I’ve often wondered how to handle my emotions around children. I grew up responding to adults’ emotions as indicators that I needed to change my behavior. I still cater to this; if I care about someone, I will do what I can to respect their boundaries and relative equilibrium. If something I have done causes upset, I will pay the fee, relinquishing whatever claims I had to ‘rightness’.
It’s a bit of a different stroll in the teacher-student arena, though. When I decide to do my homework because I don’t want my teacher to be disappointed in me, then I am responding to the teacher’s emotional currency rather than the teacher’s standards for the class. And yes, the two are often intertwined, but the overlap has made me wonder if the former was necessary to reinforce the latter.
When I first started teaching, I catered to this emotional currency system without really dwelling on where it put my students. I soon realized that I needed to be responsible for giving my students tools to create a healthy mental and emotional space for themselves when they perform; I wanted them to be aware of how they felt and how those feelings impacted their performance. In order to give them these tools, I needed to be mindful of the tactics I used to foster growth and change in their playing.
I eventually allotted certain situations where my upset was warranted — repeated disrespect and bullying being the main two categories. I took my negative emotional reactions to results off the table as much as possible. It wasn’t even difficult; kids responded much more quickly to me being matter of fact about progress than they did to me being actively disappointed, and I could work through my lessons without personalizing the failures overmuch.
I remembered, mid-lesson somewhere a few weeks ago, being startled in my childhood by adults being human. I remembered realizing they worried, were sad, overjoyed, and annoyed, entirely independently of the children that surrounded them. I remembered being amazed that they could be so devoted to the kids in their life that their own private, emotional, world remained a Narnia of oddly endearing and potentially dangerous furries to me.
I’d forgotten about that stark polarity in my perception of my childhood role models. It never occurred to me to hide my world from my students. My biggest fear with kids was that they wouldn’t understand why I was asking them for something; if that meant sharing part of my life or explaining the science behind a technique, then that’s what it meant. Maybe I considered it a teaching fee? I wanted my kids to learn from me, not a professional version of me. I have always felt that what I have to offer as a teacher exists because of who I am in my entirety. (But then again, I’m not teaching something purely academic. It’s maybe a different thing, the art teaching business.)
I was prepping a relatively new piece for a recital with my older group class (9–10 year olds). We were stumbling over some of the harder passages, and I muttered to myself about maybe wanting everyone to play the same part so we could be ready in time. The class responded evenly; one child expressed disappointment at retiring the challenge of being responsible for different parts, another thought it made sense to join forces and ensure safe passage to the performance. I glanced up from my score and smiled, telling them,
“I might just be freaking out again; we’ll see how it goes for now.”
And the kids nodded; “Oh ok, just a freakout.” And they thanked me for the class and wandered off to the rest of their day, exchanging remarks about their own freakouts over upcoming tests.
I don’t know that my students would have taken that exchange with such grace and openness if they didn’t know me as me, as a whole person. I don’t know that they would have felt comfortable talking about their own freakouts or telling me what they wanted out of the upcoming performance if I hadn’t been, from the getgo, upfront about my own weaknesses and shortcomings. While I’m up there fussing over their bowholds, these kids have shown up to my classes and my nonsense, and fussed over exactly nothing. I gave them the space to try, but they gave me the space to be me while I let them.
Learning is most definitely a skill, and sometimes the lessons are stealthy. Maybe the art of being an adult is in finding those sneaky new skills and polishing them till they shine. And then thanking the kids in our lives for showing us what we’ve forgotten, or never knew at all.