Deadwood Students

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by Philip Johnston

Deadwood Students

Obviously most teachers are interested in retaining students, but how do you know when it’s time to let a student go? Take our quiz, give yourself the permission you need…

SOME YEARS AGO Wednesday mornings would reduce me to lying in bed, pillow pulled tight over my head—all because of a lesson that wasn’t actually scheduled until Wednesday afternoon.

Now you need to understand that I’m normally fairly upbeat when I teach, But once this particular student turned up, each of the thirty minutes would drag like an arthritic wombat towing a sack of rocks. No amount of coffee could restore my energy levels afterwards. The only saving grace was the fact that at least it was a whole week until we would meet again…

We’ve all had students like this. But what’s notable is not that such students exist.

It’s that we so often keep teaching them anyway.

This article is about giving yourself permission not to, and being able to identify these students for what they are. Because income loss or not, life is too short to share any of your half hours each week with a student you dread.

Knowing when you’ve got a Deadwood Student

The problem is that these monsters don’t always present with tell-tale bolts through their heads. Sometimes it can be hard to put a finger on just what it is that makes them so… so… I mean really…you know…

…and just as the word eludes you, it seems unreasonable to dismiss them from your studio for a crime you can’t even name.

So how can you tell if you have a student you’re better off without, or if you’re the one who’s being pathetic? Should our role as teachers also be that of redeemers? Is there an extent to which we should learn to tolerate the intolerable?

What follows is a quiz to help you sort through the muddle…

…and maybe it will provide the nudge you need to start planning an “I think it’s time for a break” speech…

Type 1: Groundhog Day Students

These students leave you with the uncanny feeling that this week’s lesson was exactly the same as last week’s lesson…mostly because it was exactly the same. There’s no forward progress. The things that were bad last week are still bad. The things that were good are still good, but they’re not better.

All of which means that the F# that you’ve circled three times already gets yet another loop around it, until you can eventually use all these concentric ellipsis to date the commencement of the piece, like age rings on a tree.

Sometimes it’s because they don’t practice. Other times it’s because they simply don’t take in your feedback at each lesson. Most often it’s a combination of both—but whatever the cause, the end result is soul destroying. By all means, be creative and enthusiastic and try to end the Cycle of Tedium, but in the words of W.C. Fields “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…but then for heaven’s sake quit. There’s no use in being a fool about it.”

To what extent is your student a “Groundhog Day” student?

A) That’s exactly what this student is – all the time (10 points)
B) There are a few lessons where we make progress, but… (6 points)
C) It’s an occasional issue (2 points)
D) This never happens (0 points)

Type 2: “Whatever” students

The attitude has existed among some students long before the word became a teen rallying cry that sums up the sentiment. “Whatever” students are those who are too cynical, too streetwise—and often simply too dull—to allow themselves to become enthusiastic about anything. Lessons become an exercise where the best you can hope for is compliance, and where the energy levels required for any forward movement will age you faster than a month spent sunbaking on Mercury.

As teachers we have to be able to fire students up—about new repertoire, about performance opportunities, about a new practice game to try, about a new technique that had hitherto been out of reach. But when all attempts at motivation are greeted with variations on “Whatever…”, what’s left is impossibly hollow to do any useful work with.

To what extent is your student a “Whatever” student?

A) All the time! (10 points)
B) Most of the time (6 points)
C) It’s an occasional issue (2 points)
D) This never happens (0 points)

Type 3: Phantom Students

deadwood_phantomThese are students who more often than not simply fail to show up. Sometimes there’s a phone call first (take your pick from “I’m sick/I had too much homework this week/dad can’t drive me today/my shoelaces have a tough double knot that I can’t undo”), but often there’s no notice at all.

To make things worse, because you can’t be 100% sure that they’re not coming, it’s difficult to use the time productively. You can’t start things that require no interruption, and there’s no way you’re going to be able to schedule another student to fill the suddenly vacated slot.

And then—the Phantoms I love to hate the most—their parents will expect a makeup lesson. “But we PAID for 10 lessons” they’ll protest “and little Caspar here only had 7…” Little Caspar can find another teacher, I’m not interested.

