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Nurturing vs. Butt-Whoopin’ in Teaching

As a teacher I am always working to figure out where to frame up on the continuum between being nice and encouraging vs. “keepin’ it real” in a way that might come off as harsh to students. As my 11th summer at the Center for Creative Youth winds down, I find myself thinking about this a lot, and was sparked to start writing by a friend and fellow teacher’s recent struggles with a student’s unpleasant responses to being held firmly to a high standard. Finding this balance is more art than science, I think, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t principles that can be identified and discussed. I’ll be talking about it in the context of music study, since that’s what I do, but I think that the principles apply in many (though admittedly not all) other areas.

Not surprisingly, I think the answer has to have elements of both, even as the specific approach depends on the situation. This may be obvious, but it’s worth noting that there is a difference between “tough love” and gratuitous meanness. Sometimes it’s a fine line, but the main point here is that being harsh with students (or anyone, really) does not in and of itself accomplish anything except perhaps for acclimating them with the need for a thick skin. And I would propose that if that is a teacher’s intention, then it IS tough love, because the method is employed from a place of nurturing a student to become ready for the real world. The point is that on the “butt-whooping” end of the spectrum we’re talking about the best means of helping students, not educators unloading their own baggage upon students.

As a student, I generally sought out the most butt-whooping environments I could find, and when I found myself hesitant to do so, I stepped back to seriously evaluate how ambitious I really was in that particular pursuit. I remember when I was a senior in high school and considering going the route of conservatory education. At that time Dennis, the family squatter (every family has one, right?) offered one of a handful of vital wisdom-pearls that came out through the years. He was friends with a couple prominent classical musicians and was lamenting what he perceived to be the watering-down of some music education institutions. His take was that music is a seriously tough field and that any serious professional training program has a moral obligation to be brutally honest with its students about this fact and about whether a given student has what it takes. One could say that this has only intensified over time given the proliferation of music programs at universities. On one level that’s a fabulous thing. However, while Julliard may have the capacity to have standards this high, Southwestern Podunk State College (SPSC) will invariably face the moral/logistical dilemma whereby having such elevated standards will alienate much of the student population accessible to them, never mind demanding the hiring of a faculty that uniformly embodies those standards. When a program like that has lower standards, is it still a net positive? That’s another conversation for another time, but it illustrates the environment in which students may, through no fault of their own, be imbued with a false sense of their preparedness to be musicians at a high level.

I feel pretty strongly that to whatever extent I can call myself “accomplished” as a musician, it can be traced back to moments when I was held to high and rigid standards. There was the all-state audition where my musicality and improvisational skills weren’t enough to overcome my mediocre reading. Then it was the lowered grade in the ECA (the arts high school I attended in New Haven) jazz ensemble because of a transcription I didn’t do, thinking nobody would notice. There were the three years of preparing ballads on a weekly basis so that Kenny Barron could tell me some variation on “hmmm . . . nope.” And studying with Ted Dunbar (a topic for a subsequent post) was above all else a multi-year wrestling match with expectations that seemed unattainably high . . . until I started working harder than I thought possible and started “getting it.”

I still feel that in any pre-professional program these standards are absolutely necessary. But there’s a lot of gray area between that and teaching beginning piano (I don’t do a lot of that, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not considered best practice to call an 8-year-old who doesn’t practice enough a lazy, self-delusional little maggot). What about a liberal arts college? What about an arts high school where laws demand accepting students who have neither ambition nor experience? The majority of my students have historically fallen somewhere in the middle – I get relatively few students who have clear-cut professional ambition and similarly few who have no desire to even learn music and are studying under duress. This conversation could go on ad infinitum if we explored all these levels of nuance in between, so let’s narrow it down.

For now let’s say we’re talking about teachers and students who are highly ambitious. That is, the student intends to pursue music at a high level and the teacher is highly invested in maximizing the odds of that occurring. Once in a blue moon a student comes along who simply does as he or she is told, soaks everything in like a sponge, works tirelessly and simply becomes awesome, with the teacher providing enough guidance to be able to take credit for mentorship and enjoy being part of the process. So really the solution is to only teach students who do that, right? What’s that, that’s not realistic? Argh.

