Interference with teaching

March 17, 2010 at 05:26 AM ·

 This has been brewing for a long time.  Usually, when I teach, I've done so with relatively little interference, which obviously leads to the best results.

However, there is one teacher who teaches group lessons in public schools who keeps interfering with the lessons.  The teacher loved the results I was able to get with my students, but because I don't do things the way they do, they got very upset and started sending home all my students bad evaluations.  They'll pick apart my students' playing and say I must be a horrible teacher, when in fact I'm just waiting for the right time to introduce certain concepts (plus, some concepts I simply teach differently).  Funny thing is before they discovered I did things differently, they loved my students' playing and recommended me very highly.... hence why I now have bunches of students who have this teacher at school.....

Anyway I basically explained to the parents where the teacher comes from and where I do and for the past few months things have been okay.  The teacher couldn't convince the parents to leave me as a teacher since the kids are happy, improving, and sound good..... but now, the teacher is turning to my students.

This week a student of mine confided in me the teacher verbally attacks them.  The teacher tells this student to position themselves in such a way that they are actually in pain!  Then when they don't do it, she screams at them.  This past week the teacher said, "but you're actually listening to what your teacher is saying!"  The teacher wanted them to do as she said instead.  I couldn't believe my ears.  Isn't that the point of private lessons instead of just school lessons?  The teacher seems to like absolute control and absolute say over every aspect of their technique.  The students aren't disobeying the teacher; they listen for things like what bowing, tempo, to use, etc.... but the teacher is trying to teach the students technique in group lessons and have that advice take precedence over lessons. The teacher obviously has no respect for me and has stopped giving my name to people... downright goes around telling people not to study with me and is trying to ruin my reputation..... I guess that's the teacher's prerogative, but to attack my students feels to me not only unprofessional, but unethical.  I really feel for these defenseless little kids being put in such an unfair situation.

My question is, what do I do with the students I have left of the teacher's?  What do I tell them to do when the teacher reams them out and insists on doing things in such a way that they end up in pain and/or extreme discomfort and/or in some cases, can't even play in the position the school teacher wants?  I've told the students AND parents common sense things.  But I am getting such disrespect from the person at school that it's really interfering with the lessons and it really peeves me as a person, to be treated so unprofessionally.  What would you do in this situation?  I'd rather not leave the students, because they have been making good progress with me, I have a good working relationship with them, and I enjoy teaching them.  How do I make the best of it?

Oh to add to complications.... I know most people know that you study with only one person at a time.... but these are beginners (well.... some of them no longer play like beginners anymore!), and they (and their parents) don't know this is the case.... they've known the public school teacher for longer and so therefore have a great trust with this person before ever beginning lessons.... I have to tread very carefully..... so anyway, would appreciate some advice, especially from anyone who may have found themselves in this unique and challenging situation.

Replies (21)

March 17, 2010 at 08:25 AM ·

As someone who sits on both sides of the fence as a private instructor and a school music director, I'd look at your issue this way:

A battle with the school music teacher is not one you can win. They simply exert far more influence just by the virtue of seeing the student more frequently. That being said, it's better to make friends than enemies so the first thing to do is to get in touch with said instructor and work out the is the proper, adult, thing to do! There are many people who grew up with the violin doing things one specific way, and as adults teach only what they know. They may be very uncomfortable and/or feel threatened by teaching ideas that are radically different from their own because in a way it may cast aspersions on what they wish to impart on the students. You don't have to make a judgment call on this instructor, but make the appeal to them that "different does not equal bad or wrong." For the sake of the students, I feel this is the best path to take, and one that can ultimately yield a respectful and beneficial relationship in the future.

However, the big question I have to ask is: is the teacher in question a string player?

March 17, 2010 at 04:15 PM ·

Look to the source. I do not mean the person, but maybe try and understand why she is acting in this manner.
I wonder if she feels threatened by you, and is unsure if her position will be maintained. In this time of severe budget cuts, many school systems are cutting music departments.
I also wonder how your students interact with her in her class. If she is trying to maintain discipline in a challenging group of students that may not be interested in serious music, and some students are challenging her authority by saying 'But my other teacher says to do it THIS WAY!!!!', she may be almost forced to make it a point. How many students is she trying to teach? It may be that you could make some simple changes in how you communicate with your students to help reinforce her authority while they are in her class.