How often is the student a “Phantom”?

A) Constantly. They rarely show up two lessons in a row.(10 points)
B) Every semester I can expect some unscheduled no-shows (6 points)
C) It’s an occasional issue (2 points)
D) Their attendance is fine (0 points)

Type 4: Bookless Wonders

It’s really not all that hard, we tell our students. When you have a music lesson, you’ll need your books. No, not last year’s books. Or your sister’s books. Your books, the right books, the ones you practice with, the ones we use every lesson…or at least we would if you’d bring them once in a while…

I’m actually a little more forgiving with students who are genuinely scatterheaded and forget other things in their lives too. But what’s so irritating about students who constantly get this wrong is that most of them wouldn’t dream of turning up to cricket practice without their bat. Or a rock concert without their tickets. So they can get things right if they think it’s important enough…the sinking feeling I get lies partly with missing resources that I need, but mostly with having been presented with tangible evidence of the esteem in which they hold music lessons.

Is the lesson possible when they don’t bring what’s needed? Absolutely. It’s just that I’m going to have to work three times as hard as I might have otherwise. Don’t expect me to be excited about the possibility of more of the same next lesson.

Could your student be described as a Bookless Wonder?

A) Constantly. I’m wondering if they even know where their books are (10 points)
B) Every semester I can expect this a few times (6 points)
C) It’s an occasional issue (2 points)
D) They almost never get this wrong (0 points)

Type 5: The bulldozer chatterbox

Don’t confuse this with students who are just naturally talkative—some of my favorite students have been those who like to start each lesson with a soliloquy, and continue the chat if given the opportunity. But “opportunity” is the key difference: these students also know when it’s important to turn off the word torrent, and just listen.

Bulldozer chatterboxes have no such filter. They’ll be interrupting you two sentences into every explanation, and without so much as a bare acknowledgement of what you had just said, will change the subject completely. Lessons become all about trying to segue back from wherever-the-heck-they-just-were to what-we-should-be-focusing-on.

In short, bulldozer chatterboxes take away two of our most powerful weapons—communication, and the ability to set the agenda. For the half hour, your studio is a House of Monologues, and if it gets bad enough, it can feel as though you almost don’t need to be present. Offer to get them a mirror so they can maintain the discussion, go get a coffee…and advertise their space for another student.

To what extent is your student a Bulldozer Chatterbox?

A) By ears bleed every time I teach this student. (10 points)
B) It’s not constant, but they definitely tend this way (6 points)
C) It’s an occasional problem (2 points)
D) Not at all. They know when to listen. (0 points)

Type 6: The Mannequin

These students present the opposite challenge to that of a Bulldozer Chatterbox. Far from interrupting your every point, they steadfastly refuse to say anything. In the worst cases, even their facial expressions don’t seem to respond to what you say, giving you the eerie feeling that you’re conducting a lesson at Madam Tussauds.

The big problem here is momentum—you’ll be responsible not only for initiating everything that happens, but for then sustaining it. Were you to pause for breath for just a moment, the student would just sit there looking, waiting obediently but creepily for What’s Next. Just as even the most talented actors struggle when they’re working with a wooden and unresponsive colleague, you’ll find your creativity being sucked away, as you sneak glances at the clock, willing it forward…and the core question returns:

Why are you doing this to yourself?…

Could your student be described as a Mannequin?

A) Definitely. I would have to take their pulse to be sure they’re alive (10 points)
B) There are occasional flickers, but most communication is one-way (6 points)
C) It’s an occasional problem (2 points)
D) Not at all (0 points)

Type 7: The Non-Practicer

Perhaps the most frustrating student of all, reducing lessons to a shadow of what’s possible from both teacher and pupil. There’s plenty you can do to help fire up the practice process (see Practiceopedia for 376 pages of ideas), but in the end a student who refuses to practice at all is condemning their lessons to a lingering death. Your role then becomes an uncomfortable cross between babysitter (of the student) and palliative care (of their parents’ vicarious musical hopes and dreams).

Be careful though before dismissing a student on these grounds. Some of the best students I’ve ever had have been people who have been through non-practicing troughs, and there’s often fixable causes behind the slump.

