Thursday, March 02, 2006

Teaching woes

*Disclaimer: this is a long rant. This was not my intent, and yes, I do understand the short blurb essence of blogging. Oh well, brace yourself.*

Oh my goodness, I need a glass of wine. I believe I am the most patient teacher in the world, but I nearly lost it today. This family needs to be fired. I start my Tuesday teaching day with a great family. Brother and sister, they practice, they have a great support system at home, they come prepared (most of the time--hey, nobody is perfect), we're all happy. The next students arrive. Brothers. Well, brother now. The younger one was finally pulled from lessons a few weeks ago. He was a very young five. The first time they came to my house for lessons (after we got the piano), we were playing a clapping game and he spaces out (about every 5 seconds--a clue your child is not ready for lessons?) in the middle of my sentence, saying, "Where are the beds?" Uhhh...what? Me: "Oh! I sleep upstairs. Now clap what I clap." Him: "But where do WE sleep?" Me: "Oh, you're not staying here tonight; you're going home to your own bed!" Him: "But where do we SLEEP?" He just didn't understand the concept of a piano lesson. When I went to their place, it was as if I was their babysitter, not their teacher.

Anyway, we're down to one. This kid also has the attention span of a cat posing for pictures with Santa. I find myself getting more and more firm with him, which he needs and he can certainly handle, but then he keeps forgetting what I've JUST told him—I mean how he behaves when he’s not playing one of his songs. He'll play a piece, then as soon as he's done, he'll poke random notes all over the keyboard. When he sits at the piano, he immediately does the same thing. I'll play something for him (at his right), and he'll be practically off the piano bench playing with the pedals. I always stop, ask him to stop and fold his hands in his lap. I've tried everything, and I've gone several weeks with doing the same thing to try to get a routine going for him. He just has A.D.D. or something. To make matters worse, this was the second week in a row when the parents were over 20 MINUTES LATE picking him up. Unfortunately, that coincided with my break between students. I get him to pack up after his lesson, put on his shoes at the door and sit on the front stairs (inside) to wait. Does he stay there? No. Last week he followed me upstairs to my room when I ran up to get something. Today I sat with him on the stairs (babysitter yet again), and he still gets up to run after my cat. So not only am I on the verge of snapping at him in his lesson (which I've never done with a student, EVER), but I'm ready to tear into his parents.

Unfortunately (yet another "unfortunately"), his parents speak very little English. His dad normally comes to the door; his English is decent, but I don't think he understands when I show him his son's notebook and the practicing instructions I've written down. He needs guidance at home, which UNFORTUNATELY consists of a hotel room. Their piano (digital, set up on a nightstand) is in the same room as the TV room (always on, I’m assuming, as I’d had to ask them to turn it off when I taught lessons there)/living room/kitchen/play room/5 year-old’s stomping ground. Very poor light (even though I’d moved the only lamp in the place right next to the keyboard), very hot, and the kids are always rubbing their eyes, likely from watching TV in the dark all the time.

So you can see why I’m patient with the kids. It’s not exactly their fault. I’ve tried talking to the parents, who keep sending their son into his lesson with one or no piano books, or sometimes a sheet of music consisting of their national anthem with non-Western notation. This would normally be exciting for me to investigate (I’ve never been an ethnomusicological person, but I’m still up for the challenge), but this kid can’t remember that his thumb is finger 1. If there were an “easy piano” version of their anthem, maybe we could try it. I’ve asked the kid to sing the words for me, but he doesn’t know them. The anthem also consists of several repeated notes in a row and some notes that don’t really exist on the piano. We gave it a go for a couple of lessons. He knows the notes because I showed them to him, but that’s really all I could show him, not knowing the speech pattern of the anthem, how long each note is, etc. This is not why his parents signed him up for piano lessons!

Anyway, tonight the mother (no English except, “Sorry. Next week? Yes?) came to the door, so although I had my little speech ready, she likely didn’t understand. I looked stern and said, “You can’t be late to pick him up. This is the last time. If it happens again, I will not teach him anymore.” It would be a small blessing, actually. And I don’t think he even cares. Whenever we finish a piece (a joy in my world when I was a student—I loved that foil star!), he would look crushed that we were starting a new piece, no matter how fun the title appeared. His body language (and whines) would say, “Aren’t we finished with this piano stuff yet?” So although I don’t want to fail my students as a teacher, maybe it’s time to let this little fishy go.

I may as well keep going with the rant. If I still have your attention, good for you! Students number 4 and 5 tonight: The girl is great. She’s very ambitious (to her frustration sometimes…ok, I know everyone wants to play Fur Elise, but just because you can play the first 9 notes doesn’t mean you can play the piece), so I thought it would be a fun challenge to give her a very easy accompaniment part to an oboe piece of mine. It’s probably about 3 minutes long. Today was the first time I brought the oboe out to play with her. I’ve been busy and haven’t played English horn since last week’s concert. How about that oboe, Jill? What? I’m an oboist? Which reed will work here in this box of mine? It felt so foreign to me. I believe it’s been about a month since I’ve touched my oboe. (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) I thought it was bad when I was taking classes (don’t get me started on the whole “let’s make course work so difficult that PERFORMANCE students don’t have a chance to practice” thing), but it seems even worse now that I’m studying all the time (when I’m not teaching or driving to Cedar Rapids). I probably sounded like a small boy playing a comb.

Student number 5 is the brother of student number 4. He is the student I affectionately refer to as my slack-jawed student. Does that make me sound horrible? It’s only because everything I say is met with a shrug, or better yet, a shrug in combination with an “I don’t care.” Last time he said that, I acted as though I’d been poisoned, grabbed my throat, and pretended to fall off my chair. I said, “In Peter Pan, whenever someone says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ a fairy drops down dead somewhere. Well, whenever a student says, ‘I don’t care,’ a piano teacher drops down dead.” That got a good reaction. However, he still shrugs, and although he doesn’t say it, I don’t think he cares.
I would just love to be in the position where I could audition students. Take the good ones, fire the apathetic ones, and let them know they could easily be replaced at any moment.

There are great teaching days, but today was not one of them. Dave has promised me a date tonight, doing something, anything to get out of the house. We’re going out for dinner, where I’ll rant a little, then forget about this bad day for a while!


Mary said...

Jill, I SO know how you are feeling. My worst student this year was the 5 year old ADHD student - whose mom was a piano teacher. The student NEVER listened to me, NEVER practiced (my mom says I don't have to practice), forgot her books all the time, or worse, brought the books that her MOM thought she should use, rather than the ones I prefer. Plus, she only showed up for every 3rd lesson or so (can't say I wasn't relieved, but it really prevented any progress). So anyways, I finally fired her. The breaking point? I had already decided to fire her, but during what was to be her last lesson, she let out several very loud, very rude "toots" as we say in our house. After the third one, I said "THAT'S IT" and stormed out the door and told her mom I was done. The worst part was that Aaron, my boss, had just hired her mom to replace a vocal teacher, and I had to teach next to her for several weeks after that. Very, very awkward!

IF I start teaching again, I am definately auditioning. It is that kind of behavior that burns teachers out before they are 30...

Pattyoboe said...

Ugh. I feel for you. I have some challenging students and parents, but nothing like these!

Do you communicate via email at all? I find that the parents who don't speak English very well find it easier to understand me through email.

I do believe that there are times to say goodbye to students. Sometimes it's just too frustrating, and isn't doing either the student or you any good.

Hang in there!