Spring 2021: Teaching the Tough Ones: Why It's Worth It
When I was a kid, I wasn't the best student in the class. I certainly wasn't the smartest, and I was terrible at tests—which made school very hard for me. My mother tells me that, until the third grade, I had a terrible time processing. For some reason, this included music. You see, I started piano lessons at the age of six, the "standard" age. But apparently I couldn't read anything—books or music— until third grade, when suddenly everything clicked. And here I am. A piano teacher. A fine, accomplished musician. And in my eyes, I have found success—despite possibly being described as a difficult student in my very early years.
WHO ARE THE TOUGH ONES?
First of all, let me change the wording.
Who are the challenging students?
Answer that question before you continue reading. I think all of us might have a slightly different definition of a challenging student. It may be the student who patters you with questions the second he walks in the door. It may be the student who questions every single thing you try to teach her. It may be the student who doesn't practice much or, even better, refuses to practice the way you told him to. (Wait: Doesn't this describe most students?!) Or, maybe it is the student who doesn't catch on quite as fast as the "smarter" students. Or, the student who, in order for her to grasp every concept, needs you to adjust the way you teach. Or, it might be the student who has recently been diagnosed with ADHD or autism.
Now that we have attempted to define the challenging students, let's answer the next part.
WHY SHOULD WE TEACH THEM?
Again, answer the question before you continue reading.
Here is why I teach these students and why they are some of my favorite students.
Because they need it the most.
Let me give you an example. Frank (not his real name) is a six-year-old beginner who started kindergarten this year. He has two siblings, and kindergarten is really hard these days. Frank started piano lessons with me this past August. I could tell right away he was going to be somewhat of a challenge, but I wasn't prepared for how much I would learn from Frank. After a few lessons, I began to get some pushback from him. Then there was the lesson where he wouldn't do a single thing I asked. At one point, toward the end of November, he just completely shut down—dug in his heels and stayed there. That was when I decided to have a conversation with his mother. As it turned out, school was becoming difficult. Frank was a perfectionist, and if he didn't accomplish everything perfectly right away he became frustrated. Piano was getting harder, and Frank was having a hard time with that. Here is what I did:
1. I talked with his mother—a lot.
This is number one. Open communication with a parent is key to keeping challenging students in lessons and possibly helping the student become less challenging.
2. I let him be in charge.
Yes, you read that correctly. I let him take charge of his lessons. By giving him some of the reins, he felt he had control of at least one part of his day. Frank spent the entire day with everyone telling him what to do, and this was in addition to his struggle to be perfect. His piano lesson was yet another place where, in his opinion, a controlling adult was dictating his every move. So, in each lesson I alternate between "Frank's choice" and "Teacher's choice." I give him two options and he chooses the one he wants to do. He always gets to choose how we start the lesson. It works every time.
3. I changed my expectations.
Frank is different than, well, everyone else. Not because of the challenges he gives me, but because he is unique. To help him learn, I soon realized that I had to change how I taught. I changed my expectations of how many pieces he would learn in a week, how long it would take him to finish a unit, and even how "perfect" each piece would become. I realized I had to let him decide when to move on—without compromising how well he knows the skills that I, his teacher, believe he needs to learn.
By employing these three strategies, Frank's lessons have turned around completely. At the time of writing this article, he has had two stellar lessons in a row. He is comprehending concepts and is enjoying his lessons. Instead of crying, he is happy and leaves with a giant smile on his face. He even left one day saying: "I just LOVE piano!"
Suzanna is one of my favorite success stories. She became a student of mine after taking lessons from someone else for a few years. When she came to me, she was in a constant state of wanting to quit. Thankfully, her parents wanted her to continue and used bribery—and other things—to keep her in lessons. So this is where I entered the picture.
The first thing I did was establish open lines of communication with her parents. Then I talked with Suzanna. That's it. I talked with her. I tried to find out what she enjoyed in life and in piano lessons. I asked a lot of questions. Then I let her help choose her repertoire. Using a book at a slightly easier level than her method book, I played three pieces and let her choose which one she wanted to play. I describe the first two years of lessons with me as being on life support. However, by the end of the second year, Suzanna went from learning two pieces in one year to mastering fifteen.
Now, three years later she has already learned fifteen pieces and plays in her school's jazz band. She loves to play the piano, and it has been more than a year since she asked to quit.
Finally, there is John. John has autism. To say he is one of the most intelligent children I have ever met is no exaggeration; his aptitude for numbers is at a genius level. However, this is the biggest challenge for me. Even though John is high functioning, I still need to modify my teaching. Here is what I do:
1. Clear communication
I can be wordy—well after I have made my point. This doesn't work for John. My sentences to him need to be clear and concise—no imagery or anecdotes.
With John, working through the method book is best, we go page by page. If I try to veer away from this process, he gets very upset. Because repeating things can make him upset, I let him know ahead of time how many repetitions are needed. Knowing this information and having a concrete goal helps him.
3. Discipline chart and tallies
In the beginning, John had many discipline issues. He talks a lot and constantly asks questions. Instead of doing what I ask, he wants to doodle on the piano. He is wiggly and sometimes has problems sitting on the bench. As mentioned earlier, communication with parents is important. John's mother told me they use tallies at school. Every time he did something he was supposed to do, he received a tally. I took it a step farther and devised this chart (see Figure 1).
John gets a sticker when he accomplishes a lesson task and a special sticker at the end of the lesson if everything on the list is accomplished. By working from this chart, John has both a goal and routine built into the lesson. He loves counting the tallies at the end of his lesson, and we have a productive lesson every time.
I wrote this article two years ago and recently came back to it when I summoned the courage to submit it for possible publication. That time happened to be now—in the middle of a pandemic. I have been teaching online since March. These three students are still on my roster and have continued lessons through the pandemic. Here are brief updates on these special students:
Frank has improved so much. Online lessons are tricky; he still gets upset when he can't succeed right away, though he is learning to control this. For his online lessons, I asked his mother to help when needed; she is always in the background and able to come to his aid. I give him less to do and slow the pace of the lesson. To break things up, I also employ a lot of games and online activities, and we still do "Frank's choice." I am happy to say he still enjoys his lessons and is progressing.
Suzanna is now a high school freshman, and when the pandemic hit she had a challenging time. Online schooling proved difficult, her grades dropped, and she felt she couldn't manage online piano lessons with everything else. Additionally, her entire family was home and she felt self-conscious. They requested a small hiatus, which I granted. She resumed lessons in June, and I am confident she will continue.
Other than lessons being online, I did not change much for John. I considered being creative with his lessons—even having him notate a piece he wrote, but he did not want to do this. Sticking to the lesson routine is best for him.
COVID has changed things for us, but the relationships I have with each of these students and their parents have kept these students enjoying and thriving in their lessons. I hope that keeping our lesson routine through the pandemic helps them cope—I know it helps me.
These students are three of my favorites. Like so many students, they each came with a special set of challenges. They stretched me and made me a better teacher. So the next time you have a student you just want to give up on, think again. Maybe you both will grow through the journey.
Yes allowing the challenging student some liberty to Choose his/her repertoire usually helps.
They would often request I demonstrate a number of pieces or sections of pieces before we settle on a couple of new pieces and which would be enough to keep us going in addition to polishing older pieces he/ she would like to learn.
The selection of pieces I demonstrate can be a curated selection to include different styles or genre.