Which One Are You?
I’m a bookworm. (Which is one of the reasons Brecklyn and I have started The Plucky Violin Teacher Book Club.) My latest book is The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. The book is about three countries (Poland, Finland, and Korea) that consistently perform better than the United States in reading and math, and how they got that way. Although I’m reading this book just for fun (does that reveal how nerdy I am?), I’ve still found some nuggets of wisdom that I think can help my violin teaching. Yesterday, this quote struck me:
“We’re socialized to believe that warmth and strictness are opposites. The fact is, the degree to which you are warm has no bearing on the degree to which you are strict, and vice versa.” -Doug Lemov, quoted from his book Teach Like a Champion
Of course! That’s something I think about constantly, but could never explain well to others. I really love my students, and I care about what is going on in their lives. Does that make me the nice teacher that lets them play badly to protect their feelings? Of course not! I want my students to practice consistently, improve their tone and technique, and play music that is difficult for them. Does that make me the strict teacher that berates my students for not meeting my expectations? Of course not!
The truth that no one tells you is that you don’t have to choose. You can be both. You can be nice and strict, encouraging and demanding. It’s a constant balancing act, but I still believe it’s possible. Although everyone approaches this dilemma slightly differently, these are some things I’ve learned in this process that help me:
1. Be Honest
I’ve read and been told many times by great teachers that you should always start with a compliment first. Although I think this is great advice, it doesn’t always work for me. Sometimes my students play really, really, really badly. They know it and I know it. If I jump in with a compliment they will know I’m just searching for something nice to say, and they won’t trust it. Because I want my students to trust me, I never lie to them or pretend that something wasn’t as bad as it was. I say things like, “I know that you can play better than that. What do you think the problem was? How can we fix it?” or “That was much better last week. Tell me about your practice this week. What happened?” Notice I don’t tell them that they’re a terrible violinist. If they’re listening they will hear, “You can play well. You can play hard music with more effort.” and “I care about what happened to you this week.”
2. Praise with Power
When my students play something well, or especially when they come back from a bad week and make extraordinary progress, I stop, look them in the eyes, smile, and tell them how amazing they are. With some of my younger students I put their violin in a safe place and then have them run to me and give me a double high five. I do give criticism more often than praise, but the praise is bigger. My students love to hear that they “knocked my socks off,” or “blew me out of the water” with their incredible tone (or shift, or even vibrato, or posture.)
Praise like this can be incredibly powerful when I involve the parent. “Did you hear that? Didn’t she sound amazing?” Specific and honest praise coming from two trusted adults can do amazing things for a child. Much more than a “that was pretty good, now let’s work on…”
3. Student Driven Goals
It’s much easier for me to keep my students accountable to a goal they made themselves. Often their goals are much loftier than what I would come up with anyway! I’m not asking them to improve because I have this vague idea of what my students should sound like, I’m asking them to improve to achieve their dreams. This also helps me focus on the future, rather than the past. I can say things like, “Because your practice suffered last week, you’re going to have to double down to achieve your goal by the end of the month.”
I don’t love goals that focus on completing a piece or a book, but if that is their goal I can make the technique goals. If their goal is to finish Bach Double by the end of the month, I can tell them that they will need to have clean string crossings, consistent tempo, and reliable shifts to make that happen.
4. A Clear Beginning and Ending to a Lesson
The nice teacher part of me wants to hear about my student’s Halloween costume or cool new substitute teacher, the strict teacher part of me wants to get to work. When the boundaries are clear (we chat while getting out instruments and putting them away and we work in between), I feel like I can satisfy both of my desires. For younger students who often struggle more with that boundary, a “welcome” and a “thank you” bow are helpful book ends to a lesson.
In The Smartest Kids in the World, the author wrote, “Adults didn’t have to be stern or aloof to help kids learn. In fact, just asking children about their school days and showing genuine interest in what they were learning could have the same effect on PISA (Program for International Assessment) scores as hours of private tutoring. Asking serious questions about a child’s book had more value than congratulating the child for finishing it, in other words.”
I have come to believe that teaching the violin requires me to have high expectations for my students, and the trust, love, and patience that help them get there. If you want to have successful students, you don’t have to stop being nice to them. Love is a vital part of the job.
What helps you balance between “the nice teacher,” and “the strict teacher?” Do you tend to be more one than the other? We want to hear your teaching stories in the comments.