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Saturday, February 24, 2018

Breaking Up: How to Sever the Suzuki Triangle in a Positive Way

Never is there a good time for a teacher-student relationship to end. Let us discuss this important issue and identify ways to minimize the emotional damage for the parent, the student, and especially the teacher. In my experience the parent is usually the quickest to end the teaching-learning relationship, and sometimes a parent is unaware of the teacher's emotional connection. Teachers often hang onto a teaching relationship longer than perhaps they should because of the tremendous amount of emotional investment the teacher has made.

The teacher's relationship with a student is a very personal one. In order to effective and influential, the teacher must give something of him- or herself. A good teacher does not just give instructions, advice, and directions. A good teacher addresses the whole personality of the student and mentally prepares a program that will encourage, strengthen, and nurture the student to reach his or her greatest potential. Although some teachers may fall short of this mark or may not be the best fit in a particular teaching situation, I believe that most teachers would agree with me about this purpose of good teachers.

How does one break up this teacher-student relationship and in many cases the teacher-parent relationship in a positive way that does not wreak emotional harm and damage? Is there a good way to end a relationship of this type?

Three persons share a part of the Suzuki teaching relationship, so we should consider all of these several perspectives. The typical teaching-learning relationship will include the teacher, the student, and the parent. In the Suzuki world this is referred to as the Suzuki Triangle. Each point of the triangle is important to the growth and potential of the learning situation. If one person along the point of the triangle is not doing his or her job, the shape of the triangle will be altered in a way that may be detrimental to the student's continued learning success. The most optimum teaching-learning environment is one in which each point of the triangle is at its strongest.

Each part of the triangle is important:
  • The teacher's responsibility is to teach the parent how to be an effective teacher or coach on the home front during the student's home practices. The teacher also teaches the student all the technical aspects of making a good sound on the instrument and of effectively expressing a musical idea or emotion. The teacher has typically attended many institutions of higher learning and taken many different levels of teacher training in order to be effective in this aspect of teaching.
  • The parent's responsibility is to teach the child at home in the teacher's stead. The parent is responsible for playing the listening assignments and for practicing the assigned homework material. In addition, the parent assists the child in learning a new piece (fingerings and bowing) and in practicing effectively.
  • The child's responsibility is to simply be a child. We allow the child to attend to his or her learning through the child's senses, at the child's optimum pace, within the framework of the child's ability to concentrate, and helping the child achieve skill development through effective review and repetition as the child focuses on one thing at a time.
At some point in the process, the distinctions between the various triangle roles disappear and the parties take on added or different roles. The teacher strives to guide the student to be his or her teacher in many respects as the student attains the advanced stages of musical development. The parent fulfills the role of a coach and fan and functions more in the realm of waving flags and shouting hoorays from the balcony. And the student assumes more and more responsibility to make and implement his or her own decisions about expressing musical ideas and what technical means to use to accomplish the best expression of those musical ideas.

All of my discussion to this point is to help others understand how involved everyone becomes in the process. The longer the relationship has gone on, the deeper the relationships and emotional connections. When a parent, teacher, or student makes the decision to break the connection, there will be emotional upheaval and hurt, and sometimes anger as a way to express the hurt. In many situations, the teacher will emotionally grieve the loss of the relationship, and the student will feel abandoned, even if the teacher is not the reason for the breakup. The student will be watching the adults and how they handle the situation, so be aware of the role you choose to play in the scenario. Remember, as teachers and parents, we are always role modeling for the child how the child should behave as an adult. Please be responsible in your behavior and show the child what is the mature way to handle this type of situation.

There are a few possible ways to handle the difficult conversation about the future of this relationship, whether it is by email, phone call, or a personal face-to-face meeting. Whichever method you choose, find a way to do it without having the students be involved. Perhaps you have observed a change in the situation or the other person's behavior. Focus your attention on the other person as a friend, and express your concern and care about the other person. 

Ask if there is anything that you can do to help the other person. Keep the conversation in a positive place. If it comes to that, you could gently explore the idea of whether another teacher would be a better fit for the current situation.

Perhaps the situation will dissolve into tears. Tears are a sign of healing and are a healthy way to share a compassionate moment with each other. Perhaps the conversation will explode into anger. Keep calm and reassured that the anger belongs to the other person. Continue to speak positively and express your concern and desire to help.

