By Christy | the Practicing Pro
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As teachers, there is a delicate balance between maintaining a good relationship with your students and being too chatty. Parents do not want teachers to talk too much with their children in lessons. They are paying a teacher to teach them music, not to hang out. However, it’s essential to check in with your students and get to know them in a way that doesn’t take up their valuable lesson time. It is also important to not talk about anything too personal to maintain that teacher/student boundary and be professional.
To help with this, I have six strategies to incorporate get-to-know-you check-ins with your students. I do these check-ins during the moments of their lesson when they are not playing their instrument. For example, when students are getting their violins out or putting them away. Getting out their books and organizing them is another good time. This gives you a few opportunities to ask them quick questions and collect bits of valuable information each lesson that will add up! The secret is to be organized about it so that you remember but also, so it feels natural and sincere to both you and the student.
1. General Information
At my school, each teacher has a teaching binder they write their lesson plans and notes in for each student. (A few teachers use iPads and pens). I give each teacher an information/questions sheet each year to put at the start of each student's tab. Each year it's a different colour to be able to flip to quickly.
The sheet has a spot right at the top for teachers to put their name, age, parent's name and general playing level. Being able to call students parents by their correct first name and knowing a child’s birthday is coming up next month, for example, shows you are interested in them. Parents will feel you are invested in their child, and they will feel important to you when you know things about them.
“Hey! I think someone has a birthday in two days!!! Could it be YOU?”
Parents love to be referred to by their names, especially brand new students, instead of mom or dad.
Example: (Mark and mom, Janet)
“Mark you and your mom did your listening assignment every day for two weeks! Wow!”
“Janet, you even got special stickers out for Mark's chart, thanks for that extra effort and for being so involved in helping him be successful.”
2. Make and Know Goals
It’s essential to know a student's goals. To really listen to them and then be able to bring it up in lessons down the road in meaningful ways while you teach them. This shows them that you were listening and that you value them enough to remember what's important to them and not just what your agenda is. If a student's goals are different than what you as a teacher know they “need” right now to develop then take the time to explain to them and show them what they need to learn and why FIRST before they can get to do what it is they want. Break down what it is they want to do into small steps they can see. hen they do things you ask them to they don't like they understand why they are doing it and can progress past it and know they are closer to what they want to do.
Example: Tommy wants to play a complicated pop song as a goal. The teacher can identify the key with him, and the scales that progress to that scale used in the song. They can look at the rhythms and the technical things needed to learn. For each thing, they can identify a few songs/studies that will help them learn that skill. Make a progression list and start checking it off.
“Tommy in order to play this song which is an exciting goal, I made a list of all of the skills we will learn first to get ready to play it. Next to each skill there are a few songs that will help you learn that. Let's work our way through this list as fast as we can and see right here on the list. This is where we will start learning some nuggets from your goal song! Let’s get started.”
If a student's goals differ from their parents, make sure you know each one clearly and find creative ways to help both the student and the parent’s expectations (who pay for them) in your lesson plans.
“Mary, let’s do some sight reading each lesson, to keep working towards playing someday in the big orchestra like your goal, and it's a two-for-one deal because it will also get you ready for your next exam in the sight reading part!” (their parent's goal)
3. Fun Facts
Find out fun facts such as their pet's name, current activities or hobbies, favourite food, etc. These things can uplevel your teaching. An example: Dinosaurs? Try the hard-working sticker shirt activity in Blog #87 - stickers can be fun BUT stickers become magical when they are the student's favourite!
Once a parent in our school contacted me and told me that her daughter was struggling with keeping up with her practice at home. I reached out to her teacher and asked her to send me a copy of her checklist. It turned out that she really loves guinea pigs, so I hopped on my computer and whipped together a 10-day practicing activity covered in photos of guinea pigs on Canva. I sent it to her teacher, who, by doing so, felt very appreciated and supported. The student also LOVED it. It was such a simple idea that didn’t require much effort or time on my part, but it helped make her feel supported and motivated. These little pieces of information, although they may feel random, can become so valuable when you least expect it.
“Sarah, let's do a 10-day practice challenge for your concert coming up. I made this practice sheet with ten dogs on it, since they are your favourite. Each time you do your concert piece like a concert with your piano accompaniment either for a stuffy, a person or your DOG then you can colour one of the dogs in. Can you bring it back to me all coloured in next week?”
If you can pull in the things that students love into everyday conversation or into their practice plan, it can make a world of difference in their engagement and satisfaction. An easy and effective way to Level Up your teaching.
Another example is a student who loved cats. I could use cats anytime I wanted them to learn something if I could relate it to a cat. Stretch like a cat, pounce on a note, have a soft light bow hold like holding a new soft baby kitten etc. These teaching opportunities present themselves easily when you have small notes to remember right in front of you.
4. Concerts Past and in the Future
Keep a small chart to keep track of their last concert and what they played. Add your notes about the next concerts they can play in and what they will be performance ready for.
