The Struggle is Real Teaching lulls and some remedies

The teaching calendar between the new year and the end of the school year is a long one. Even those of us who teach private lesson typically follow some sort of “school” calendar. Over the past few weeks I’ve observed both teachers and students starting to show the signs of being caught in the Spring lull. Maybe as teachers we get a little short and agitated because the students are spinning their wheels a little (or a lot). Students tune out the teachers because all the lessons are starting to run together. And this just scratches the surface of possible feelings and emotions happening.

As a teacher, for many years I thought it was important to grind through these times to learn from it. I felt that if we pushed through the dips then it would be educational for everyone. I still think that this is true. However, we (and our students) don’t really need to suffer to learn these important lessons.

One of the first things I changed in regards to the lull was my own attitude. The tradition of private lessons involves the teacher sharing and assigning some concept. Once that information is communicated, the student has the task to go home and master it – or at the very least put a serious dent in it. When the student doesn’t do the work or doesn’t do as much as we expect, then it’s on them to go back and work on things more effectively and successfully. There are more subtleties involved, but this is what we’ve all been taught as private teachers from our own experiences as students. Some of the most prestigious teachers in the world are so strict with this process, they are known to ask students to leave if they haven’t arrived at the assigned destination. Many teachers don’t have the clout or heart to do this.

The attitude change mentioned earlier had to do looking to improve myself and my teaching just as much as I was asking the student to improve. I realized that students are involved in many activities throughout the week. And we were probably the only activity that put so much responsibility on the students. I don’t think that this is necessarily wrong. But I do think that we could learn a thing or two from the sports coaches, school teachers, dance instructors, band/choir directors students work with regularly. To see students once a week and expect them to practice dutifully and perfectly for the six days in between is a lot to ask.

The thing that really helped to minimize the lull during the year for me was to start having lesson plans with options for each lesson. Option 1 would be if the student came in 100% prepared and ready to play everything assigned at a high level… This one is easy – just keep rolling.

Option 2 would be if the student came in and wasn’t ready. As a teacher, you can tell this is happening or going to happen the more experience you have. We all know the signs… The student wants to start with the one thing they think sounds great and distracts the lesson from getting to everything else. Or they randomly bring in a new piece they want to learn that isn’t related to anything they’ve been assigned… Actually, there are so many methods students try in these situation someone should write a fun book listing them out.

Anyway, from my perspective as a teacher ‘Option 2’ would involve planning for them to not be ready and have a version of a lesson that reflects a music education approach rather than a music pedagogy approach (like the one  I mentioned in the beginning of the post). Rather than being reactionary in my teaching, I would become proactive and implement a ‘backup’ lesson plan. This lesson plan would involve a series of games, learning activities and performance simulations that would all be based on the concepts they were supposed to work on at home during the week. My goal was to have the lessons be so fast-paced that they would fly by. I found that this injected much-needed energy into the lessons. It also helped preserve my own sanity. If you have 40 students a week and even 10-15 of them hit lulls around the same time, it can be emotionally brutal.

These activities and lesson plans came from many sources. I borrowed from soccer coaching videos on YouTube, from observing middle-school band directors, from video games and anything else I found out in the world. It gave me a much-needed energy boost and the students then went home and applied that energy to their practice.

Option 3 is simple. If there is a lull using Option 2, simply revert back to a more traditional pedagogy approach to change things up a bit. Again, this can be easily determined within the first couple minutes of a lesson.

Hopefully this helps some of you get through your own versions of the ‘lull’.