine – she had allowed her emotions to get involved. My advice to her was to listen to what the parents actions were saying about them and not what they were saying about her, and a quite different story might emerge. In fact, taking one step back and looking dispassionately at the situation, this teacher remembered that the parents (emigrees) had an extremely talented child and very little money which is why they were considering the conservatory (state-run here and very inexpensive). The boy also had won a six month scholarship to study in the private music school where this teacher works and the parents wanted their child to continue his lessons with her because he greatly enjoyed them. Disrespect and underestimation of this teacher’s value had nothing to do with it. So my young friend decided to keep teaching the child anyway. I also explained that this was an excellent way for her to have an impact on the musical life of this gifted little boy and if his parents wanted the child to have contact with her, then it was really an affirmation of her value instead of what her emotions were telling her.

Who knows what the end of this story will be, but if a teacher deals with any situation with a clear and unemotional head, she will probably do the right thing for the student – which is what teaching is really all about, isn’t it?

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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28 April 2017

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