Six Ways to be a Bad Teacher

by Don Skoog

     When I was a kid, I had the chance to study with a well-known drum teacher in Chicago. At the first lesson, my enthusiasm turned to fear when he began to nitpick every detail of my playing, angrily, as if each tap of the drum was a personal insult. His attitude said I was hopeless, a waste of his time. I walked out of the studio, shattered. I eventually found another teacher but the damage of that one lesson affected my confidence for years to come. Later, when I began to teach, I promised myself I would never do to a student what he had done to me.
     As a teacher, your influence affects the life of every student who walks into your studio. You can be a force for growth or withdrawal in the lives of the people who come to you for help, so think carefully about what type of impact you want to have on them. Here are some attitudes or personality traits that negatively impact other people. If you recognize yourself here you should think long and hard before taking up a teaching career.

     1) The worst possible teacher is one who, deep down inside, really doesn't care. I have seen teachers cancel students so they could go to lunch. I knew a guy who would stare out the window while the student played, and another that would fall asleep during the lesson. Anyone that can fall asleep during a drum lesson shouldn't be teaching. Here's the bottom line––if you don't enjoy the work you won't be good at it and, even worse, you will be a negative, unhappy influence in the lives of your students. If you don't care that you're a negative influence then you really shouldn't be teaching anything.

     2) One good way to tell if your heart's in the right place is to ask yourself if you're only in it for the money. If the paycheck is really your main motivation then you probably shouldn't be teaching. It takes a lot of thought and preparation time to be a good teacher. Unpaid preparation time. If you're not prepared then you won't do well, and you won't be very successful anyway, so put your heart into something you will enjoy.

    3) Sarcastic, cynical people should not go into teaching. This seems obvious yet many teachers have no real empathy for their students. I know a teacher who says she has fifty students but none of them are any good. What does that say about her? I tease my students to ease the tension and make them laugh at themselves and at me, but real sarcasm hurts. And cynicism defeats the whole purpose of teaching. If you've gone negative on people, or the art itself, then what will you impart to others?

    4) Quitters should seek employment elsewhere. A good drum teacher must also be an active player. I consider myself a drummer who teaches, and so should you. How can you guide someone else's career if you have given up on your own? Someone who is no longer practicing has nothing new to bring to the lesson, and the evolving art of music is leaving him behind. If you have quit on your own artistic development you are on the way out. So do the music world a favor and don't take your students with you.

    5) Know-it-alls should keep it to themselves. Every artist is still a student, and every musician, not just teachers, should be regularly receiving instruction. The first time I went to Cuba, I was humbled by the realization of how much I didn't know about their music. I spent a lot of time pointing and saying, what’s that? The panorama of drumming is indeed vast, spanning the geography and history of the world in a rainbow of cultures. There is no way anyone can know everything about percussion, or music in general, so being honest about your grasp of the art and enthusiastic about your own growth helps you to be honest and enthusiastic about your students'. An arrogant teacher (an attitude best described as ‘I know something you don’t know . . . nah . . nah . . nah nah . . nah’) is a real downer for his students.
     Some years ago, I talked to Anthony Braxton after he gave a brilliant lecture. He told me that he had to get home because he had a piano lesson the next day and needed to practice. (He said his teacher yelled at him when he wasn't prepared.) Here was one of the finest minds in contemporary Jazz racing home to practice a Bach fugue. For someone who has accomplished so much, he was remarkably funny and self-effacing. Undoubtedly, Braxton's commitment to self-growth, and his sense of humor, enrich his teaching as well.

    6) Last but definitely not least, is the insecure teacher. This is a guy who is actually worried that his students will become better players than he is. He is the worst possible teacher because he will unconsciously try to undermine his students’ confidence and deliberately slow down their progress. He doesn’t realize that his reputation is based on his achievements, not theirs. He doesn’t want to look bad in comparison so he sabotages anyone who shows signs of real talent. I regularly deal with students who have more natural talent than I do (but I’m still craftier and way more experienced than they are). To me, it’s an honor to be entrusted with the guardianship of such treasures. Regardless of what I achieve as a musician, I’m determined that others will remember me as the one who helped them towards their dreams––not as the guy who tried to screw them up.

     Everyone brings baggage to the teaching studio. Will you let your personal disappointments warp the growth of those who come to you for guidance? Or will you use the opportunity you’ve been given to really help someone else along? You can’t control what has been done to you, but you can decide how you will treat others. By teaching well, you can choose to make your corner of the world a little better place. And by paving the road for others, perhaps you can ease your own journey as well.