My rule of thumb is that these difficult conversations are better to held in the open than to allow them to lie silent and fester emotionally. 

Here are some more suggestions for ending the relationship in a positive way:

Acknowledge the past history in a positive way.  Avoid complaining. Avoid blaming. Avoid any negativity. Recount the history of your relationship together with gratitude and joy. Criticism and judgments offer no positive benefit to either person. Remember that your child is watching how you handle this situation, so be sure that your behavior and message is the one you want your child to learn from observing you.

Avoid blaming the other person for your decision. Avoid accusing the teacher of falling short in some way. Stay focused and positive. Being negative or making nasty remarks do not accomplish anything positive. Keep in mind as a parent, that most new teachers will call the previous teacher to get the "whole story." If there was a nasty breakup, the former teacher may find it difficult to cast the historical information in a positive light. So, take personal responsibility for your choice and state your reasons in a positive, logical (unemotional), and non accusatory way. As a teacher, I spend several months and several conversations or emails trying to fortify the relationship and bring everyone back to the same positive teaching-learning environment. 

Avoid complaining. Stay upbeat. Do not use the breakup as an opportunity to air your stored grievances. Expressing your complaints now will not change anything or improve the future situation. Remember that your child watches to see how you handle this situation, so act well. Do not pull out all the "kitchen-sink" grievances, which would be a poor demonstration to your child or student of how to handle conflict.

Allow the other person to "save face." The other person may become upset, but nothing useful will come from an argument. Since it takes two people to make an argument successful, take the higher road and refuse to argue. Just accept the other person's anger and agree with them. The argument will eventually fizzle.

Apologies are worth extra points. If you can find it in your heart to do this, you can walk away from the situation with a well deserved pat on the back. Accept responsibility for the problem and sprinkle your apologies liberally throughout the conversation. Borrowing the philosophy of the famous cinema star Clark Gable, apologize for your shortcomings.

Thank the other person for the experience that you had with them. Whether you deem the relationship to be worthy of continuing or not, the fact of the matter is that the teacher did invest his or time in the teaching-learning relationship and deserves to be thanked for the time and effort that he or she put forth. The parent was involved in the lesson process and made contributions in terms of driving, practicing, and finance that are worth acknowledging.

Next time, do your homework. Choosing a teacher should not be a quick decision. A parent should speak to the teacher, ask the teaching community for recommendations about the teacher, observe the teacher in the teaching-learning environment, and provide the child with an opportunity to interact with the teacher before entering into the new relationship. Teachers do much more than provide "babysitting" services. Many teachers view their profession as a calling on a grand scale that will have a positive, changing, and lasting impact on the global community. Teachers spend a great deal of time honing their teaching skills in order to provide the greatest service to their students and their parents and families. Do your homework and find one of these teachers.

Whatever you do, do it with class. I got this advice when I was a youngster about to quit my first major job in a fit of anger. I heard this advice two hours before I was about to stage a royal blowup. I considered the wisdom of the advice and instead completely reconstructed my resignation plan. I followed all the steps I outlined above. I acknowledged all the persons in the organization by name and listed their contributions to my personal growth in the workplace. I thanked everyone for all that they did to help me on the job or in my growth. I stayed positive and avoided complaining. I did not work up a frothy blame game but instead focused on what I had learned and what value I would take from my work experience and put into my future endeavors. I chose my positive and grateful attitude and expressed it liberally and in a public manner via a memo addressed to all the partner-directors of the organization.

Let me tell you the benefits I received from taking this "high road" of ending the relationship. My employers and fellow workers made their good-byes with big smiles on their faces (and tears in their eyes in a few cases). I got big bear hugs from some of the top dogs. I got acknowledgment in return for all that I had contributed to the firm. The firm actually sent me a sizable amount of outsource work in the month that followed, which really helped me out financially. And because I showed that I had class, I was included in their recommendations to others.

Most of all, I felt good about what I had done and the way I had handled it. I felt like a grownup.

Please show consideration and thoughtful reflection in your relationships, whether it is with your students, your children, the studio parents, or the teacher. Please show some class and professionalism in the manner in which you end a teaching-learning relationship.

The Teach Suzuki Podcast broadcast a more in depth discussion of this topic in episode 100. You can listen to that episode here.

Until next time,

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2018 by Paula E. Bird

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