the email I can’t send, to the student who really needs to read it

Dear ________,

Hello. It’s been a semester since I’ve seen you. I hope you’re well.

I’m writing because I’ve heard through the grapevine that you thought I was a “tough, hard, (maybe even) mean” teacher, and I’m realizing that I did you a disservice by not making my intentions and frustrations clearer last semester. I thought that I should try to make amends for this, so here I am.

Yes, I’m “tough” — I’ve worked really hard to get where I am, and don’t actually believe that a person can “make it” as a professional musician if they’re not talented, disciplined, and willing to work. I guess you could also say that I’m a “tough” teacher because I believe that a great deal of my responsibility is to motivate my students to be disciplined and hard working.

But maybe that’s my first mistake, because, really, if a student isn’t willing to motivate themselves, they should probably be doing something else.

And yes, you’re right, maybe, by the end of the semester, I was a little “mean” to you. And I probably should have explained to you why, although I kind of thought that you would have been able to figure this out for yourself.

You’ll probably recall that at the beginning of the semester I was warm, encouraging, supportive. I was even fairly understanding when you came for your first few lessons and told me about how tough your week was, and how hard it is for you to really figure out what exactly you should be doing in your practice time, and how difficult it is for you to keep your focus. But as this became a regular occurrence — you, not having done really any work at all, but always having your long list of excuses, probably noticed that I became less encouraging and supportive, and more frustrated and perhaps, alas, a bit impatient.

I do regret that you were not prepared for your final, although hopefully you also realize that this was only because you continually neglected to meet with the head of the area and determine what exactly your final requirements were going to be as I had requested.

I also apologize for the fact that I may have actually snorted when you confessed that you wanted to switch into the piano classes because then you wouldn’t “need” to practice. That was very unprofessional of me.

I also noticed that in my student evaluation reports last semester I had positive responses from all students but one. Of course I have no way of knowing if the negative feedback came from you, but everyone else who studied with me last semester is still studying with me, and all seem quite content with my instruction and expectations. It would disappoint me greatly, and remove this circumstance from being a learning opportunity for you altogether, if you saw your failure to progress as only my responsibility.

‘Cuz here’s the thing:

I think it’s really really important for adults to be able to recognize, and take responsibility, for their own failures, rather than to pass them on as someone else’s “fault.” I don’t actually take any offense at all for being known as a “tough” or even a “hard” teacher. I actually kind of sort of always do that on purpose. Because life is hard. Being a musician is hard. Trying to make a living as a musician is really hard. You’re a college student, not a fourth grader. It is time, if not past time, for you to find it within yourself to get motivated, get disciplined, get focused, and if someone who is actually doing this for a living tells you that what they’re asking you to do is important, you should probably believe them.

And you should probably spend at least as much time trying to do something as you do making your list of excuses for why you failed. You might find that increasing the one removes the need for the other.

It might be worth a try.


(Realize as I click on some links at the bottom of this post that I wrote about this before, even more rantingly here. Three years ago even. Some things never change.)

3 Responses to “the email I can’t send, to the student who really needs to read it”

  1. April 16, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    Yeah, I’m with you on this. I spent half an hour writing more about motivation of me as an adult, but it sounded too much like I might have been accusing you of not being motivating enough – and I’m 100% convinced that’s not true. I’ve seen enough students and talked to enough teachers to know where the fault is likely to lie in this case.

    My only defense of this person is that maybe he/she has some other issue which is stopping them seeing things as clearly as we do. I’m reluctant to condemn anyone without knowing all the facts, and as we would both agree, I will never know all the facts about another person. On the other hand, maybe this student needs to read your email in order to be provoked to face those facts about themselves, head on?

    • April 16, 2014 at 5:09 pm

      This student seemed to do well enough in the rest of his classes. He had 0 investment in this, and that was pretty much the result. I do what I can, but hold a mirror to it — I decided long ago that it was neither beneficial to the student nor sustainable for me to invest more, or to care more, than the student did.

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