The Ethics of Teaching

by Sean on October 6, 2014

Teaching is such a vital part to the preservation of any art form or field of study. We hear all the time that there are never enough teachers and that they are underpaid and under-appreciated. I view my position as a teacher to be an honor and a privilege to pass on the tradition of the truly great music left behind by all of the legendary composers. Without my own teachers, this opportunity never would have become possible.


There is another side to the story, however. On one hand, there is a shortage of teachers, but on the other hand, there are too many teachers who assume the role of competency far beyond their knowledge or abilities. As a result, the students suffer without ever knowing until it is too late.  The earliest years of development are used in a very misguided way, and they are left with a primitive understanding of theory and acquire merely cursory tools that build the foundation for a poor physical technique. It leaves the student in a position that is arguably worse than having no knowledge at all.


This is no secret to any well-trained conservatory graduate teacher who has received a student from a less knowledgeable instructor. While frustrating to see, it is not the student’s fault, the parents often don’t know the difference, and there is often no communication between the new teacher and the previous. Even if there were, can a more qualified teacher really reprimand the lesser qualified teacher for teaching badly?


Herein lies the issue. While every teacher hopefully always tries to guide the student down the best path, it is another thing entirely when a teacher’s main offering is aimless encouragement with no real fundamental basis or know-how when it comes to the field of  music.  What has prompted me to write this blog is one such instance that I witnessed a few weeks ago.


A teacher so grossly unqualified to teach anything beyond the sheer basics of music came to me with a poor, unfortunate student who was getting ready to go off to college as a music major. Passing the entrance exam hinged on some listening concepts that the student couldn’t quite understand, so I was contacted for help.


It was immediately evident to me in our phone conversation that the teacher barely understood the concept, never mind be in a position to teach it. My plan was to make sure I taught the teacher to get on the right track so that she would continue to help the student, simultaneously getting the student to participate for some practice with me 1 on 1. It was essentially a double lesson, but the teacher kept interrupting with questions that were even more basic than what I would expect the student to be asking.


After an hour-long Skype lesson, it was abundantly clear that the teacher knew even less than what I had imagined. It was an absolutely hopeless situation. I was being demanded to snap my fingers and just make this student know material that frankly takes months to be comfortable doing. How could this have been going on all summer (I was told that it was)? Why was I contacted the night before the entrance exam? What made this teacher think that it was acceptable, that it was ethical to be guiding this student down a dark tunnel without knowing the way herself? Without having a flashlight? Without even knowing how to operate a flashlight?


When we inherit this unfortunate responsibility that comes to us from time to time, we recognize it to one degree or another, we gladly accept the new student, and we get right to work to remedy the damage that has been done. Without painting the picture so realistically to the student, little by little we turn them around to go in the right direction, often biting our tongue with regards to the bewilderment that we feel towards the previous teacher. For me though, this particular instance crossed the line brazenly and unforgivably.


The fate of this aspiring college student is still unknown to me.  I wish her the best.  I hope this little anecdote prompts anyone who feels they may be in this category of teacher to take an honest look at their own abilities and how they compare to the students they accept and claim to be able to help. Please recognize when you are in over your head, and seek a qualified teacher to step in. These situations ruin the potential of truly gifted students who otherwise will never have an honest chance to blossom into the musicians they strive to be. It is a responsibility that should be respected and cherished.




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