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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Teacher "Parenting"

I would like to address the issue of parenting during the teaching process. So much of what we do as teachers is more than just teaching the student how to play the violin. At least that is the case for me. I take Dr. Suzuki's philosophy of developing the whole child very seriously. Everything I do with a student is geared toward the development of the child to be a productive member of society. I work on posture, self confidence, character, attitude, behavior, concentration, perseverance, and discipline. I just happen to use the violin (or the miniature violin in some cases) as the vehicle to working in these areas. I prefer using the violin rather than the piano for several reasons:

  • The violin is capable of being made small enough to accommodate a particular student's size as opposed to a piano which is full-size for all students.
  • Proper posture on the violin requires that the student use the arms in a way that crosses the "mid-line" of the body, while the piano keeps the hands on each respective side of the mid-line. The crossing mid-line gestures aid in brain development.
  • The violin requires a certain approach to the instrument, and when a student deviates from the optimum approach, the teacher is able to easily discern the problem. Often times the student's personality leads to the playing problems, and the violin quickly reveals the problems.
As a young teacher, I was not comfortable handling behavior or other problem issues in the studio during lessons and group classes. I preferred to have the parents address these problems with their children so that I was able to maintain a teaching relationship with the student at all times. I still prefer that, however, I have learned over the years that I need to step in and take a more proactive role in the child's "training." And I have also found that most parents gladly welcome my help in this area. I am very careful to ask up front about how the parent feels about my involvement. I spend time during my parent course talking to the parent about possible issues and how we might handle them. Still, when lessons actually begin after the parent course is completed, the parent and I find that issues pop up that we hadn't considered. Then it becomes an issue of whether the parent will welcome my involvement in this area.

I was not comfortable disciplining a child when I was a younger teacher, however, I have learned over the years that I have to be on top of this issue in order to maintain an effective teaching situation in private and group lessons. For this reason, I recommend that teachers spend time in their professional development learning how to be good in this area. You will need the knowledge and skills to keep students in line, to solve behavior problems during lessons and group classes, and to help guide parents to solve problems in the home. Believe me, there are many parents out there who will look to you for major guidance and help in this area. Just because we as teachers might not have children (as in my case), the parents are faced with new situations themselves and will welcome any advice we can offer.

I find it particularly useful to use the studio as as "training ground" for certain social skills. For example, I have a container full of Dum-Dum lollipops, and students may choose one after a "good" lesson. I have certain rules, however, that govern whether a student is "eligible" to get a lollipop.

First, a student must actually have a lesson. Ha ha, that sounds funny, but there are times when a student is having a "million dollar lesson" day, and the student really doesn't have the lesson because we are having another sort of "lesson" concerning behavior.

Second, depending on the parent's values (and I haven't met a parent yet that didn't have this value), the child must ask for the lollipop appropriately. "May (can I) have a lollipop, please?" For really little kids, "please" or some semblance of "Pweeze" will do. The magic word is "please" or some semblance of it.

The second step is excruciating for the parent and teacher because, believe it or not, the child will often balk at having to say "please." Maybe it is just a comment on the human condition in general, but more often than not, the student will opt to enter a power struggle at this point. They will button their lips closed in a tight line, shake their heads (or their fists in the air), and absolutely refuse to say the magic word. Recently at a lesson, the not-quite-two-year-old sibling was faced with the choice of "asking" for the lollipop by saying please. For about three minutes, the mom and two younger sisters kept cajoling the little brother to say "please." A lot of gyrations and wheedling went on. Finally I shushed everyone and asked the definitive question: "does anyone here think that 'Marcos' [fictitious] does not understand what he is to do?" Everyone agreed that Marcos was very clear on what he was to do. He just was not doing it. I told his sisters and mother to put the lollipop back unopened. If the lollipop had been opened already, I would have thrown it in the trash can while the child watched. What do you want to bet that this child will say "please" at the next lesson?

