“Why Does My Teacher Get So Frustrated?” Letter to a Perplexed Student

I think teachers can all admit that circumstances may arise in our professional lives that would send the most forbearing and saintly of souls over the edge and down into the black pit of frustration. When I saw the above question on my blog stats, which must have troubled a student enough to pose it to the World Wide Web, I realized that many students may not understand how or why this can happen. His search engine sent him to one of my blog posts but, as I usually write articles about how teachers can avoid frustration and stay happy in their work, I don’t know which of my posts could have directly answered his question. I’ll try to answer it now. 

Dear Violin (Oboe, Double Bass, Marimba, Tuba, Whatever) Student,

Yours is indeed an excellent question. Indeed it’s one I often ask myself: why indeed do we teachers get so frustrated?

I’ll let you in on a little secret – I hope you’re sitting down because this is going to blow you away…

Teachers are human beings, too – not, as most students seem to think, unfeeling torture machines put on the face of this earth with the sole mission to annoy you.

Yes, teachers have hopes. aspirations, emotions, hobbies and a life outside their studios, believe it or not. I know how shocked some of my students are when they run into me at the grocery store, see my thriving geraniums when they come to my home, or find out I can make brownies. And, I must confess, I felt the same way about my teachers when I was young. Therefore you should know that we feel all the same emotions you do – and that includes frustration.

I think you know frustration: it’s that feeling you have when you are trying to tell someone about something important to you and that person doesn’t listen or give any consideration to you or to what you’re saying. Remember how you feel then? In fact, frustration is defined as “the feeling of being upset or annoyed as a result of being unable to change or achieve something.” *

I know this is hard to believe but we teachers were also students once, too. And not necessarily perfect ones either (we probably don’t want you to know this as we would like to forget it ourselves – and some of us succeed). Therefore, we know what it means to waste time and opportunities and how, in some hidden away part of our souls, we wish we hadn’t.

So when we see a student has potential (and all students do) and is perhaps making the same mistakes we did or is inventing some of his own, we get frustrated. We know how happy we are that we can play our instruments, and we want you to be happy, too.

And that’s really the root cause of all our teacherly frustrations. You see, we want you to be happy. And happiness comes from doing something well. We know what it takes to do something well. We understand the trials, tribulations and, yes, the frustrations of music study, but we know how happy and fulfilled it makes us feel and we, generous souls that we are, want you to feel the same way.

However, your teacher needs your help. When you don’t cooperate, she’s frustrated and thus miserable. Do you want her to be unhappy? When you put obstacles in her path by forgetting your music, your music stand and sometimes even your instrument, she may start frothing at the mouth. Do you want this responsibility? When you don’t care about all the effort she makes to write in bowings and fingerings and you ignore them, can you blame her for getting upset and gnashing her teeth? When you give ridiculous excuses for not practicing like, “It was raining” or “I had too much homework” or “My friends came over to play” or, worst of all, “My soccer coach called extra practice sessions,” can you really blame her for tearing her hair out? When in a group or orchestra practice, you’re late, have brought the wrong music, poke your neighbor with your bow or other instrumental accessory, talk when you shouldn’t or inform the conductor that you don’t agree with her interpretation of the piece in question, can you blame her for having the sudden desire to change her name and move to an unspecified and uncharted desert island somewhere, anywhere, in the Pacific Ocean? When you make the same mistake over and over because you haven’t practiced that passage the way your teacher has told you (also many times), can you blame her for wanting to throw your instrument out the third story window of your conservatory or music school (I know a teacher who actually did this, poor fellow)? When your teacher has told you the same thing at least 5,000 times and she knows you aren’t listening, can you blame her for looking at you with an desperate gleam in her eye when you innocently ask why she didn’t tell you that before? When you miss recitals, which have taken months to prepare for, because your presence was vital in an impromptu tennis tournament or last-day-of-school party organized at the last minute, can you blame her for wishing she hadn’t given up her career on an automotive assembly line to teach you?

All of these teachers are suffering, yes suffering, from frustration brought on by students who knowingly or unknowingly thwart their teachers’ efforts to put them on the path to self-discipline and self-awareness which are milestones along the road to happiness and self-fulfillment. Do you really want to be one of those students who remains ignorant, unaware and undisciplined? Your teacher is trying to give you the tools to conquer just about any obstacle in life. Do you really want to make her job even more difficult? Some teachers have a lower threshold for frustration than others and thus may give up on a student sooner than others. Do you want your teacher to give up on you? Science has shown that musical training forms superior beings – don’t you want to be one, too?

Your teacher gets frustrated because she cares enough to want to help you achieve something she knows is wonderful. You may not realize it yet as may take a long time to understand the possibilities of music. But you must trust your teacher who has a lot more life experience than you do and partakes of something called wisdom (defined as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment”**) which she has a lot of and your lack of which is why you go to school and should listen to your elders. Trust that she knows something, a lot of things actually, that you do not which will certainly come in handy in the long life you have before you. They might even be things she wished she had known at your age and no one told her.

