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One Teacher can Make or Break a Child (or an Adult): Choose Your Mentor Wisely!

A Word from a Teacher may be all it takes to Set Your Child on the Path to Success or Failure

Each of us has numerous turning points in our lives, and often those turning points hinge around something so trivial that it seems almost impossible that what one single person says or does could so profoundly affect our lives. I can remember many such small turning points, where the encouragement or discouragement I felt when someone said something to me, or did something that affected me, and dramatically influenced my decisions thereafter. And therefore, we should be careful about who we allow into our lives, especially our teachers and mentors. We need those teachers who say, "You can do it," as a realistic assessment of our capabilities; those teachers who say, "Here's how to do it"; those teachers who say "Your efforts aren't yet good enough"; and those teachers who say, "Here's how to be better." And we need those teachers who truthfully tell us when we may be getting on the wrong track, as well. For example, at my age and weight, I'm just never going to be an Olympic gymnast, or a ballerina. I just can't develop the physical characteristics, and probably never could have.

The person who is likely to be the most influence over us is someone that we trust as a teacher. I've had a few amazing teachers, who encouraged, cajoled, disciplined me, and pushed me to my limits. I've had many teachers who did not care, and their teaching showed it, and I did not do well under them. And now, with schools forcing teachers to "teach to the test," we are losing valuable potential in our children, every single day. Therefore, choosing the right teacher is a must!

The Right Teacher can Help Children Succeed

A teacher can be instrumental in helping children make life-altering decisions.

A teacher can be instrumental in helping children make life-altering decisions.

Choosing the Right Words

One of my own turning points came when I had been through a major crisis, in that I decided to switch careers. I spent several months thinking about what I wanted to do next, and I finally decided on one of the most mentally and emotionally demanding professions there is: opera. There are plenty of physical demands, too, like singing high notes, without a microphone, loud enough to be heard over the orchestra and heard in the third balcony, and doing that while wearing a forty-pound costume while the lights on the stage are heating the air to 85 degrees. I remember being worried about it and asking a friend of mine who was a cellist whether she thought I could do it--specifically, I was worried that I might not have any talent.

She had known me for some time, and knew what my strengths were. She didn't care that I was already thirty years old, or that I had never taken music before, or didn't know any of the other prerequisites, like foreign languages. She realistically examined my strengths, and said, "There are plenty of talented musicians who play on streetcorners. And the orchestras are filled with musicians with no talent, who work very hard every day of their lives." She knew my capacity for working hard at something and not giving up, and had assessed that that strength would enable me to achieve my goal. (And I did!) But I did it only when I had the right teachers, because the wrong teachers either told me I couldn't do it, or did not teach me the skills I needed.

The Role of the Teacher

My own experience as an intermediate piano student in Czechoslovakia was also a turning point for me. I had a teacher, whose grandmother had been a friend of Rachmaninoff. She was extremely strict and demanding, and would never let even the tiniest imperfection of performance escape at a lesson. Often I went home from my lesson in despair because I thought I would never achieve her impossible standards. And then, one day at my lesson, just as I had made up my mind that piano wasn't for me, one of her other students came in, and she had me play for him. And after I finished, she told him, "See how beautifully and musically she plays!" At that second, I knew that my beloved teacher wasn't unhappy with my failings; she had been doing her duty in pushing me to achieve as much as I could.

Teachers are especially important in this regard. I teach music today, and it's my job to realistically examine the strengths and weaknesses of each student individually, and help teach them to play to their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. Not every student will succeed--those singers who can't develop, for whatever reason, the ability to match a pitch will not become opera stars. It's also my duty as their teacher to help the students who won't make it as singers find the appropriate outlet for their drive: perhaps music journalism, management, music librarianship, or one of the other over 1500 professions in the music industry that do not require performing or teaching. Those that have or can develop the basic abilities, while I can't turn them all into stars, I can help set them on their path through giving them the basic skills. And yes, every lesson, I tell every student, "That's not good enough; do it this way instead." And once in a while, I say, "Well done!"