The third step, once the student has said the magic word, is that the student must remember to say "thank you" within an appropriate amount of time. If the student does not remember to express gratitude in a reasonable amount of time, I will take the lollipop back, even if that means that I will throw the sucker in the trash can. I do not want to foster the attitude in children that they are entitled to things without having to express gratitude and appreciation in return.

This rule may seem harsh, but it works like a charm in my studio. I have seen students remind each other of the proper behavior. This peer pressure is even more effective than something from a parent or teacher.

This is just one example of a rule in my studio. I subscribe to the Cesar Milan "Dog Whisperer" philosophy of raising dogs: provide them with rules, boundaries, and limitations. Not that my students are comparable to dogs. Still, we all benefit from the discipline and knowledge gained from dealing with rules, boundaries, and limitations, especially me. And in the process, the parent and I learn even more about the student's personality and what future problems we might encounter.

I'd like to recommend several sources as a starting point to developing a teacher's training skills to run the studio in a constructive way:

  • 'Have a New Kid by Friday" by Kevin Leman
  • "The Essential 55" by Ron Clark (also a movie called "The Ron Clark Story" starring Matthew Perry)

There are several training "areas" in my studio:

  • the lobby area has a different color carpet and siblings are not allowed into the blue carpet teaching area until after the lesson is over; siblings or other students must remain in the brown carpeted area until their lesson begins. This rule is great for siblings. They must stay in the "waiting area" until the lesson is over, which frees the mom up to take notes and pay attention to the lesson. The siblings learn to stay in a certain area (impulse control).
  • the lollipop routine: I have discussed how we set up students and younger siblings to ask for something and to express gratitude within an appropriate amount of time.
My most favorite lesson recently was a young boy with a new violin. He wanted to be "first" in the lesson before his sister, but he took so long to get his act together, that I was convinced that he had another agenda. Knowing the little boy as well as I do, I figured his agenda was still in the area of testing me and also in his need to control everything and everyone in his world. I waited a reasonably short amount of time for him to get ready for his lesson (violin out of the case, shoulder rest put on, bow wound up and rosined, and everything laying on the teaching table awaiting tuning), then I announced that I would start the lesson with his sister. The "teachable moment" happened seconds later when he asked "why." I explained that he was taking too long, and we were losing valuable teaching time. During his lesson time, we discussed the matter in greater depth. I mentioned that his mom could even help him to think about this on the way to his lesson next time, so that he would remember what he needed to do to be "ready" to start his lesson.

Today was the "next time," and this little boy raced into the lesson (early, while I was still teaching someone else), had his violin whipped out and everything ready to go, and was sitting on the couch waiting until the lesson before his had finished, while his little legs were swinging back and forth with impatience. Now that was a great lesson!

I encourage you to take the bigger view of what being a teacher is all about. Do not just teach the violin and how to play it. Instead, be a teacher and teach about the bigger life issues!


  1. Paula,

    I found your blog via the SAA teacher discussions-- I *love* it! Thank you for a GREAT resource! I am looking forward to reading over your archives to improve my understanding and teaching. :-)

    Kindest regards,

    1. And my new teaching suzuki resource store (upper right corner of the blog) has the books and movie that I mentioned. Thanks for your support! Isn't teaching a hoot?

  2. Thank you for this resource! I am not a teacher but a parent of a beginning student and we had a few behavioral hiccups in our lesson today. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  3. Thank you for this resource! I am not a teacher but a parent of a beginning student and we had a few behavioral hiccups in our lesson today. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  4. Thank you for commenting! I like to remind myself frequently about something said in the SAA's movie, "Nurtured by Love." In the movie, a parent of a young cellist said that she noticed when they were having problems during practices that she and her daughter were also having problems in their relationship. As a teacher, if I remind myself frequently to keep my relationships in a good place, that the teaching and lessons will stay in a good place. And, this will be something I think about a lot. See today's (5/2/15) post about perfectionism.