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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Clash of the Personality Titans, part III -- how to relate to students and parents

In a previous blog post, I've talked about my experience as a teacher relating to Sanguine and Choleric students and parents. Now I will write about my experience relating to Melancholy and Phlegmatic students and parents.

The Melancholy student is a joy to teach from a teacher's perspective because he or she is unafraid of repetition and hard work. This is the student who thrives on doing something 10 or 20 times. I bring out my "Ten Times Perfect" abacus bead counter, my 1-20 die, or my pack of repertoire review cards, and I can easily fill up 30 minutes to an hour with the Melancholy student. It's all painless from a teacher's point of view.

The two tricky areas I have encountered when teaching the Melancholy student is that sometimes this student will not venture into new territory right away. The student may watch me demonstrate a new skill set but won't try it. The student may need to take the lesson home and live with it for a week before coming to their next lesson and playing it for me. I believe this behavior is due to the Melancholy's need to feel comfortable by thinking about something in great detail. As a Choleric teacher, this behavior may surprise me. The Melancholy student and I could be rocking along having a great lesson with lots of interesting new things going on, and all of a sudden the student seems to "shut down." I have learned over the years to watch for the signs and to be sure to give the Melancholy student plenty of time to absorb new concepts in small steps.

The other tricky thing is that the Melancholy student thinks very deeply about things and often changes whatever instructions I give into "to do" items. I marvel at how much a Melancholy student can transform my simple instructions into complex directions with a completely different set of words. The Melancholy has the uncanny ability to mutate my instruction of relaxation into a direction of tension within seconds. For example, if I ask the student to let the shoulder relax, I find that the Melancholy student may translate that instruction into an action step like "lower my shoulder." I am very careful when working with a Melancholy student to focus on language such as "let go" rather than "do" something, and I frequently ask the Melancholy to speak back to me and tell me what he or she is saying inside his or her mind so I can monitor for this situation and gently redirect the student.

I shouldn't be surprised by this behavior, as I have been married to a Melancholy personality for decades. One of the personality traits of a Melancholy is something called "selective hearing." I have come to understand that my Melancholy husband has heard me, but he has analyzed what I have said to such a complex depth, that he has completely reworded my original statement. As a teacher, though, the Melancholy's ability to work through an instruction to such a complex level of detail can frustrate and thwart the teaching point.

As an added note, I am a Choleric and can be way too powerful and overwhelming with my energy, self confidence, and quick thinking for the more sensitive and complex Melancholy. So I am careful to watch for the signs that I am coming on too strong for my Melancholy student, such as the student's backing away from me inch-by-inch or turning slightly away from me. I have one little Melancholy student who will suddenly put her violin on the little table next to us during the lesson. I have come to understand her gesture as a clue that she has reached the saturation point for that lesson and needs to stop and process everything we've worked on. I may be ready to take the next step, but my student has just indicated to me that she is not ready.

A Melancholy parent is a joy to work with from a teacher's perspective, because he or she is very careful to follow directions exactly. The Melancholy parent takes detailed notes at the lesson and follows through on assigned homework. The Melancholy parent does have a tendency to get so bogged down in detail that the child gets bored, so I keep an eye on that possibility. I am also careful to consider what personality match I have before me with regard to the parent and student. A Melancholy student paired with a Melancholy parent works well, but a Choleric or Sanguine student would get impatient with the Melancholy's frequent need for monumental amounts of detail and precision and seemingly slower pace (it's not a slower pace, but a deeper amount of detail). I might have to suggest that the Melancholy parent allow their student some "fun" time with the violin, which is a period of time at the end of a home practice session when the student is allowed to experiment with new material or some other activity without the parent's direction. A Choleric parent might seem too pushy and a Sanguine parent might seem too unfocused for a Melancholy student. A Phlegmatic parent might seem too easy going and too easily satisfied with less than stellar effort, which a Melancholy student would not enjoy.

The other issue I frequently face with a Melancholy parent is that they are sometimes reluctant to move forward with a new assignment. I have been heard to tell a Melancholy parent that they are "holding their child back." Because the Melancholy has a need to master whatever they are working on, they may not move forward until they are certain that they understand every nuance and facet of the assigned material.

The Phlegmatic student is very easy going and friendly. They want to please, but they aren't too excited about doing a lot of work. As I do with the Sanguine student, I look for ways to make our learning activities seem more like fun than work. Despite the attractiveness of playing games though, a Phlegmatic does not always respond to this tactic. Just like the physics principle that "a body at rest tends to stay at rest," the Phlegmatic at rest tends to stay at rest. Even playing a game can seem like too much effort to the Phlegmatic student. What I try to do is instill the life lesson that good quality and efficient work early and consistently will save lots of frustration and labor later. Efficiency is a lesson to which Phlegmatics can relate. Show them how to practice less, and a Phlegmatic is all over that lesson plan. The trick is to reiterate the lesson that "practice makes permanent" (not "perfect") and show the tricks to practicing correctly ("first time correctly, every time correctly"). Also, Phlegmatics tend to have one thing in their life that they are especially interested in. Find out what that one thing is, and you can focus on it and relate everything else to it to the delight of the Phlegmatic student.

There doesn't seem to be much that motivates the Phlegmatic student. They are very easy going and relaxed. Sometimes they look lazy, but I think that behavior resembles that of my cats: relaxed but ready to respond if need be, just conserving energy for the time being. Phlegmatic students are the watchers of the personality styles, and they are content to take a back seat to someone else in group situations. They will rise to the occasion if asked to lead in a group situation, so the burden is on the teacher to draw them forward.

One thing I have to be especially wary of is my Choleric tendency to push through a point with my Phlegmatic student. A Phlegmatic student considers such a tactic to be on the level of "nagging," and the Phelgmatic's stubborn streak will then rise to the occasion. A Phlegmatic student is a master of stubbornness, so I frequently remind myself to gently urge progress with my Phlegmatic student and not goad him or her into action.

The Phlegmatic parent is sometimes difficult to work with because he or she is so relaxed and easy going. I have to follow up to make sure that the Phlegmatic parent's student completes assignments, and I may have to encourage the Phlegmatic parent to take on the sterner stuff of parenting. I have to be clear about my expectations that the parent follow through on my assignments with their child. Aside from that, everyone generally likes to spend time with the Phlegmatic parent and student and their good sense of humor. A Phlegmatic parent or student seems to hold the group together. The Phlegmatic's presence helps to make a Melancholy or Choleric student or parent seem less intense, and a Phlegmatic personality may help a Sanguine tone down his or her cheerful enthusiasm to a more manageable level for the other personality styles.

To summarize the various personality styles, I would like to come up with a two word description:

Sanguine - the Cheerful Talker
Choleric - the Powerful Do-er
Melancholy - the Sensitive Thinker
Phlegmatic - the Easy-going Watcher

We've spent several blog posts discussing the various personality styles and how a teacher can relate in a more effective way to each individual style. The subject is much broader and detailed than what I have written here. I hope you have enjoyed reading and thinking about this subject as much as I have.

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