More often, a student is ambitious to some extent but doesn’t entirely know what that entails. Sooner or later that moment comes where a student is confronted with the realization that his skills and/or efforts are not adequate for the task at hand. While those moments of friction are among the most difficult, I also find them to be probably the most fulfilling. After all, while I’m happy to explain how to play chord voicings in fourths, that’s not my primary role, that’s McCoy Tyner’s job. My job is to guide a student through the journey. And the bumps in the road are where the real eye-opening occurs, regardless of the ultimate outcome. Consistency of word and deed is one of my pet soapboxes (and is another topic that will surely get its own rant in the foreseeable future) and the vast majority of human beings are confronted sooner or later with places where they’re falling short in that regard.

My own approach is generally to be extremely firm in stating the expectations (since, after all, they are the world’s expectations, not my own) yet to be non-judgmental and nurturing about it. There’s no way around the fact that one needs to do x, y and z and you’re only doing x and part of y, and you’re going to get a butt-whooping if you move on to the “next level” deluded about that . . . but if you need to adapt your goals because you simply don’t want to do it badly enough to do z and the rest of y, that’s totally fine and totally your decision. And if you continue to state ambitions that require follow-through in which you’re not actively engaging, I’m not going to let it go.

Is there merit to skipping the nurturing part and simply being harsh and straightforward in stating the unmet expectations and demanding that the student shape up? That case could surely be made – it seems to work for the military, for example, and there are plenty of successful people who are of a generation in which being raised that way was simply deemed responsible parenting. And, frankly, it’s probably more effective and more reflective of the “real world” than being treated so nicely that you feel good about yourself all the time, regardless of your actions. But real kindness and nurturing don’t always entail being “nice” by the blandest definition of the word.

One of the keys to navigating these moments as a teacher, indeed even provoking them, is to step back and recognize how emotionally difficult this is for a student. How we choose to respond to that (e.g. where we choose to place ourselves on the nurturing-to-butt-whooping continuum) is a matter of individual choice, personality, teaching philosophy and so on. The danger, however, is when we forget how hard it is to be put on the spot in that way. A student’s sense of accomplishment and “talent” may be distorted, even delusional, but that doesn’t change the fact that if we debunk it, it’s going to hurt, and it’s naïve to expect most people to have the inner resources for a completely graceful response in those moments. This is really important to grasp both for the student’s sake and the teacher’s, because otherwise it’s easy to take these moments personally. Sometimes it will feel personal, especially when the student’s defense mechanism is to reject your teachings. How can it not hurt if you’ve spent years paying dues and accruing wisdom and someone rejects it? And, of course, on a case by case basis a particular student could just be an incorrigibly arrogant little sh**. But recognizing that a student is being put through the emotional ringer makes it a lot easier to avoid taking it personally and simply detach from that momentary reaction, recognizing that a) it’s an emotional process far deeper than the pedagogical task at hand and b) the resulting behavior may be frustrating or unpleasant (and may, in fact, necessitate tangible consequences) but at least on an emotional level it’s not to be taken literally. We don’t have to lie awake feeling angry or frustrated, and we don’t have to risk taking those feelings out on students whose acting out is likely already coming from a place of vulnerability and possibly even shame.

With understanding and persistence, I find that most will eventually come around (whether “coming around” means getting it together or acknowledging the disconnect between goals and actions and becoming bank tellers) but in my experience it’s usually a gradual shift and not a sudden flipping of a switch. This leap of faith is particularly vital when the duration of the teacher-student relationship is not long enough to see the other side, so to speak. I deal with that every summer at CCY. 5 weeks is enough time to teach things and plant seeds of standards, integrity and so on. For many students, those difficult questions are stirred up and a lot more time and processing are needed before decisive action is realistic. Of course, I want (selfishly) to see the light bulb go on and for them to leave transformed in a way that gives me confidence in the integrity of their future pursuits. But all I can do is spend the time I have planting and watering those seeds. Really, as teachers, that’s all any of us can do, right?

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  1. Rachel Green

     /  July 30, 2012

    Aw c’mon, Noah. this is all hogwash (not to be confused with Hogwarts, which is magical!). even the military could do a better job using compassion and rigour, versus harshness and rigour. and what you talk about as butt-whooping, is really just challenge–a necessary part of getting better at anything. honesty is important in improving and stating (and possibly re-stating) expectations is also absolutely mandatory. so what it really comes down to is this: if you use compassion and non-judgment of the person (not of the activity) rather than harsh judgment of character, what you get in the end is someone who is motivated to try his/her best (at least most of the time–there are folks who respond well to butt-kicking, but they are self-motivated for the most part) and who, even if they don’t become the next Noah Baerman, may become compassionate teachers, inspired living-room performers, and lovers of excellence and their own abilities to shine. so whaddya tawkin’ about?

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