Me: “What goals would you like to work towards? What do you need to improve upon?”
Susie Student: “I’m pretty good at everything.”
Me: “But what would you like to do even better?”
Susie: “I don’t know… what do you think I don’t do very well?”
Me:.… awkward silence… and then realizing I feel very weird about pointing out her weaknesses… thinking at this moment that I’m terrified to tell her the tough things… realizing that if I tell her the truth, her delicate psyche will be forever damaged…
AFRAID TO POINT OUT THE NEGATIVES…
When I was a new teacher, just thinking about this conversation terrified me. In college, I was a summer day-care teacher for elementary kids. I’d like to say that I was uber-conscious of boosting children’s self esteem and confidence at every moment, however, the truth is that I didn’t wholly realize the importance of molding self-awareness until I became a parent. And, while I recognized long ago that addressing weaknesses was also part of the teaching job, that darn “Rah Rah Positivity” of mine kept on taking over.
At some point, my mind started to shift. I realized that my confidence boosting “Yay for being you!” ways were doing my students a bit of a disservice. Each time I downplayed a student’s weakness and instead only focused on their strengths, I was robbing them of an opportunity to self-reflect and improve.
Clearly I had to find a balance between being “real” and being “kind”.
SO, I PUT ON MY BIG GIRL PANTIES AND STARTED…
Asking my students to self-reflect before I offered any feedback
Instead of immediately chiming in with positive feedback once my students had played something, I sometimes will say, “What do you think about what you just played?” Sometimes I get “Fine.” as a response, but most of the time I receive some great feedback; my students say things like “I’m still having trouble putting my hands together” or “The rhythm doesn’t feel right here.” or “It was pretty good, but I don’t feel like there must be a wrong note here.”
This is ideal. Because my students are the ones starting the conversation and we can immediately leap into what needs fixing. I can offer words of encouragement and praise as we work through their weaknesses, but because they are identified by the student and not me, neither of us feel even a hint of negativity.
Phrasing my suggestions creatively
While I always try to avoid “hollow praise”, I also try to avoid immediately pouncing on what needs work without offering some encouragement.
It’s the art of creative suggestions, that preserve your child’s self-esteem without ignoring struggles that need some attention. Using phrases such as “Now, I know you, and you can do this…” before offering my suggestions worked wonders.
Empowering students to accept challenges, but not gloss over the fact that there are some things that need work..
...has been a powerful change in my piano lessons. Now, in addition to praising what my students are doing correctly, I am also praising their ability to persevere. “You can do hard things…” is a favorite affirmation of mine!
Learning that it’s okay
I have learned that it’s actually okay to simply point out what isn’t correct. I have worked hard to build an environment of trust and respect in my studio; my students know without a doubt that I care about them. I don’t need to sugar-coat my feedback… they know that it’s coming from a place of wanting to help them achieve.
What about you, Mom and Dad? Have you moved beyond the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality? Have you learned that this ‘parenting project’ requires saying hard things?
For me, it’s a work in progress. But, the way I look at it is this: If I’m not learning and growing, I must be 6 foot under!
Inspired by Andrea’s 28/10/15 “Teach Piano Today” blog post.