What defines a successful teacher?
Student progress? Student adulation? Parental response? Professional reputation? Results in juried contests? Fame of former students? Placement of students in prestigious programs? Daily job satisfaction? Obvious progress in instilling skills, confidence, and a love of the art form?
The definition of “success” is as varied as the teachers who might try to answer this question, but there’s one thing I’m pretty sure about: The better the match between the teacher and the student, and the more compatible their goals, the more successful the teaching/learning process.
The challenge is that students come in all flavors. It doesn’t matter WHAT you’re teaching: Some of your students will be convinced that they are one step away from the big time, others are convinced that they will never be any good, and some just want to have fun. Some will work daily, some only under duress.
Who do you want to be teaching? Next season’s hit novelist? (If I knew how to do that…. well, I’d become next season’s hit novelist MYSELF.) A senior citizen who has always wanted to sculpt, photograph, paint, play guitar? An adult who enjoys the discipline and practice of cultivating an art form? A child who is just discovering the magic of turning sound into music? A teen who is discovering how to take words and feelings and turn them into poetry?
This is an incredibly important question because teaching can be emotionally draining, especially to practicing artists who are dividing their time between doing their art and sharing it. It can be especially draining if the student and teacher don’t “click.” Some of us find a small child who is making her first forays into our world to be charming, funny, and invigorating; others of us feel like we are going to scream if we have to help a six-year-old figure out which is the left hand and the right hand one more time.
In some cases, a bad match can almost be harmful to our own art: My own teaching experience includes writing, publishing. and piano, but I have found that teaching the mechanics of writing is not for me. While I can edit or rewrite a turgid page of disorganized and muddy prose, I’m not sure if I can effectively impart the whys and hows so that the student can do better next time. I’m not sure that this CAN be taught. And I find that the bad syntax sticks in my brain.
Similarly, with piano, I have strong preferences: Students needn’t be geniuses, but they do need to be engaged. They need to WANT to be here. And that desire needs to primarily come from them: I can encourage it and nurture it, but I can’t create what isn’t there.
It’s difficult, though, to know from the beginning which students will work out and which won’t. Learning an art is a long process; a single trial session isn’t going to tell you much.
I think where many of us get frustrated is that when we think about teaching and sharing our art, we think about sharing the whole package. We get excited about passing on our knowledge, and we know how much joy it brings us. But we also know how much work it takes. Sometimes, what we have to give may be too much for a casual student; certainly it may require more commitment than they are ready to put in. Do we simply limit our studios to advanced, committed students? Do we try to “convert” reluctant learners (Be prepared for a huge emotional toll if you choose this route — and be aware that you will only occasionally be successful). Do we accept lower standards and lower levels of achievement and just shrug when Johnny’s mom forgets the piano books and Johnny announces that he couldn’t practice for the fourth week in a row? Do we slip into a neutral, disengaged mode to avoid expressing our disappointment? (Another emotionally draining choice.) Or do we deal with differing and inconsistent levels of progress as just part of the job of teaching, and move on as we can? Your answers to these questions may help you evaluate potential students to decide if they are a good match.
Whatever our art is, the truth is that in this day and age, children – -and adults — are used to instant gratification. The kind of work it takes to become a skilled craftsperson in any art form is anathema to many kids; in fact, this may be one of the few situations in their lives which this kind of attention, commitment, and routine is required.
What this means to the Artist-Teacher is that it’s probably best to start slowly and let yourself learn what your preferences and limits are, and as you learn about your teaching strengths and weaknesses, you should be honest about confronting them with yourself and with prospective students. Considerations might include: Whether or not a family understand and accepts your policy regarding payment and attendance, the ages of students you accept, your requirements for home study, practice, or project completion, the ability level you want to focus on, a certain type of expectation regarding progress, behavioral issues you may refuse to deal with, or learning issues you may not feel competent to deal with. We’ll deal with these topics in future posts.
I will be perfectly honest and tell you that over the years I’ve had a small number of students who I wasn’t sorry to lose. Sometimes the teacher-student match simply isn’t a good one, or the student isn’t that interested, or makes no progress due to poor practice (or no practice). I find that draining — and harmful to my own creative work. But it’s tricky to know how to deal with the issue: Usually, it takes care of itself, because students who aren’t that motivated, or whose parents don’t support and encourage a structured practice routine, are often the first to drop out. What’s more difficult is evaluating potential new students to try to be sure you are making good matches for the future. It’s not always a clear road.
It’s not a good job for a control freak, that’s for sure.