What makes a student teachable?

We’ve been trying to take our dogs out for a short morning walk every day. Today, as we were passing a lawn with the sprinkler system running, Ken said, “Watch out, hold Tobie back from his arch-nemesis,” meaning the sprinkler head. Tobie will actually attack a spraying sprinkler head and even destroy it. As we passed the sprinkler, Tobie strained towards the stream of water in hopes of defeating his foe. Moxie on the other hand strained in the opposite direction, hoping to flee from the sprinkler’s certain attack.

We’ve all heard of the flight or fight response and certainly I experienced this with our dog’s reaction to the sprinkler. Interestingly, students often respond to struggle in their lessons the same way.

One of my students beats himself up mercilessly whenever he makes a mistake, which makes it almost impossible to teach him. He’s so busy running away from his problems, it’s impossible to break through his internal trauma to actually work on the difficulty in an objective way.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a few students I’ve worked with get extremely defensive when you point out an issue. Between the excuses about why they are unprepared, they sport a grumpy attitude with obvious resistance to suggestions. Their progress is slowed by their own unwillingness to listen or admit they need help.

The most teachable student is the one who balances fight or flight. If a student can face a challenge and stay open to suggestions, progress can be made. When the mental attitude shifts to fear or anger, the student no longer has a teachable spirit. The task of the teacher then changes from teaching music to the role of counseling. The more of the lesson that is spent on attitude adjustment, the less time can be spent on actual music instruction.

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