Do you remember as a child working for what felt like hours on a project, pouring all of your attention into, then presenting it to a parent or friend with a great sense of pride? Did you ever have the experience of being cut down by their words of criticism (even if that wasn’t the intention) upon the presentation? Do you remember how that made you feel?
I remember when I was about 8, I noticed all the acronyms that people used and was fascinated by them. I was also practicing writing in cursive at that time and spent an evening in my room drawing my best cursive letters to come up with different acronyms of my own creation. I was particularly proud of one and when I showed it to my mom, she chuckled at my naiveté because I had accidentally spelled something quite different from my intended meaning. I don’t remember what it was, all I remember was the initial response was laughter and that crushed me. Was I too sensitive? Perhaps. But as a child, I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to be.
As I grew older, my awareness of the responses of others heightened. I became quite self-conscious about showing anyone anything I made for fear of looking stupid. As my interests turned to music and performance and I regularly participated in events where I received feedback from other musicians, this anxiety intensified. Not only was I doing a hard thing (performing difficult repertoire by memory), I was sharing a part of my soul and passion. What if someone really hated how I played? Sometimes, they did! During one piano lesson in undergrad with a particularly demanding instructor, I played the Brahms Rhapsody in B Minor. When I had finished playing through the piece for her, I remember being somewhat pleased with how I did. She was silent for some time. The first words out of her mouth were “if I have to listen to such amateurish playing one more time, I’m going to hurl myself out of this window.” Another time, a judge spoke such simple words of encouragement to me, that I remember that person and what they said almost 30 years later.
Words are powerful. At times, opinions can feel as though they occupy an almost palpable space, especially when they come from someone in a position of authority or from a colleague or peer. They have the power to tear apart or the power to empower.
As teachers, may we never forget that. May we never forget to share our encouragement and joy first and our constructive feedback second. As our students get older, they get better about hiding their desire for approval, but it is still there and that’s not a bad thing. When they do something well, we should be the first to tell them. We all need people in our lives to say “that’s right. You made the right decision in that moment. You are growing. Trust yourself. You handled that well. You’re on the right path.” Certainly our job is to help them improve, to find the flaws and to find strategies to make the piece better, but that will be heard better after we have taken the time to connect with them as humans and artists first.
This extends to our professional relationships as well. When another teacher’s student does something hard or well, we need to be the first to tell them we noticed and that we can appreciate how much time and effort they have put into that student. There’s no room for petty competition and insecurity. We can better our profession by training ourselves to allow positivity and encouragement be our default.