Teacher or Student? Inequality in Student Progress

Posted by
Dr. Emily Ondracek-Peterson
 October 19, 2013

Kids say the darndest things. Last week, one of my students, Timmy, stunned me with a statement that I cannot stop thinking about: “Dr. Emily, I don’t think you are being fair to all of your students. You are giving Alex three lessons (two private lessons, one group class) a week and that is why he has learned so many pieces (Timmy receives one private and one group class per week) . You should stop giving him so many lessons and focus on the rest of us who aren’t doing as well and need more help.”

A shocking sense of entitlement and lack of personal responsibility pervaded this entire statement and I countered first with a question of my own, “Timmy, how often do you practice?”

Timmy said a couple times a week, and then proceeded to give me a litany of all of the reasons why he COULDN’T practice – primarily that he has so much homework (he is in the 3rd grade) and can’t fit in the violin.

My second question, “Timmy, how long are your two practice sessions?”

Timmy answered “I don’t know, maybe 20 or 30 minutes.”

“Timmy, you are telling me that you practice your violin for a total of 40 – 60 minutes a week. Correct?”

“Yes…?” Timmy answered a little unsure now as to where my questions were leading.

“Did you know that Alex practices 1 – 3 hours EVERY SINGLE DAY? True, Alex really enjoys playing the violin and probably does not have quite as much homework as you do (because he is only 6), but he also realizes that he needs to practice not just a couple times a week but every single day in order to play the violin really well and achieve his short and long-term goals.”

I continued to explain to Timmy  that the only reason Alex has an additional private lesson each week is because he practices so much and makes enough progress within a couple of days to justify a second lesson. If Timmy really wants an additional private lesson each week, I would be more than happy to see him again IF his practicing and progress warrant more of my time.

What was the result of our little chat? Timmy practiced and prepared more for our lesson the following week than he has in months.

Perhaps the main reason Timmy’s statement rankled so deeply is the fact that he removed himself from the equation and blamed his lack of progress or success on an external factor – me, the teacher. There certainly is a huge difference in the current performance of these two children, but the difference is in their own personal effort, responsibility, attitude, and priorities, not in their instruction. When I was a child, I would have never even thought such a thing about one of my teachers or coaches. My first inclination is to figure out what I can do to improve.

Any professional musician can attest to the necessity of thousands of hours of thoughtful practice. The notion of true proficiency being achieved after 10,000 hours of practice, using violinists as the subjects of the research undertaken to determine this magic number, is now widely circulated via Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. To do something well, in any field or profession, a commitment must be made and hours charted in the thousands.

Timmy’s comments reminded me that the end results are what the world sees. Other students or audience members do not see the hard work, dedication, attendance of festivals and institutes in the summer, parental involvement, and other elements that went into that performance. A teacher is only part of the equation, albeit a very important and necessary part. The student must be an active participant throughout the process and will only get in return what she herself put into the task.

Have any of your students shocked you with their statements or questions? What are your thoughts about the inequality in the progress of your students? As a professional in any field, have you witnessed this inequality in the workplace? I would love to hear your comments and thoughts!