Always Be the Substitute Playing the Role of the New Teacher

The first time I hosted a masterclass for my students where they worked with a guest artist, I remember feeling a little confused and disappointed. There were several times during the event when the guest would point out the most obvious things a student needed to do to improve their performance. Because these areas discussed were so obvious, it wasn’t the first time the students had heard about them. However, the students reacted to this instruction in the masterclass way differently than when I had I brought them up in the lessons. It was if they had never realized that these things needed work and they were suddenly eager to improve.

Maybe it was because someone new and more established was delivering the message. Maybe it was because this was all taking place in front of an audience. Either way, it left me wondering what I could do differently to reach the students so they didn’t need to wait for a guest artist or teacher to motivate them.

After I had taken several transfer students over the first few years of my teaching career, I realized the same thing happened when these students came to me. Because I often had relationships with the prior teachers, I know for a fact that everything the student needed to work on had been pointed out several times in several different ways during their prior lessons. But because I was the new voice delivering the message, they were more receptive.

Teaching lessons privately can be challenging because it’s easy to get stuck in patterns or routines. Students can come in and improve a little in an area before settling back into the same issues they had on the last piece, section or assignment. Sometimes we get tired of saying the same thing in the same ways when we don’t feel like students are putting the time or effort into making changes in their habits or weak areas. This pattern where the student and teacher are one-upping each other in digging in their heels is pretty typical and painful.

How do we keep this from happening as a teacher?

I’m not sure there is a universal answer, but one thing I did to help this pattern in my lessons was to observe myself when I taught one of my normal weekly lessons compared to when I subbed for another teacher at my school. In general, I was more enthusiastic, more creative and more positive when I worked with the new students. Having no history with the student allowed me to come in with a full palette of tools ready to use for whatever I thought could use work. I had no preconceived idea or fatigue around what had happened in past lessons. I knew the assignments and had to do everything in my abilities to help this student in the short amount of time we had together.

The next step in the process was to take that same energy and approach into lessons with students I had worked with for week in and week out (oftentimes for several years). I simply erased the memory of the weeks and years of prior lessons with a student and treated each lesson like it was our first. I tried to come in with new energy, new ideas and no past baggage into each session. That is no easy task when students get stuck in serious ruts due to lack of practice or motivation. But I tried to focus on that feeling I would have after subbing for a teacher or class and seeing how excited the kids were after we finished. I wanted to recreate that feeling after each lesson. I wanted to always be the substitute teacher.

Whenever I was tempted to dig in my heels and wait for a student to come around, I would simply ask myself, “What would I do if I were a substitute teacher in this lesson?” Usually that would lead me to become more energetic, creative and productive in our time together.

It may not have always had a different result. But it helped more often than not and it sure made teaching those lessons a lot more enjoyable (for me and the students).

Most importantly, it made me teach the lesson from where the student was at the time rather than where I thought or wished they would be.