Search This Blog

Monday, February 24, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: The Importance of Being Teachable

written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

One of my favorite university classes is my section of String Techniques classes that includes non string players. In this class my task is to teach future band directors how to be future orchestra directors. During the class I teach my students how to play a stringed instrument, although I do not expect that these students will continue to play the violin or viola (they might). The reason I enjoy this class so much is because the students strongly remind me of our need to be teachable.

Both parents and teachers can easily run afoul of this character issue. I have a theory that many teachers were drawn to teaching as a profession because of our innate ability to tell everybody what we know. As a teacher or parent, we are daily put in positions to instruct and guide students or children who do not know as much as we do. We can find it easy therefore to forget how to be students ourselves.

What does it mean to be teachable? Perhaps it is easier to describe someone with an unteachable attitude. When someone is not teachable, you will see such behaviors as:
  • Whining. This behavior includes expressions that make noise but do not really contribute anything useful to the learning process. What is a teacher supposed to do when the student says things like:
    • This is hard.
    • This is uncomfortable.
    • This is weird.
    • It hurts when I do that.
    • My hand aches when I hold it that way.
  • Stubborn Resistance. This behavior includes reasons why the student does not have to execute the instructions:
    • My body just doesn't work that way.
    • My hand isn't big enough.
    • My arms aren't long enough.
    • I can't reach around to play that way.
    • I don't really need to play in order to be able to teach.
    • I don't intend to be an orchestra director (I make sure this student has my phone number so he can call me later when he gets his first orchestra director job or assignment).
  • Passive Resistance. This behavior includes continued incorrect posture despite frequent teacher corrections and instruction. Instead of openly defying instructions with verbal comments, this type of behavior is unexpressed. Still, I believe the underlying mental comments that produce passive resistance include:
    • I don't need to do this the way you tell me.
    • I can still make it work when I do it differently than you instruct.
    • Why can't I just hold it this way?
  • Frustration. This behavioral reaction is typical in most learning situations because students expect things to come easy and are disappointed when new skills or abilities do not come after one or two attempts.
  • Defeat. This behavior includes expressions as to why the student should be permitted to quit. This attitude shows up after a few attempts. Probably this is the hardest attitude that I have to combat as a teacher.
    • I can't do this.
    • I'm not cut out to play the violin.
    • This isn't the best instrument for me.
Notice that the above attitude responses have one thing in common: they are negative responses to a positive situation. Instead of greeting the instruction or task with a can-do attitude, the student minimizes the assignment by thinking and expressing reasons why it cannot work, why the student cannot do it, or why the student should not even bother to attempt it. The student expresses an unwillingness to even try and accepts a justification that excuses the student from even learning the skill.

I do believe that the above attitudes are natural human expressions. We all do these same types of behaviors. These are natural responses. We have all had our glorious moments of unteachableness. So how do we practice being teachable? Here are a few suggestions:
  • Learn a new skill. This can be something as simple as learning how to knit or play the guitar, to learning a new language or starting a new hobby. Take a class. Sign up for something that is entirely new and that places you in the position of student.
  • Watch your language. Be aware of any negative language that may creep into your learning environment. Avoid expressions such as I can't or this is hard or I'm uncomfortable. Cultivate positive expressions, empowering affirmations, and uplifting and encouraging statements.
  • Guard your attitude. Placing yourself in the position of student is a humbling experience. You are admitting that you do not know everything, and this attitude can be difficult for many of us to accept, if we even recognize that we have this problem. As students we need to cultivate the mindset that we are students and learning from someone else. We need to accept the instruction that our teachers give us with good grace and an open willingness to give it a good shot, and maybe five to 10 times of repetition. If we are Suzuki proponents then we need to give it 10,000 repetitions in order to prove that we are indeed Suzuki proponents. We need to close the door on any attitude that allows us to refuse to do something, to give up, or to excuse ourselves from the task. We need to focus on the attitude that does not allow ourselves to divorce ourselves from the work that is required to develop a new ability.
  • Enjoy the process. Rather than suffer frustration because of unreasonable expectations that you will learn things quickly, discipline yourself to enjoy the process of learning. Where does the attitude that we can learn things quickly come from anyway? We know that it is impossible to learn things quickly, whether we are children or adults. Skill development takes time. Allow yourself to experience the learning process. Be fascinated with how you learn, with how you approach new things, and with the joy that comes from adding something new to your human experience.
  • Foster fascination. Allow yourself to discover new things about yourself, how you learn, how you follow instructions, what you find tricky, what you perform easily, and what your attitude strengths and weaknesses are. Let the learning process fascinate you as you discover who you really are underneath the teacher or parent facade.
Learning something new and cultivating the attitude of teachableness is a good discipline for all teachers and parents because we will become better at teaching and parenting if we understand what our students and children experience. When we place ourselves in the same learning process, we remind ourselves what it is like to be a student. We can be more patient and accepting of our students' or children's experiences when they experience bumps in the road.


Thursday, February 27 (followup): After writing the article posted last Monday about being teachable, I told my section of string techniques class about the article I had posted that day. I showed them the blog post on the screen, and they read through the article. As the class read, there were moments when one student or another would speak up with delight, "There I am!" or "That's me!" Even though I had not written specifically about any particular student, they were intent on finding themselves represented in the article. The rest of the class was quite enjoyable, as each student seemed to find joy in catching themselves whenever they whined or complained.


  1. Such a good reminder! I enjoy taking lessons and teaching for that reason! I am always reminded how it feels to be the student. :)

  2. Paula,

    You are truly an incredibly gifted teacher and writer! This post could not have come at a more opportune time for me, because i am dealing with one (maybe two?) particular child who is displaying some of the very characteristics you so eloquently discuss in your blog. I will try to help her learn how to learn, as I am committed to not letting her quit because it's hard!

    Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful ideas, approaches and insights and for helping each of us be the best we can be!

    I am truly grateful for your constant kindness in opening up our hearts and heads to what you have learned and allowing us to grow with the knowledge you have gleaned and continue to glean from your own life.

    1. Thank you for your very generous and kind words! You made my day and it carried over for the entire week! Thank you for taking the time to respond to my writing and to offer such high praise and encouragement. I started an article about whining and cures, so stay tuned!