Which Way Do You Drift?

It’s hard to get it right in the tension between support and challenge. Give students too much support, and they fail to learn. Give them too much challenge, and they quit trying. With too little challenge, they’re bored. And with too little support, they’re frustrated. No wonder this is hard.

Learning for most people happens most naturally with high support and high challenge. Like a coach, high-challenge, high-support teachers look for potential and call it out. They push students to aim higher and further, to take risks, to learn from failure, to give effort. But, also like a coach, they provide tools and strategies and emotional support. Because they pour into students, they can ask much of them.

Most of us, though, have trouble staying in the coaching quadrant. Instead, we slip naturally and often into the roles of friend, boss, or bystander. New teachers, I’ve noticed, often come in with a soft start, as a sympathetic friend, and move quickly into a hard year. Or they come in as an authority-conscious boss and create a wall too high for students to climb. And disillusioned teachers stand back from students, churning out the class periods and the terms and the years, adding up the pay checks and counting down toward retirement. Not investing and not urging.

On our good days, we’re coaches. On our bad days, we slip into one of the other quadrants. For me it was usually into the friendship mode. Each time I moved into a new job or a new year, I’d tell myself to hold firm with students, especially at the beginning. But, despite my self-lectures, I often started out too lax, giving students too much leeway and then having to pull back the reins. On days I came to class with a headache or a family worry or a bad night of sleep, I had to make a conscious effort to be a coach, not a friend.

Under stress, you might err as I do toward a too-soft friendship role. Or perhaps you are more of a bystander or a boss. What is your natural drift? Knowing it can benefit you and your students.

One Reply to “Which Way Do You Drift?”

  1. The diagram above is helpful. My natural drift in piano teaching is toward “Friend”; right now I am drifting toward “Boss” with some middle-schoolers, which, of course, is ineffective, and am considering how to provide a better balance of challenge and support as we enter the fall term. I find that it is easier to find the balance with my adult students (2/3rds of my studio), though I tilt even more strongly toward “Friend”, and finding the right boundaries with each student is always in my mind.


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