Have you talked with her? Is it possible that you invite her out for coffee (I would suggest an initial meeting be on neutral turf), and simply try and understand. Possibly indicate that for the students, you would like to work so your instructions complemented hers (do not mention they now appear to compete). This may be delicate, so use caution if you do decide to chat. Only do so if you think you can keep the meeting cordial.

Also, make certain when you talk with your students, you do not say things in small ways that add to the differences; do not use comparative small things.
Rather than saying 'well, here we shall hold the bow like this!', maybe say 'Try holding the bow like this, and you can feel (or do) this'.

March 17, 2010 at 05:05 PM ·

This is terrible. Really :( 

I can't give you any real advice, since I have no experience with this sort of thing, but I'll make a comment anyway. Aren't music educators, whether private instructor or school teacher, supposed to *want* their students to progress? Aren't they supposed to help mold them into better musicians? That said, I would think any decent school teacher would be willing to work with the private instructor, as there is the possibility that these kids will be with their private instructor for many many years, while the school teacher inevitably changes as the kids grow from elementary to middle to high school (not to mention any employment changes within the system itself). By contradicting what you say, this school teacher is not only hurting the kids' development as violinists, she is ruining her own credibility as well.

I don't know if this is relevant, but I was introduced recently to the orchestra teacher at one of our local schools, and he confessed to me that his skill as a violinist is comparatively low compared to some other instruments. If fact, he claimed me to be a better violinist than he is, and I'm still a student! So is it at all possible that the problem here is simply that of this particular teacher lacking the appropriate skill it takes to teach these kids properly? Truthfully, we could even be talking about something as base as jealousy. As the above poster mentioned, perhaps she feels threatened by you?

Anyway, good luck and keep us posted. I'm curious how this will resolve.

March 17, 2010 at 05:10 PM ·

I'm deeply sorry you're having to go through this.  It sounds like a really uncomfortable situation.  I posted a similar concern, many years ago on the official SAA board, Suzuki Xchange, and all the teachers there told me that they had never experienced anything like that and that, in fact, all they got was respect and nice treatment. 

That has not been my experience.  On the contrary, I've moved around a number of times to pursue orchestra positions and always there is a sense that when a newcomer arrives, who teaches, this may have a negative affect on other teachers' incomes, and there may be some resistance or unfriendliness involved.  I can't prove it, but I think my experience is more the norm.

It sounds like a power struggle, that there is some professional jealousy involved, and not a little bit of fearfulness and anxiety, indicated by the bad behavior of the school teachers.  I think your choices are something like ignore it, move or confrontation.  I would pick ignore it, if you can.  As long as your income remains at the level you wish, and you are able to manage the feelings the students are having, I wouldn't give up just yet. 

It's also perhaps another instance of the need to not require the approval of others, psychologically.  If you can remain independent and confident (and warm, kindly and professional), chances are these troubled teachers will settle down, leave, or be dismissed, in time.  If they behave badly it's on their shoulders, not yours.  Wise people will see that;  what the others think does not especially matter.

I wish you the very best for the future of your teaching!

March 17, 2010 at 06:47 PM ·

 Well the obvious point here is that you are unhappy with this situation.  So change must be in order.

As others have suggested, talking to this other teacher would be a good starting point.  I've had to deal with situations similar (but not quite as extreme) to yours.  Be very careful, though, when you approach this other teacher.  It sounds like she is either threatened by your or just doesn't like you for whatever reason.  Do not accuse her of anything.  Keep all conversation topics neutral and nonthreatening.  Don't throw blame.  For example "I feel like there have been some conflicting lessons going on lately" would be better than "You're telling my students how to play incorrectly."  If you want to accomplish anything with this conversation, don't put her guard up by accusing her.

The other thing I would start looking at is how this other teacher is affecting your career.  If she she is interfering with your business, you might want to consider leaving that particular school environment.  If your students are happy with your work, you should have no problem maybe finding another school job or setting up your own private studio.

