Sonya and I had brunch the other day. We hadn’t seen each other for a couple years so it was nice to catch up. Before she went off to college we got together every week for piano lessons for years.
As often happens when a student departs after working together for a long time, Sonya gave me gift in which she expressed her thanks for our work together. Part of what she said was:
You helped me when I needed it and taught me how to help myself. You were my role model and you also showed my how to see the role model in myself. You taught me how to feel, and consequently how to be. Simply put, I do not think I would be the person I am today if it wasn’t for you and, for now at least, I really like who I am, so thank you for experiencing the past twelve years with me.
I was deeply touched by her letter but I was also confused. Somewhere inside me I knew I was as grateful for my experience of her as she was for me. So much of what Sonya said worked in reverse. Much of what I gave her, she also gave me.
I was the teacher and teachers don’t usually thank students. When we do send notes, it’s to tell them what promise they hold and what good students they’ve been but this speaks from a superior position and that’s the feeling I couldn’t find within me.
I didn’t feel an elevated position to this or any student. In this case I felt more like an adult with greater knowledge and experience tinged with envy that I didn’t have as many years left to use it as she had. I don’t feel that being an adult is superior to being a child, it’s just a different place in life.
Yet, what she said raised an issue I felt the need to address. How do students enrich my life? Teachers are vaguely aware that students add value to their lives but statements reflecting this are rarely specific and usually seem like cliches.
Sonya enriched my life as much as I did hers. There was the obvious financial enrichment of tuition for all those years and her obvious confirmation of my chosen professional identity and life’s work as a piano teacher.
Sonya, like all my students, reflected back to me what and who I am. Students show me I can teach because they get better. They show me they respect me because they listen. They show me they like me because they smile at me. They show me that I am of value for they express gratitude and they keep coming back. They give me a sense of self-worth because their continued presence gives my life meaning and I enjoy being with them.
Also, students are some of the best teachers in the world for they show teachers how to teach. My students show me that learning to play the piano is a task of great complexity. I could not fully grasp this from my own history of learning piano because part of if was preconscious and because the view from inside is always different than the view from outside. When I combine both my internal remembrances and my external experience of watching my students, I learn what’s important, what can wait, and what will take care of itself in time.
My students teach me the infinite variety of the amazing importance of music in their lives. In many ways and for many reasons it is different than my own. As a music professional, I can become blase about music and the importance of its meaning. They remind me of the intensity of the musical experience for them and its freshness keeps them from taking it for granted.
Perhaps unexpectedly, I learn about the world I live in. The world of children and parents is vastly different than when I was growing up. Adults bring in their professional knowledge and expertise as they talk of medicine, law, economics, business, government and education. It makes my life more interesting and it makes me better informed.
My appreciation of what my students give back to me is only part of the issue. Another is the question of why don’t I acknowledge this more freely within myself and thank my students for it? Why didn’t I even think about writing Sonya to thank her for experiencing those same 12 years of my life with her, how she gave my life meaning, and how I learned about myself from the time spent with her?
Perhaps one reason is because we teachers work long and hard for this elevated position and suffered our own student humiliations to get where we are. We want our reward and believe that a part of that reward is the superiority and power that comes with being a teacher. Even if we’re not the type of mean teachers who insult their students, there is a subtle, even quiet arrogance that gives us our place in the world.
At brunch, Sonya was the first to mention power. She recalled the time she first knew she had a kind of power over her father. When she first recognized that he would enjoy spending time with her, she realized she had the power to be busy or spend time with him. The awareness of power where none was thought to exist is an amazing revelation.
This is not to say power has no place in teaching for it does and it’s called authority. To be unwilling to use that authority to preserve some sort of warm and fuzzy feeling is irresponsible. In fact, using our authority with compassion is a sign of our respect and care of our students.
It’s not even necessary to articulate these feelings to students. They probably don’t want to hear them in the first place. I know I would have felt uncomfortable if any of my teachers told me these things while I was studying with them. But students do know when they are valued and appreciated by the way their teachers interact with them and they appreciate the quality of that interaction.
Teachers should be strong enough to acknowledge that there are two personal interactions in any teaching relationship and they are equally powerful on both sides of the equation. Our students can make us feel impatient and angry. They can make us feel good about ourselves and make us feel like failures. They can make us happy and sad; laugh and cry. To be a great teacher one must be open to all possibilities and fear none.
The sad thing is that the failure to engage these feelings keeps us isolated and separate. We can live in the ivory tower of musical superiority and we can stay busy protecting our egos and roles of power. Descending from the lofty pedestal of rank feels like a loss and adds a feeling of vulnerability, but it also adds wonderful dimensions of complexity to being a teacher.