Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Whose Side Are You On?

It’s an interesting question to pose to yourself as a teacher, from time to time, when you are evaluating your work with a student:  Whose side are you on?

The administrators of our educational systems are increasingly fond of focusing on tangible results, i.e., testing and grading, or are required to do so by law.  In music, we do continual assessment of students, but we generally do not need to test and grade.

Testing, grading, and competitive activities are adversarial in nature.  Put in the best light, we think of them as challenges.  Sometimes we rationalize the coldness of testing by maintaining that it prepares students for the real world.

Don’t get me wrong–challenging students is important.  In honor of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, let me quote him here:  “The worst thing you could do for your loved ones is that which they can and should do for themselves.”

Still, it seems to me that if a teacher spends more time as an adversary than as a mentor, the student’s learning environment is an unfriendly place, and probably not a very constructive one.

Is it a good idea to instill a competitive spirit into a student who is only beginning to develop a passion for music?  Will it help or hurt?

When someone is good at a skill, they’re happy to be tested, evaluated, and challenged to show their stuff.  But when someone is just being exposed to a skill or a subject, testing and competition can be more intimidating than not.  Fear can work as a short-term motivator, but as soon as a student can escape it, they will.

But once in a while, it’s worth asking: whose side are you on?  If the student is having a difficult time, can you help them through it, show them what to do?  Or are you more tempted to set up an ultimatum, as in “if you can’t get this, you’ll never get anywhere”?  Can you identify students who respond to challenges, and others who respond better to guidance?  When is the right time to push and challenge, and how far should you go?

Asking yourself whose side you’re on can fend off the occasional temptation to focus on some possibly irrelevant frustrations or even fantasies about, for example, the student’s level of commitment, respect, and truthfulness.

Sometimes the question of whose side you’re on can place you in between a parent and a child.  The parent is paying but the student is your responsibility.  Whose side are you on?

I’m sure I speak for others in saying: we welcome your comments on this subject–tell us some of your specific experiences and how you handled them (or how you wish you had!).

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

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