After all, what’s the alternative? Not caring?? Do you really want a teacher who doesn’t care one way or the other? I doubt it. So take care of your teacher. Help her. Understand that she is just as human as you are. That she has a mission in life to help you and gets frustrated when you obstruct her efforts. And you can help her avoid this awful frustration thing by practicing as she asks you to, within reason. You can make the effort to be on time, bring the right music, be respectful, listen to her advice, indeed – if you only listen without even taking her advice that would already be an improvement.

Take care of your teacher. She is precious. She is your best friend. She is there for you. Whether or not you play your instrument well or whether or not you play well in a group depends on how much you help your teacher help you, the result being that no one is frustrated and everyone is happy.

Most importantly, remember that if you make your teacher frustrated today, you are going to be the one who is frustrated tomorrow when you realize, too late, that you had thrown away a unique opportunity because you had unthinkingly impeded the efforts of another human being who was giving his or her all to help you be a better and happier one.

It’s as simple as that.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

* and ** en.oxforddictionaries.com

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24 August 2018

2 thoughts on ““Why Does My Teacher Get So Frustrated?” Letter to a Perplexed Student

  1. Gregory James Lawrence

    Well, that was interesting… I agree 100%, but I was a bit surprised … we had spoken before about such frustrations. You told me to not ever stop teaching a student who did not step up to do even the bare minimum of effort… that, a teacher doing so, is failing the student. I still disagree with that… I feel one of the most important things we teach is ‘discipline’, and we hope the student experiences the ‘joy of improvement’ that is the result of ‘discipline’. I have a looooong fuse… it takes me months, mayabe a year before I give a warning to a student (and I am not talking 5 – 10 year olds, more like middle school age or older), that they may have to find another teacher who doesn’t care if they improve or not. This ‘talk’ has yielded good results for me… 80% of the time, the student steps up to the plate and makes the effort… but there is the other 15-20% who never get it. Even then, I hang in as long as I can… and usually those quit altogether before I have to actually suggest they may do better with another teacher. Also, I don’t believe I am ‘the teacher’ for everyone. THat, perhaps it is best for a student to go to another teacher. On the other hand, it’s p[aiful when one has a student who has improved greatly, and after a few months or year, they tell you they want to leave you for another teacher… if you have not written on that subject, that would be a good one.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, i had told you not to give up no matter what and that looks like what you’re doing in most of the cases – not giving up. Of course, older students are different. But grade school and middle schoolers need extra chances. I know a lot of professional musicians who are grateful that their teachers didn’t give up on them at that age. Usually by age 14 or 15 things seems to straighten themselves out – either the student buckles down or decides to quit. Anyway, in this article I was talking about a teacher’s frustrations to a student who actually has one who is frustrated, or better, is feigning frustration to get through to the student. We have to be actors. If I “lose my temper” with a student, I am actually not angry but he needs me to bawl him out in that moment, so I do it. Some kids need fireworks. Others you have to be extremely careful with. I had one student with whom I never spoke above a whisper. I wasn’t aware of it until someone pointed it out to me. So it’s entirely possible that our perplexed student has a teacher who is trying to get him to understand something (not a technical point) that he just isn’t getting and appears to be frustrated to the student. Or else the student commits 100 times or so any of the crimes I listed and sends his poor teacher off the deep end (we are only human, after all!). The point of this article is to explain to a student that we teachers are human beings and that we really want to help them achieve something wonderful. That’s all. Some people have told me that a teacher should never show frustration. Again, I was not saying a teacher should be frustrated but that a student should understand that their lack of interest/caring/attention definitely has an impact on another human being who is trying to help them. I, personally, never feel frustrated with my students, but it has been useful to students on occasion to let them think I am. If I allowed my emotions to rule me in a six or seven hour teaching day (without a break), I would be in big trouble! But that’s another story.

      As far as a student leaving after making great improvements with you, she has probably been poached by another teacher. This happens a lot more often than you might think. This happened to me, almost. A mother was invited by friends to have her daughter (my student) play for a section leader of an important orchestra in a big city here. He heard her, did everything in his power to convince the mother to bring the child to him. Fortunately, she didn’t fall for it. I can see listening to a student and advising the parents to change the teacher (I unfortunately have had to do this – but you have to think of the good of the child, not of the other teacher), but when the teacher tries to get that student for himself, saying that the child’s technique was a mess – well that’s highly suspect and unethical. But you see, I had this student from when she was 3 years old so we had a long history together, but the mother soon after got another opinion anyway from a bigshot virtuoso here in Italy who told her that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the child’s technique (which i taught her). End of problem. She stayed with me until it was time to go to another teacher and she’s now a pro. But not all parents are as trusting. Sometimes a student wants to study with the same teacher as his best friend. I can tell you one thing, though. You’re a genius until a parent makes a decision, the elements of which may have no basis in reality. The kid is theirs. The fact that you’re doing a wonderful job means nothing. I have written a blog post on this and will send it to you…

      Thanks again for your comment.


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