March 17, 2010 at 08:13 PM ·

"It all comes out in the wash."  As Connie has said, if you can not let it get to you and are able to keep professional and courteous yourself, over time people will form their own conclusions about who is offering the superior product and conducting themselves most honorably.  Even if you lose a student or two over what appears to be pettiness, they will probably be ones you could do without anyway;  this situation will most likely settle out just the way it ought to, even though it can potentially be a little stressful meanwhile! 

I see this type of situation as an opportunity, really.


March 17, 2010 at 09:29 PM ·

The schools are evil for students with any sort of talent or promise. You should dissuade parents from allowing involvement. Here in Houston we have a lot of incompetent programs that demand that teachers do it the school's way. They demand incorrect technique and inappropriate etudes etc. etc.


March 18, 2010 at 01:19 AM ·

Evil inner city public school teacher here (who used to be on the other side with 50 or so private students).  If a student is being verbally attacked or unfairly graded and there is proof, it would be a parent's responsibility to take this up the the teacher and/ or administration.  Ethics laws usually prohibit state employees from recommending a particular vendor, so if you are being singled out there would be another cause of action. Even if you don't agree with the teacher's instruction, it is not your place to determine what is taught in the school setting (just as she cannot dictate what you teach).  However, the two teaching settings can be complementary.  For instance, if your student is more advanced than the school material, encourage that student to concentrate on excellent tone and to model excellent posture.  Ensemble skills are advanced by the group setting.  Do you have proof the teacher is screaming and inducing physical pain?  Student's have been known to exaggerate or fabricate.  The friend of one of my private students once falsely told her teacher (one of my symphony colleagues) that I had badmouthed her teaching.  Your students may need to be in the school program to have access to state music association sponsored events.   When I had a private studio, I went out of my way to have a good relationship with my local string teachers.  If you're teaching is sound, the proof will be in your students and it really doesn't matter what someone else thinks.


March 18, 2010 at 01:45 AM ·

This same thing happened when I was in public high school. We just got a new teacher and she wanted everything her way. She really only had one problem with me: I didn't use a shoulder rest.   She couldn't even play long periods of time without complaining of pain, I even had my teacher go up there and explain to her why I shouldn't be using a shoulder rest (I virtually have no neck, he also pointed out that the pain she was feeling was because of her shoulder rest, that's when all hell broke loose.) She kept sending home bad evaluations and just really nasty things, eventually it came to head where I just ended up quitting orchestra and focusing on solo rep ever since. Now that I look back on it, it was probably a bad idea to quit, but I wasn't going to choose orchestra over a teacher that was really teaching me on an individual basis Vs. A teacher who has never known me or what I needed in a teacher.

March 18, 2010 at 01:55 AM ·

It could be many factors

EGO...small thinking BIG mouth

STRESS....New Jersey is about to can many a teacher and we all know what goes off to slaughter first

Best if you can take the high road; ignore it and stay focused on your students

March 18, 2010 at 05:54 AM ·

 Wow, so many responses.  Thanks so much to everyone--I appreciate that you took the time to do it and all the different aspects to consider.

To clarify: I myself am not teaching in the school.  I am teaching in a private studio, where kids come from all over to take lessons.  It's not affiliated with any school.  This group of kids just happen to be from the same school, where the teacher is the orchestra director.  So my job is *completely* different from the school teacher's.

Let's call the teacher Mr. A.  Basically.... I know my students are truthful because several of them have said to me, "Mr A said not to do what you say."  Yikes!  I've also read the bad evaluations myself AND heard feedback from the parents that Mr A told them bad things about me.  I am usually pretty diplomatic and explain to my students how there is more than one way of doing things... I've explained for some the science/physics involved in BOTH my way and Mr A's way.  They actually grasp this well and I've gone on teaching peacefully.  But then this comes up.  I then have to waste lesson time instead of just doing my job.  And I do feel for the little kid who says, "how do I know what to listen to?"  The kid has been taught to trust the adults in their lives and then a comment like this breaks that trust.

