Teacher? Psychologist? Counselor? Performer? Confidant? And other assorted job-related responsibilities included in the profession!
How many psychology courses did you take in college? Do you ever feel you’re facing a problem with a student that is beyond your expertise in relationship to counseling or guidance for the student’s well being? Is most of your time spent teaching, or do you find yourself spending all of your time handling various situations within the environment just to keep the program afloat?
We are never totally prepared for what faces us as teachers, and when we are confronted with the reality of the educational world, it can be a frightening, frustrating, confusing, and discouraging set of experiences. Many things you are asked to do as an educator are well beyond your expertise (i.e., disciplinary action, emotional unrest). The instinctive behavior is to scream, “foul!” The truth is, right or wrong, prepared or not prepared, you will face such circumstances. So rather than waste nonproductive energy on whether it’s “fair” or not, let’s assume a positive posture and begin to seek information on how to deal with the problems at hand. Act instead of react, and shift from merely existing to creative growth, where we can examine and solve problems.
Nice words, but how does this ideological fairyland become a reality? To begin with, we must acknowledge some of the things going on for young people in today’s teenage world. You may not like all of this data, but to dismiss it is setting yourself up for certain failure in your teaching career. When we understand and learn about the behavior patterns of youths, then (and only then) can we begin to work with them, not in spite of them.
Do you remember your first real day of teaching? How excited you were to impart all of your knowledge into those thirsty little minds! Remember your visions of all the students waiting in eager anticipation of every word of wisdom you were going to share with them? More fairyland. Rarely does it happen that way, or even come close to it because we have been working under the false assumption that the students will be filled with a tremendous desire to learn, a dangerous as well as inaccurate deduction. Successful teachers are those people who accept the reality of the situation at hand and move forward from that point. They have a grip on where the students are coming from and are assertive in the necessity to go to them instead of waiting for the students to magically “come of age.”
We all need to see that teenagers are facing a higher degree of stress than ever before. Their lives are full of pressures that not only dictate their daily behavior, but cause them to make choices in need of adult counterbalance. Whether we agree about our own need to handle this added responsibility (on the teacher’s part) isn’t the questions. You will handle it; you have no choice. How to handle it is the question. Any music teacher would agree that playing in tune is important, but if the child behind the instrument is dealing with a broken home, extended pressure to make grades to qualify for a certain college, drug or alcohol abuse, emotional crises with friends, trying to work and go to school at the same time, etc., you can correct the technical part of the problem, but you still have the problem. Next time out-of-tune note appears, guess what?!
Too often, we react to this particular situation by overreacting. Venting anger, embarrassing the student, espousing “Lecture 26” to the entire group, or whatever, will not solve the problem. The problem is that the student is so preoccupied with a stressful situation (regardless of when it happened) that he or she isn’t even aware of the out-of-tune note. Sometimes the student isn’t even in the room, so to speak. The immediate, and all-too-common response is, “Well, they shouldn’t drag their feelings into the class and ruin it for everyone else!” None of us should! But we do, and we must deal with what is, not what should be.
The teenage world has become a microcosm of the adult world, and the trend of growing up quickly has brought with it all the emotional hazards and ailments of the adult world. We simply can’t ignore these issues; they are real, and we must adjust our teaching techniques to deal with them, or the playing will never be in tune…nor will the students…nor will you!
What can I do? How can I help? In what direction do I go?
Once we begin to face the situation with a clear understanding, we have won half the battle. Sidestepping the issues simply adds fuel to the present fire. If you’ve made it this far in the article, you have taken a big step. The following suggestions will serve as guidelines. There is no answer that will solve every problem because every problem is unique to that situation. This information will give you some idea of where your energy will be best spent.
Don’t try to turn the clock back. Too many people want to return to the “good old days.” While they are verbalizing about how great things used to be, the excellent teachers are dealing with the present and preparing for the future. Update!
Express your care for students by saying no! Young people need help in decision making. Teach the value of giving up the short-term instant gratification in exchange for the long-term goal…and teach that the enjoyment comes via the journey, or focus. Learning to deal with “no” can be the most meaningful tool you share with them.
In every decision, deal with the principle, not the pressure. Young people have learned the game of manipulation very well from the adult world, and you can easily get conned into doing something in complete opposition to what would be most beneficial to the program. When the students understand your thinking is always based on what is best for them in the overall scheme of things, they will begin to respect your decision-making. You must be honest with your own integrity. You won’t always be popular, but you will be a great role model for everyone!
Teach persistence by being persistent. Learning by example is still the most effective method. If your students observe you tackling the problems of the day with a positive approach, they are likely to copy or mirror your behavior when they are around you. Beware: the reverse of this is also true when applied to negative example. A great friend once told me he could predict the performance of any group by spending ten minutes with the director in his or her office. His theory was amazingly accurate. Persistence is an absolute must in growth. Demonstrate how to stretch and grow through expanding your limits. Be an effective mirror source.
Deal with the confronting issues immediately and privately. Although discipline problems and irritating happenings invite the intimidation “sledgehammer,” the “instant resolution” technique will come back to haunt you. Whenever we embarrass someone into behaving or seeing it our way, the problem will silently snowball and appear with much more intensity than the original issue. Get it out in the open and clean it up!
Encourage communication at all levels. When you find some divisions in the organization and a “coldness” about individuals, sections, or various groups sets in, it is much like the calm before the storm. The only way to offset the problem is with communication. Share what is going on with your students, your colleagues, your administration––everyone who touches your life. Communication is a learned habit, and it must be practiced. Set the example!
Be calm and logical. Students are looking for some stability. Because of the extreme emotions that make up a good part of teenage growth patterns (the do-or-die situations) it is so important they have an offsetting personality. This counterbalance in life could be your most important contribution to their lives.
Have a sense of humor––lighten up! Too often, we extend far too much anxiety toward a problem. Take care of it, and move on. Learn to be “glad” right after you’re “mad.” Stick to your guns, and don’t let any negative emotion drag through an entire day. Only in traumatic experiences does trauma have any real value. Teenagers need to see that life doesn’t have to be lived at the emotional pace of their favorite soap opera.
Now, let’s return to square one.
None of us took enough psychology courses to give us all the answers. The answers lie within the personal research we do each day.
If you feel inadequate about handling some of the student’s emotional upset, welcome aboard! Simply take it one step at a time, and express care every step of the way. There is no use straightening the lampshade if the house is burning down!
This article is adapted from the book “Everyday Wisdom for Inspired Teaching” by GIA Publications, and reproduced with permission from Tim Lautzenheiser
Tim Lautzenheiser presently serves as Vice President of Education for Conn-Selmer, Inc. His career involves ten years of successful college band directing at Northern Michigan University, the University of Missouri, and New Mexico State University. His books, produced by G.I.A. Publications, Inc., continue to be bestsellers in the educational world. He is also co-author of popular band method, Essential Elements, and is the Senior Educational Consultant for Hal Leonard, Inc.