We have a lot of concerts at our school so that students develop confidence that will help them throughout their whole lives. The worst thing to do is put a student on stage in a concert playing a piece they “have just gotten” or “almost have.” Students thrive and develop life confidence in themselves and trust in their teachers when they perform and share music with others that have been performance ready for a long time. I feel strongly that three months is the perfect amount (for some two but never less than two). I like to say “memory and performance ready plus three months”
Since it's three months away, it's easy to forget the song that's ready and the goal that's made. Keeping track means you can review it every week in lessons for three months and build your student's confidence each week by making small upgrades and some weeks not giving anything at all to work on but pointing out specific things they are doing really well and ways they have improved, or point out something they have been working hard on lately and that you can see their improvements.
Pointing out, that it’s easy to forget when you are waiting for three months to pass while a song is in review and preparing for a concert. This way it’s right there to remember and remind them of the date and time to stay engaged in their review/upgrading and stay excited about it! I encourage teachers to have these lists on hand during their lessons. That way they can use those special moments during setup and packing away to ask little questions to add to their list such as whether they like solo or group concerts better, why they like their instrument, etc. It also makes children feel important and valued when you ask them about themselves and remember it. A checklist is a great tool because you can take a quick glance before their lesson to remind you of their answers. Sometimes when you have a lot of students, the details can get a little jumbled. Finding a way to mention their favourite colour during a lesson, or say their goals out loud for example, will make them feel special and show that you are interested in their lives. It’s never too late to start these special checklists.
I have observed lessons where the teacher has been like the following two examples. One makes the student feel unsure, and one makes the student feel so empowered and confident. Which do you want to be?
“Coen I think you have played all the pieces in this book, did we get them all? Mom, have we missed any? Perpetual Motion is coming up next week, did we decide on a date yet or not for the Bach duet?”
Contrast this with:
“Coen your book four concert is coming up. Look at this concert chart with me; see how you have played almost every song in book 4 in a concert already. Amazing! Last year you played the three Seitz concertos, and last September and November, you played each of the movements from your Vivaldi concerto. Next week you are playing Perpetual Motion, and you have only one left now in March! You sure have been working hard! You are so prepared that this Book 4 concert will not be hard at all for you at all.”
5. What do They Like the Best
I make a list that students can rate 1-10 about all of the things about playing a piece of music and being in your studio or school that you can think of. This helps you to know how to involve them best and help them to develop sensitivity in the areas they struggle with and help them to really shine in the areas they love. Win-win! I find children LOVE to tell you their 1-10 numbers. When I ask a few each week, it's fun to look at last year's answers to see if I have done something to help them like something more too!
An example is a child that doesn't like group class very much - you can turn on your super observing eyes and try to see why. Do they not have friends? Is the class too easy or too hard? Are they not reviewing the music for the class enough, and do they leave feeling inadequate? How can you help them make this number higher next year? It's a great way, as a teacher, to learn ways to help your students develop and shine.
“Danny, let's start and end our class today with two review/upgrade pieces you might play at group class, so you’ll feel extra prepared” (This also emphasizes to the parent and child how important doing review pieces is.”
“Brian, let's look at your orchestra pieces and mark the harder bits so you can go right to them and practice them five times easily every day instead of looking at the big long 8-page piece and trying to play it through to find them. This will make practicing easier and orchestra more fun!”
6. Finding similar interests
One more idea is to say you can tell a child of another student in their group happens to have the same favourite! Like Maggie and Nina both ended up liking olives with olive oil and cheese on their pizza, and that’s it. How strange, haha. I told them both that at their next lesson and it made an unlikely pair of friends in the group find more interest in each other. This also promotes collaboration with other students and strengthens their bonds.
You will be surprised to see how much you can learn about your students when you ask them simple questions at the start or end of their lessons. If they take weekly lessons, that’s 30+ small things you can learn about them each year! Take the opportunity to ask. It will make your students feel more valued, supported and understood. And as you collect more of these nuggets about them the easier it’ll be for you to create a personalized and more effective way of teaching your students.
Teacher - “Today, Raine, after every song we practice in our lesson you can tell me a topping you like on a pizza.”
Raine - “I only like cheese.”
Teacher - “What? Did you meet the new singer Nina, in your group class? Guess what? You are the same! She likes only cheese too!”
Building strong bonds doesn't come from grand gestures but from sharing small everyday things, getting to know someone else a little better and then that person being important enough to you to remember those little things they shared about themselves at a later time. Understanding our children and students starts with the small things that they like and give importance to. This way, we are also learning alongside them.
I made a Free PDF download of an “Information/Get to Know You” sheet you can copy for each student and put in your binder to use.
I promise you that as you use this sheet, you will find creative and fast ways to get to know your student without chatting and disrupting your lesson. Have fun finding creative ways to bring these things up in future lessons to help them feel loved and remembered, help them learn and engage better and help them keep on track with their progress and goals.
“Our aim needs to be the nurturing of children. The moment we rigidly convince ourselves, “Education is what we’re after,” we warp a child’s development. First foster the heart, then help the child acquire ability. This is indeed nature’s proper way.” -S. Suzuki
Check out my Free PDF download Checklist for a Successful Music Practice for teachers and practicing parents.
Your easy checklist for successful home music practices from Christy, the practicing pro. Whether you are a new or seasoned practice parent or music teacher, this checklist will help you organize before, during, and after practices for effective and fun practices.
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