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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Never is there a good time for a teacher-student relationship to end, but right now there is a new school year beginning for many of the Western world, and folks may be contemplating a change in teachers. Now might be a good time to discuss this important issue and ways to minimize the emotional damage for the parent, the student, and especially the teacher. I may focus on the parent's perspective more than the teacher's here because in my experience the parent is usually the quickest to end the teaching-learning relationship. Sometimes a parent is unaware of the teacher's emotional connection; teachers often hang onto a teaching relationship longer than they should because of the tremendous amount of emotional investment the teacher has made.

Teachers will share with you that the relationship with a student is a very personal one. In order to be an effective and influential teacher, 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. There may be some teachers who fall short of that mark or who may not be the best fit in a particular student situation, but I believe that most teachers would agree with me about our purpose as good teachers.

How does one break up this teacher-student relationship and in many cases the teacher-parent relationship? There are several perspectives to consider since there are three persons involved in the relationship (sometimes more than three if other family members are involved). 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 is 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 job 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 job 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. [Thank you, Jeanne Luedke for your excellent teaching on this subject!]
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 reaches 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 for making and implementing 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.

Here are some of my 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. There is no benefit to  giving criticism and making judgments other than to puff yourself up, even if you are correct in your assessment. Your child is watching to see how you handle this situation, so please consider the kind of behavior and message that you wish to reveal and have your child learn from observing you.

Avoid pointing fingers of blame for your decision. If the parent is ending the relationship, please avoid accusing the teacher of falling short in some way. Just stay focused and positive. Nothing good gets accomplished by being negative or even making nasty remarks. Remember, most new teachers will call the former teacher to get the "whole story." I never enjoyed being put on the spot in that way. I understand that for many people, if there is 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 nonaccusatory 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. When I finally give up, it is because I have finally concluded that I am the only one left in the relationship who cares how it turns out.

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 situation for any of the parties in the future. Remember your child is watching to see how you handle this situation, so act well. Pulling out all the kitchen-sink grievances is not an effective 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. In the words of the famous cinema star Clark Gable, apologize for your shortcomings.

Thank the teacher for the experience that you had with them. Whether you deem the relationship with the teacher 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.

Next time, do your homework. Choosing a teacher should not be a quick decision. Speak to the teacher, ask the teaching community for recommendations about the teacher, observe the teacher in the teaching-learning environment, and provide your child with an opportunity to interact with the teacher before entering into the new relationship. Many new parents call me and expect me to provide little more than glorified babysitting services. That is not what I do and it certainly is not my purpose in life. I spend a great deal of time honing my teaching skills so that I can provide the greatest service to my students and their parents and families. I expect that my parents and students will enter into the true spirit of the teaching-learning relationship and will not accept them into the studio if I think that I cannot help them to progress along the learning road. Some parents may contact me without doing their homework first, but I make sure that they do it before they embark in a relationship with me and my studio.

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.


  1. Thanks for this post, never thought about it from a teacher's point of view. I sure hope I never have to end the relationship with teacher, unless of course when my daughter completes all the Suzuki books. :)

  2. Excellent Paula.

  3. Thanks Paula for writing this! It felt good to read. My experience has been that most "good-byes" are done in a positive way but the ones that are awkward really stick out. They become the ones you remember most - unfortunately. I have a file in my drawer and an electronic file in my email Inbox. I have saved every Thank You note I've ever received. Luckily I've never been in a dire circumstance that required me to go back and look at all the notes. Part of me knows they are there and that the files are hefty in size! Smiles! Diane

  4. When I worked in the former organization, I kept a "Rainy Day" file. In it I would put thank you cards, cartoons, copies of quotations, letters, complementary memos, recommendations, newspaper clippings, and anything else that encouraged me to smile. There were some years that had a lot of "rainy days" and I pulled out the file often. I haven't had to look at it in a long time, but it is a fun thing to have around.

  5. thanks paula for sharing this. It Helps!

  6. Thank you for sharing. I have been a Music Teacher for 10 years and now am on the parent side. I have had to release some students and now I have to move my daughter from her current teacher. Your comment about doing it with class is a good simple reminder in both situations. Thank you!

  7. Thanks, everyone, for such lovely comments. This is a tricky issue on either side. Someone is likely to feel hurt, and it is hard for many people to face the issue in person and directly. I have always appreciated when there is some tact and diplomacy involved or both sides. Thanks for writing to me!

  8. This is a wonderful post. We (DD and I) have just agreed to separate from her teacher, mainly because I live far away and cannot attend maternity leave lessons on a different day from our usual lesson day. BUT it has been very hard to reach the point of separation: everyone bending over backwards to stay together, but in the end, having to admit defeat. It has been a painful experience, particularly for my 6 year old DD who has been learning with her teacher since 3.5. It was hard to keep cool during this, mainly because both parent and teacher were reluctant to admit defeat. And we were also unable to compromise about timings. It was just impossible. My daughter and I are experiencing something much like grief now, and I wonder if this is normal or whether we had become too attached to her teacher. I also wonder if her teacher is suffering too?


    1. Grief, yes, I understand completely. I have had these experiences myself. Teachers really get attached to their students, and the students to their teachers. I remember one mom who brought her daughter to see me "one last time" after they made the decision to stop lessons. We had a nice closing time together, and I have seen this same child around town in other community locales. We visit with each other in a very friendly way. Such a nice way to break up, rather than the family who disappeared without a trace. Tough thing.

  9. How do you suggest going about this when you have not-so-positive reasons for leaving a teacher? We've stayed for almost 3 years because the teacher is excellent, skills-wise, but personality differences have prevented my daughter from developing any sort of personal relationship with her teacher. It's time for us to find a a new instructor in order for her to progress in her music. I certainly do not want to hurt anyone's feelings, though! Any insight would be much appreciated...

  10. This is always difficult. I would try and have a pleasant conversation with the teacher first, outside of the lesson. There probably is no reason to have to explain much to the teacher. Better to leave these little details out of the discussion. I would merely explain that you were looking to begin a new relationship with a different teacher. Focus on the positive. I think that your teacher may be having a similar experience as you. The hardest thing about breaking up is that we do not enjoy being the one who is dumped, even if know that this needs to happen. If your conversation goes well, ask the teacher if it is possible to have a closing lesson so that everyone can exchange hugs and goodbyes. If the teacher is not open to or interested in that, then you are off the hook. No need to do anything more. At least you made the right gesture.

    I hope this helps.

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