I'm basically a "kind" type of person that avoids confrontation .... it's just who I am.  I'm pretty friendly and approachable to all my students and their families and go above and beyond the call of duty.... it's just in my nature.  I'm the proverbial doormat that bends over backwards for people.  Mr A telling the kids not to listen to me actually does pit Mr A and I against one another in a way that is sadly unnecessary.

You guys are all right in that in the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter.  There are other teachers and students out there, plus Mr A's students are happy with me (despite his attempts to plant seeds of doubt in their minds).  I've never lost any of Mr A's students yet.  While I've had fantastic violin teachers in my life, I also had more than one abusive teacher far in the past and I know just how damaging that can be to a child.  I guess it's just difficult to hear about and just brush it off.  I have this uncomfortable feeling that Mr A isn't finished yet and there's trouble brewing ahead with several of the students.

The idea of meeting Mr A is logical; I get to have some power over the situation instead of waiting for the storm.  It does seem like his mind is made up already.... plus, I can't shake the image of a mouse (me) meeting a pit bull, heh.  That was good advice; I think I'm just too chicken to do it :).  You're all correct in that by acting classy, I am setting the better example that most people will logically listen to.... like all musicians though, I'm a sensitive person (sigh ;).  Btw, it was helpful to hear that some of you out there experienced the same thing.  Y'all made me feel better. :)

March 18, 2010 at 06:14 AM ·

Here's an idea, if you do intend to meet with him.

As I mentioned earlier, select a neutral place. However, your reference of a mouse meeting a pit bull indicates that you feel intimidated by him. If you bring a friend along, that would influence the conversation; if you did not let him know the friend was coming, he may feel blindsided.

If you are truly concerned about how the conversation will go, it may be better to avoid it, or to have it with a neutral third party.
An alternative may be that one of the parents will initiate the matter, and request a combined meeting with both of you. That may be the best solution, but would put the student's family in what I consider an inappropriate position (it is right for them to approach it in that manner, but not to be 'cornered' into needing to do so).

March 18, 2010 at 06:59 AM ·

Mr. A is actually displaying a lack of ethics by slamming another, and in front of the students

What is his background anyway. The school system music programs are always on the defensive...must show "numbers" to justify their existence and the bottom line the concert must sound good to the administration. So, most often all that is being taught are the music selections for the concerts. Quite simply put; due to time constraints, very few public school teachers spend the necessary time on "position",  bow hold , and all those things that take time and repetition, but as we know pay off in the end. Now, there are many dedicated teachers out there to be sure...Mr. A does not seem to be one of them. If he was doing his job, he would not even have the time to criticize you to the students...Karma and Christie will get him

March 18, 2010 at 03:32 PM ·

The teacher I got my senior year insisted on working on technique with us. I agreed with the fact that she had to the teacher before her got fired and as her last vengeful motion she decided to put very bad players in the top orchestra. Kids that didn't care to practice and this one kid that had all the determination to play at a high level but just couldn't from lack of attention. We went from playing Hoedown, Holberg suite and Adagio for strings to playing badly cut up versions of moldau and the ever popular Farandole.  That was my second reason for leaving, the level of playing went down dramatically.

March 18, 2010 at 09:11 PM ·

So long as you are not financially or legally affiliated with Mr. A then it really does not matter what he says.  You will run into people like this all the time as a music teacher.  It happens to everyone.

I was hired to run this after school violin program at this one public school for one semester.  Apparently the school orchestra conductor had some sort of beef with me (no idea why, I had never even seen him) and kept bashing my technique tips during orchestra class.  He eventually came crashing into my class one day to give me a piece of his mind.  He told me he had been teaching for 30 years and knew musical persons X, Y and Z and how DARE I correct the playing posture of the violinists.  I asked him which instrument he played and he said guitar.  I told him that while he has been teaching for way longer than me, playing the violin is one thing I do know and than my primary concern is having the students play well.  The conversation quickly went downhill from there lol.

So yes.  I can commiserate.  But just keep plugging along.  It's not worth worrying about people like that.  It's best just to stay out of their way so they no longer feel threatened.  Those who are too big for their britches will be exposed in the end =D

March 19, 2010 at 06:08 PM ·

You've gotten lots and lots of good, sage advice here. For what it's worth, I have a couple of reactions to reading all this:

- You are indeed a professional based on how you behave, NOT on how you are treated by others. And in fact the most important time to behave like a professional is precisely when you are NOT being treated like one. So, yes, by all means, take the high road.