To what extent is your student a Non-Practicer?

A) I’m yet to see evidence that they ever practice (10 points)
B) Apart from panic practice before a concert, they rarely prepare (6 points)
C) It’s an occasional problem (2 points)
D) Their practice is fine (0 points)

Type 8: Arguers

I don’t need my students to organize a parade in my honour every time I make a suggestion, and I genuinely enjoy conversations that result in me being persuaded by a stronger idea. But some students will oppose everything that’s said, almost as a reflex action.

This means that instead of spending 30 seconds putting in a new fingering, you have to listen to a 30 minute defence of the old one. In their eyes you’re not a mentor—you’re an obstacle, put on this planet to thwart their already-evolved-and-beyond-reproach ideas.

So if having the temerity to suggest to the student that “f means loud” puts you on the sharp end of a Socratic dialectic, then you have to wonder whether they really need you or not. If they would prefer to think that “f” means “play an f”, then so be it, but they can think that in somebody else’s studio.

Could your student be described as an Arguer?

A) Absolutely. Just about every suggestion I make is contradicted (10 points)
B) I can sometimes get through, but it’s hard work (6 points)
C) It’s an occasional problem (2 points)
D) Not at all (0 points)

Type 9: Painful Parents

You might be working with a delightful and capable student, but if you want to hide in a cupboard every time their parents show up, then there’s trouble brewing.

Dealing with difficult parents is a core part of the job—they’ve got every right to be both demanding and proactive in the pursuit of the best possible outcome for their child. But parents who constantly interject during lessons, berate their children for the slightest error, are late for the pickups, and then want to use 10 minutes from your next student’s lesson to fire questions at you…it all adds to your stress levels in a job that doesn’t have to be stressful. It’s all about the people you work with—maybe you’d be better off not working with these particular people.

Just how painful are this student’s parents?

A) Don’t even start me. I think I’m going to need therapy because of these people (10 points)
B) They’re not impossible, but they really do make life much harder (6 points)
C) They’re occasionally tricky to handle (2 points)
D) They’re fine (0 points)

Type 10: “Can’t do” students

Sports psychologists will talk about the importance of optimism, and we’ve all noticed a correlation between the glass-half-full students and those that give better performances. But the real question is not what a student sees when they look at a 200ml cup with 100 mls of water in it. What’s really interesting is their assumption about how we’re going to get the remaining 100 mls in there.

Unfortunately, some students not only see it as half empty—they also can’t imagine it any other way. That because it’s short of the top now, it always will be…

…so what’s the point in trying?

It’s ok when students have a phase where they feel like this. Part of our role as teachers is to help them visualize the filling process, and have them excited about getting the job done. But if your best motivational efforts are always being deflated by the student announcing that “it’s impossible” or “I’ll never be able to do that”, then their self-fulfilling prophecies are spelling doom for the lessons.

The test is this: When you’ve just had a lesson, and they’ve told you “I can’t do that” to something entirely doable, and you find yourself finally believing them, it’s time to wind things up.

To what extent does your student suffer from “can’t do”?

A) This student thinks the glass is mostly empty, leaks and contains poison (10 points)
B) They occasionally snap out of their self-defeating funk (6 points)
C) They have more than a few “can’t do moments, but it’s mostly a non-issue (2 points)
D) Not at all (0 points)

So how did your student score?

0-25 points

Unless the points here were all for your Number One Pet Hate, there just may be a future for this student in your studio after all. Hopefully though there is a nice list of positives that can offset what’s been driving you crazy…but if there’s not, then do yourself a favour and cut them loose.

26-50 points

Not a half hour any music teacher would look forward to—plenty of reasons here to consider winding things up.

51-75 points

The money you earn from this student will end up going straight into a therapist’s pocket if things continue as they are. Time to start planning the “it’s time for a break” speech, or someone’s going to eventually discover you sitting in a corner, sucking your thumb, mumbling the student’s name over and over…

76 -100 points

It’s hard to say whether such students are the product of their upbringing, or an unfortunate alignment of suspect genes, but either way, it shouldn’t be your problem. In short, why are you doing this to yourself? Go make the call, and reclaim that slice of your life.

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