My second son Johnny is musically gifted and like his mom he loves music. He has always been a super-sweet kid, although when he was younger, he was a bit on the shy side. When he was 12 years old, I took him to a new guitar teacher. Being a quiet person, Johnny didn’t say much during the lesson with his new teacher. The teacher took this the wrong way, he told me he was sensing an “attitude problem.”
I knew that my son did not have an “attitude problem” although, I could see how his teacher may have perceived it that way. I explained to the teacher that Johnny loved the guitar he was just a quiet kid. Things went better after that. (I also took this opportunity to teach my son about trying to be more outgoing.)
This situation made me think about my own students. I knew there were times that I had also struggled with what I had perceived as student attitude problems. I came to the realization that if someone could misread my child, I could certainly be misreading my students as well. I also pondered the idea that if indeed a student had an attitude problem there might be a reason behind it, and there might be something I could do to make the situation better.
My job as a teacher is to reach people, this means that I have to dig deep to discover who my students are, and what makes them tick. Because my ultimate goal is to teach as many students as possible to play the piano well.
What is an “Attitude” Anyway?
“The way that you think and feel about somebody/something; the way that you behave towards somebody/something that shows how you think and feel.” Oxford Dictionary
Obviously, an attitude can be good or challenging. But it’s a challenging attitude that presents the problem. As a teacher, it can be really frustrating trying to teach students who are rude, sarcastic, sassy, or withdrawn. As a human being, it is natural to find such situations troublesome. There are, however, ways to make things easier.
Take a step back-Put it into perspective
“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Dealing with students with attitude problems is indeed annoying but it’s not the end of the world. I may not have control over how my student is behaving at any given moment, but I do have control over how I respond and how it affects me. When dealing with a challenging attitude I try my best to stay calm and carry on with the lesson. I want to give myself some time to decide how I will address the situation.
Observe Don’t Absorb
If a student is being rude, making comments, or displaying unsettling body language I imagine myself as an observer. I don’t absorb the negativity. As the teacher, my job is to teach my student how to play the piano. In order to do this, I need to be a problem solver. I need to find out why my student appears unhappy, unmotivated, or both. Going forward, I try to do my best to discover what is bothering my student.
It’s not always possible to turn things around
Before I delve into problems and solutions, I feel that I need to admit that while I have been able to solve many “attitude problems” I have not been able to solve them all. It’s important to accept the fact that some things are outside of our control.
Here are some of the challenging attitudes I have come across and how I was able to deal with them.
The Quiet Student
This student won’t speak, he avoids answering questions or just nods or gives one-word responses making the lesson feel very long and uncomfortable.
This student may simply be shy or self-conscious. He may need some time to warm up to me and the situation. He may have trouble communicating. In this case, I greet the student warmly, but I try not to talk too much. I stick to teaching and talking about music. As time goes on this type of student usually starts being more interactive.
The “Know it all” Student
Some students just aren’t good at taking direction. This is challenging because how can you teach someone something when they already think they know everything? You can’t. The key is to get your student to realize that you do in fact know more than he or she does.
Stay calm, remember; “observe, don’t absorb”
Spend a lesson or two doing most of the playing. This will help to show your student that it really is something special to be able to play well.
Ask questions. This helps to establish the fact that you do know something your student doesn’t.
Consider that it may be just the opposite of what it seems. Sometimes a lot of bravadoes is actually a cover for feelings of inadequacy. In these cases, it’s important to assign some easier pieces that will help build the student’s confidence.
The Angry Student
Sometimes a quiet student also seems angry. She may not want to be at a piano lesson. Some kids are compelled by parents to take lessons. This can be a very difficult situation because when asked the student will often say that she wants to take lessons. Especially if mom or dad is right there.
With this type of student, I try my best to inspire her and win her over. I sometimes can appeal to her by saying that since she has to be at a piano lesson why not make the best of it? In the end, it is usually possible to work with a student even if she is not that excited about piano lessons. I will continue to work with a student who will practice, be respectful, and show some sense of goodwill. If I find that the lessons are very uncomfortable or that the student is not making progress, I will let them go.
The Student Who Hates Piano Lessons
In my 35-year teaching career, I have had a few students come right out and tell me they don’t want anything to do with the piano. I totally understand this. There are many wonderful activities that I would never want to be involved in (like sky diving, long-distance running, or worse, sewing). When this comes up, I talk to parents about putting their child into an activity he or she will find more to their liking. I explain to parents that if their child is not interested in learning the piano and will not practice at home, they are wasting their time and money. If all else fails I put them on what I call the “last chance program.”
See the post, “Time to Say Goodbye”
The Rude Student
Sometimes, students are just plain rude. They talk back, make snide comments, or even mock me. Sometimes these kids are so crafty that I might not even realize right away that I have been insulted. Other times, it’s not what they say but the way they say it that makes my blood pressure rise. This type of behavior must be nipped in the bud immediately. I have tried using a bit of gentle humor to get the point across that a student’s comments or behavior is unacceptable. Other times I let piano students with challenging attitudes know that they need to turn things around and act more appropriately.
There may be many reasons why a student will behave rudely. It may be that they are accustomed to talking to their friends and family in a sassy manner. Some students even think they are being funny. The bottom line is that as teachers, we deserve to be treated with respect. In fact, we must have the respect of our students if we are to be effective teachers.
The Gifted Student
This is a new one. I had a student who was giving me a hard time. He was exasperated because the piano was “hard”. He thought he was no good at it and had no talent. I spoke with his dad and came to discover that he was in a gifted program at school. Classwork was easy for him. In his mind, the fact that piano work was challenging was proof that he wasn’t good enough.
I explained to him that it was my job to make sure he was challenged so that he would keep getting better. I talked to him about the difference between being in a class with other students and having a private lesson. This turned things around for him.
I love funny kids! I really appreciate a good sense of humor but not so much during piano lessons. We only have thirty minutes to an hour to work and quite a bit to accomplish, so while a little jocularity might be amusing, we just don’t have time for a lot of fooling around.
I have found that a student may clown around because he is nervous or anxious. At times a student acts up as a diversion because he is unprepared for the lesson. Some kids are natural comedians and love to joke around. If I feel that a student is clowning because he is feeling uncomfortable, I do my best to put him at ease. After that. I remind my little jokester that the clock is ticking, and we have to get to work.
Challenges are part of the job
As teachers facing challenges of all kinds is what we do. From musical and technical issues to attitude and motivational issues, we have to come up with creative ways to educate our students. I do my best to be patient with my students and with myself and look at challenges as an interesting part of the job of piano teaching. As piano teachers, we have a long-lasting impact on people’s lives. Our job is important and rewarding.
As for Johnny
My son John is grown with three kids of his own. He isn’t shy anymore he teaches music and plays professionally.
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