Editor’s Note: This article about Success Tips for Managing the Disrespectful Student originally appeared in Piano Bench Mag.
“Miss Karen! Sally scraped my arm with her hand.” whined Jane. (names have been changed, but the incident is real).
“Sally, did you scrape Jane’s arm?”
“No!” exclaims Sally with a defiant, and some might say disrespectful, look and tone.
I had actually seen the whole thing, so I knew that Jane wasn’t making this up. I told Sally I saw it, and her response was to stand her ground and glare at me.
Sally is in the three-year-old music and movement class I teach, though by this time of year, she’s probably close to four, if not already four. Preschoolers, gotta love them. They are so similar to preteens and teens.
I understand Sally’s strong-willed personality (she and I have clashed more than once this year) and so I chose to let it go and move on with class.
It was the right decision because a few moments later, I saw Sally approaching Jane and apologising with no prompting from me. All was right in Jane’s world again.
Now things could have gone quite differently. I could have pushed the issue with Sally and forced her to apologise.
I could have also gotten after her for her defiant glare, not to mention lying to me. In other words, I could have asserted my dominance and authority, I’m the teacher after all, and she should have respect!
But neither would have accomplished anything. I recognised the reason for Sally’s reaction was self-preservation. She did something wrong, knew she was wrong and was probably embarrassed at some level. But she didn’t want to have to admit it publicly. So I let her out of the ‘corner’ she put herself into and let her save face.
And in the end, she did the right thing.
Why am I writing about preschoolers in an article for piano teachers? Because I think there are some lessons to be learned.
Just recently I was reading a thread online (although I’ve seen similar threads many times over the years) written by a teacher who was having problems with a student who was ‘defiant’ and ‘disrespectful’ when being corrected.
The responses were generally some version of fire the student or let the parents know so that they could ‘fix’ the problem.
I could not have disagreed with those responses more.
For some reading this, the teen years are a relatively recent memory. For others, like me, those years happened decades ago (where DID the time go?). I do remember enough of them to be glad they are behind me and to be thankful, I went through my teens at a time when the world was far less complicated and everything little thing I did was not subject to being posted on social media.
Teens have it hard (and I know EVERY generation of teens says that), but I think today’s teens are faced with challenges most adults will never be able to truly understand. For this article, whether you agree with me on this point or not, I would like you to at least pretend teens have greater challenges than you may have had growing up.
If that’s true, what is a teacher to do? Throw up his or her hands and give up? Coddle and lower expectations? Take a tough line and demand perfection? I don’t think any of these are the answer. I think there is another option.
And it has to do with recognising that the only person you can fully control or change is yourself.
Related: Read about the real reasons teens are quitting your studio
“Wait,” I can hear you saying, “I’m not the problem; my student is!”
So it would seem, but unless you are willing to consider approaching the problem from a different angle, you will continue to run into the same frustrations over and over again.
Many years ago, while going through a particularly stressful time in my life, a good friend shared an observation with me.
You can’t change anyone. You can’t change what they believe, how they behave, what they want out of life. You just can’t. (I am talking about making someone change, not persuading them to change).
However, you can change your reaction to what they do/say/ believe.
Have a student with an ‘attitude’? You can not change or ‘fix’ that attitude no matter what you do.
Let me clarify, you might be able to force the appearance of a change, but the attitude will still be there, though probably hidden.
However, you can change your response to their attitude. What if, instead of escalating things or taking offence, you instead find a way to joke or laugh? (It is hard to laugh and be negative at the same time.) Or maybe you just let it go because perhaps the reason for the attitude is a matter of self-preservation or embarrassment (as was the case for Sally).
Related: Hear Nicola’s podcast with tips about helping ALL piano students achieve greatness (even your challenging ones!)
Personally, as an educator, I expect to run into problems such as ‘bad attitude’ from time to time. Sure my job is easier when I am working with happy, cooperative students, but we are (for the most part) working with children after all. And when we expect adult behaviours from children 100% of the time, we are bound to be disappointed on occasion.
So maybe, the key is to focus on our reactions, the one thing we can control. I know since making this change in my life, I feel far less stress and am more easily able to handle situations that used to throw me for a loop. Perhaps it is the answer you are looking for, too.
Have you encountered a disrespectful piano student in your own studio? What made a positive difference for you and them? Leave a note in the comments if this brought you some fresh perspective.
Karen Gibson holds a BA in Human Resource Development from Northeastern Illinois University. After a successful career teaching in the business sector, Karen returned to her love of music, built a teaching studio, and founded the Piano Bench Mag. "You are never too old or too young to learn!" is Karen’s motto. Find Karen at GibsonFoxx where she currently works as a media & branding specialist.