Music Teacher's Helper Blog

What Great Teachers Do Differently


The Virtual Music Education Conference produced by Janice and Kevin Tuck packs four days with online presentations by experts in the field of music education. Even though it’s been around for years, my very first time to attend the online conference was this year. To be honest, I attended because I was invited as a presenter for the conference. I discovered that it was not only an honor to be included in the schedule as a speaker but also an honor to have access to the highly esteemed conference and learn from so many leaders in our field. There’s still time to access the conference. Learn more here.

I was glued to my seat listening to the first day’s presenters. In fact, I already purchased a couple of books while listening to the first two sessions! One of the books that I’ll be rereading soon is Todd Whitaker’s entitled, What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most. As I listened to Whitaker speak and then while reading his book, I kept thinking that I should have absorbed his advice years ago. It would have helped me to deal more professionally and effectively with troublesome student behavior and needy parents!

As I know you’ll want to purchase his book yourself I won’t “ruin” it by providing those 17 things here in this post. Instead, I’ve made some tweaks that show how I applied Whitaker’s advice for me as an independent piano studio teacher. For those you don’t teach piano, please make minor adjustments!

Begin each of the following sentences with: Great piano teachers…

1) Know that it may be the teacher that needs to improve before the student can improve at the keys.

Ex: Before you believe the student is the problem, check to see if you might be the problem and make steps to find a solution.

2) Understand that the method book and exams are not the keys to measuring success on the bench.

Ex: If a student wants to play “Fur Elise” great teachers will adapt their curriculum and realize that even though this may be the 100th student in their studio playing “Fur Elise”, it’s the student’s very first time to experience and enjoy “Fur Elise.”

3) Establish clear practice strategies and expectations of progress at the first lesson. They believe that instilling strong practice habits is just as important as learning skills at the piano.

Ex: Practice with students at every lesson to ensure they understand how to practice and how to measure their own progress between lessons.

4) Manage their studio policies thoughtfully. When they say something, they mean it! This helps to protect lesson time and their own family time.

Ex: Set down firm policies and abide by them. If you do not want to teach on Saturdays, do not let families talk you into it. It will ultimately lead to resentment and negativity towards the student. It’s always better to under promise and over deliver.

5) Have one goal when students misbehave in lessons or camps: to keep that behavior from happening again.

Ex: Set behavior expectations at the onset and expect respect from every student. If a student is misbehaving in a group setting and it won’t stop with your careful guidance, contact the student’s parents without letting the student know. It will have a stronger impact and the behavior issues will disappear.


6) Have high expectations for students but have even higher expectations for themselves.

Ex: Reprimanding and creating angry students is not the solution. Focus on preventing misbehavior and lack of practice rather than punishing them. If students are restless or don’t practice, reexamine your own preparation and double check that your content and instruction is effective and engaging.

7) Consistently strive to improve and focus on something they can control: their own skills as a teacher and pianist.

Ex: If you are not gaining their attention, YOU need to change your approach and instruction. Accept responsibility for your effectiveness and avoid the excuse of “he’s just not a good student.”

8) Focus on a broad vision for their curriculum and offer students’ well-balanced musicianship skills.

Ex: Avoid the “Complainers Club” and stay away from whining about a student not practicing. Focus on the needs of students first every day at every lesson.

9) Create a positive atmosphere in their studios, treat all with respect and understand the power of praise.

Ex: Provide praise that is authentic (true) specific (ex: “nice, crisp staccatos!”) immediate (soon after the activity) clean (avoid adding a “but” after a phrase of praise) and private (the preferred method so as not to make one uncomfortable in front of others.)

10) Consistently filter out negatives that don’t matter and share a positive attitude.

Ex: Set a positive tone at the beginning of every lesson regardless of personal issues and students will reflect that. You decide the tone of your perspective. Find a private place to vent and then let it go!

11) Work hard to keep relationships in good standing to avoid personal hurt and repair any relational damage.

Ex: When dealing with issues with students and/or parents remember the phrase: “I’m sorry that happened.” It shows that you care about their feelings but you are not placing blame or taking fault for the situation.

12) Have the ability to ignore trivial disturbances and respond to inappropriate behavior without escalating the situation.

Ex: Group lesson management begins with your ability to control your own behavior. Use the question “Can I help you?” to redirect chatting or goofing off and avoid using anger to change behavior.

13) Have a plan and purpose for everything they do and if plans don’t meet expectations, they reflect on what they could do differently.

Ex: Read the crowd and if student eyes are glazed over, revisit plans and make adjustments to make connections. Prepare plenty of tools to reinforce concepts to secure student comprehension.


14) Continually ask themselves if their “favorite students “ will be comfortable with their actions.

Ex: In a group setting, our well-behaved students want misbehavior addressed but want us to deal with it respectfully.

Ex: If you need to make changes in lesson format, imagine you are explaining this situation to your loyal families. Make sure they are comfortable with your reasons. This will give you the confidence to make the change.

15) Have empathy for others, especially high achievers.

Ex: Make the people who do the right thing feel comfortable. If you teach group lessons and wish for everyone to stop playing while you talk, stop talking and wait for everyone to stop playing. Those who follow rules will do so immediately and feel good about their careful listening. It will make the ones still playing after everyone else has stopped aware of their failure to listen and will most likely follow the “listening crowd” next time.

Ex: When teaching in groups, teach to the top. Keep quick learners engaged in learning and it will provide momentum in progress through all levels.

16) Give equal weight to developing well-balanced musicians and shaping the “people skills” of the next generation.

Ex: Model the behavior you want to see in your studio. Make sure to take care of yourself so you have the energy to share it with others. Keep things neat, be polite and show respect to students.

“Aim to be the teacher you would want for your own children to have!” – Whitaker

17) Keep a healthy perspective on festivals, recitals, tests and competitions. Then realize that every decision should rest on what is best for the student.

Ex: What’s more important? Passing the next exam or keeping the student on the bench for a lifetime?

I encourage you to read Whitaker’s book as I’ve just touched the surface!


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1 Comment

  1. Brian

    Great post! I need to internalize some of these more. Especially at times number 4.

    I’m a little obsessed about number three. Maybe sometimes I spend a little too long in lessons on how to practice. I think it’s incredibly important though.

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