- Your non-musical problem in this situation is one of power. You have no power in that school system. The only power you possibly have comes from trying to build a bridge to this teacher and of course your own independent relationships you form with your own students. Abraham Lincoln said (somewhere) that you should keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

- If you are going to meet with this person, I wouldn't try to iron out any problems in an initial meeting. I'd do lots and lots and lots of listening, trying to understand where he's coming from, and giving praise where praise is due. If you get criticism, try to get a full understanding of what that is and the basis for it. I wouldn't try to argue on a "first date." If appropriate (and it might not be), you might even ask if there's some way you can help him.

Keep being analytical about this; don't let your emotions guide whatever you decide to do. Dealing with problems like this is NOT something that gets in the way of doing your job - it's part of your job - to protect your teaching and your reputation from the inevitable attacks on it. It happens to everyone in every profession [Ever see the intense criticisms of Jascha Heifetz as a teacher as well as a violinist that have appeared in this website?]. Consider your situation a living laboratory in which you get to try out different ways of looking at things and learn new skills.


March 20, 2010 at 07:09 AM ·

 Thanks so so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences everyone!

Sandy you are very right--it is a power struggle and seems to be part of some underlying issue Mr A has more so than something actually about the violin....

Yeah, I've seen the Heifetz attacks. :)  When it comes to defending oneself from attack.... it seems difficult to find the right balance of restraint and aggression because there are little kids in the balance.  Thus far it's gone well because the kids listen to me and understand the different perspectives.... except for the youngest one who for some reason is targeted by Mr A and is very confused.  So, I may need to go beyond the diplomatic approach.... I do like the line that you are a professional based on how you behave rather than by how others treat you. :)

The fun part is, recently one of Mr A's students made a breakthrough.  Heheheh.  It is fun to let the results do the talking. ;)

March 21, 2010 at 12:03 AM ·

If the teacher is screaming at the students, making them play in ways that hurt, etc., there's something more than a difference of opinion concerning violin technique going on here.  That's no way to teach anyone, much less schoolchildren, learning in groups, who we hope are enjoying their orchestra.  Do you and the screamer have any mutual acquaintances?  Maybe a third party could shed a little light on this for you.  The bad behavior may have little or nothing to actually do with you.

March 21, 2010 at 12:30 AM ·

I am confused.  In your initial post, you refer to "she", but now you refer to "Mr. A".

March 22, 2010 at 12:26 PM ·

Your location, in Bergen County, New Jersey, makes it convenient for you to seek the advice of Tony Soprano, Christopher Moltisanti or Pauly "Walnuts" regarding what to do about educating "Mr. A".   :)

March 22, 2010 at 04:11 PM ·

I hesitate to add more advice, since you already have a good bit to think about, but I will say a couple of things.

First, public school teachers are treated badly, underpaid, and increasingly frightened about their jobs.  Put yourself in that position, add more students than you can serve adequately, and think about how you'd feel.  The whole situation is a disgrace.

Second, you have to go face-to-face with this person, and establish at least a connection and some authority of your own.  It's easy to badmouth someone you don't know; once you become a person to them it gets tougher.

Third, this is about technique, how to play.  Show up to talk with this person with your violin, prepared to have a serious discussion of technique and pedagogy, with examples: "I do it this way for this reason; I got the idea from ________ ".  If there's a more effective way to do it, let's see it.  Your pedagogy is being criticized in absentia; let's compare notes and look at what's really at issue.  I'm betting that you are a lot smarter about these things than the other guy; clearly you're a lot nicer person.  You can be patient, insistent and stubborn without being confrontational.

Finally, consider the possibility that your discussion with this person is therapy.  Listen, don't talk too much, provide a sympathetic ear, and you might be surprised at what gets unloaded onto you, for better or worse.  In terms of your personal growth as a teacher and player, this situation is arguably a good thing, I think.  Best of luck.

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