Nurture Shock and its Theoretical Underpinnings from Vygotsky

False Encouragement

Encouraging someone, when a little examination will show that they cannot develop the necessary skills, is bad for everyone. Let's be realistic: not everyone is suited, physically, mentally, or emotionally for every single profession in the world. One literally cannot be "anything they want to be." However, by helping someone find their way in a field they are drawn to, even if their first goal is unrealistic, we can nurture people's passions and encourage their development. Rather than telling everyone "Great job!", let teachers educate and show realistically where improvement is necessary. Your three-year-old's drawings are not great art, and we should not treat them as if they were. But if your three-year-old child loves to draw, take them to the art museum or look through an art book, get a book on drawing technique and practice together, and help them develop the discernment that will help them to succeed.

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Our teachers should be aware that not everyone has the talent, drive, or necessary ability to succeed in every single subject. Rather, teachers should find a way to focus to their students' strengths and to help them overcome their weaknesses. Not every student in a gymnastics class, for example, can (or should) do every exercise; but anyone can improve their skills of balance. 

What about Self-Esteem?

In fact, we place enormous pressure on children when we tell them "Great job!" for every small effort, because children model their behaviour after what their parents and teachers tell them. So they feel they have to live up to that "Great job!" on every task, no matter how insignificant. A better way to reward a small child for something like setting the table might be to say, "Thank you. I value your helping me." That puts the focus on helpfulness, rather than setting a standard, and after all, that is what we're trying to reward in the first place. Rewarding all efforts equally does not help a child's self-esteem; instead, it undermines self-esteem because there is no value system.

Teachers who do not show their students that some efforts are worth rewarding, and others are not, are not doing their students, the students' parents, or society any favours. It's important that students understand the difference between a worthwhile effort and an effort that is not worthwhile. Telling a student "good job!" every time merely sets every effort on exactly the same level, whether the student has put in zero effort, or has worked very hard and efficiently for a long period of time. True self-esteem comes from a sense of accomplishment and overcoming difficulties, and so we must set tasks equal to our students' abilities

What we need, rather than mindless praise, is to have a little civility, and a whole lot of realism in parenting and teaching. Let's tell our students and children "Great job!" when they've done something exceptional. And the rest of the time, let's find ways to encourage them to try harder, to refine their skills, and other encouragements that will lead to a saner society.

Bullying Can Be Stopped!


Bullying has reached shocking proportions in recent years, and recent studies have found that "educational programming," which many children watch for hours each day, has numerous instances of "relational aggression" where characters are insulted, or told "You're not my friend any more" or similar words, and that most of the time, these types of behaviours are not corrected in the programs. Parents and teachers need to explain that this relational aggression is a form of bullying.

Teachers are the first line of enforcement against bullying, and so any complaints of bullying need to be reported and investigated promptly by a neutral party. A child's teacher is also the one who will probably notice the first signs of bullying, and should be trained in detecting the signs of bullying. Bullying should be suspected if a child:

  • Has torn, damaged, or missing clothing, books, or other belongings;
  • Has unexplained cuts, bruises, and scratches;
  • Has few, if any friends, with whom he or she spends time;
  • Seems afraid of going to school, walking to and from school, riding the school bus, or taking part in organized activities with peers (such as clubs or sports);
  • Takes a long, "illogical" route when walking to or from school, or tries to get home as quickly as possible;
  • Has lost interest in school work or suddenly begins to do poorly in school, or suddenly pours himself or herself into schoolwork, library, or the computer as an escape;
  • Appears sad, moody, teary, or depressed;
  • Complains frequently of pain, headaches, stomachaches, or other physical ailments;
  • Has trouble sleeping or has frequent bad dreams;
  • Experiences a loss of appetite; or
  • Appears anxious and suffers from low self-esteem.

Bullying is not limited only to physical bullying; so-called "teasing," where malicious, as well as cyber-bullying should be watched for carefully. Teachers must adopt a no-tolerance policy against bullying!

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