Teacher's Lounge: You Treat A Thing The Way You Define It

When I was in grammar school we had a priest who came round regularly to the classroom to give us religious and moral instruction, and generally save our souls from perdition (I went to a Catholic grammar school). I don't know if he succeeded in that goal, but I do remember one concept I learned from him that has been quite useful to me throughout my life, something he used to expound on frequently. It was the exhortation: you treat a thing the way you define it.

He was trying to get us to examine the way we actually did define certain things in our lives. Of course, if one does this, they often discover they don't know how they define something, they have never thought about it. And yet, whether we know it or not, we do have definitions of things, however unclear they are. If we want to discover how we define something, then we should examine how we act in relation to that thing, and that will tell us how we define it, whether we know that definition or not. Then, we can decide if we are satisfied with our actions, and the definition they are based on, and whether we want to change them or not.

Students should ask themselves this question about their teachers, and teachers should ask it of themselves: how do I define "teaching the guitar"? If you were to ask that question, you may get some kind of flowery description, but if you really want to know how your teacher defines it, then look at how he or she treats it, what they actually do as a teacher.

The real definition of "teaching the guitar" for many teachers is "what I need to do to make some money until I hit it big". Of course they would never say this, but you know this is their definition because their actions correspond exactly to that motivation (if you want to understand why someone does something, never listen to what they say, only look at what they do). You can tell this kind of teacher by the fact that they never seem to actually concern themselves with whether you are learning or not. They may be concerned with whether you show up for the lesson week after week, but you know that you could keep on going to the lessons, watch the teacher turn pages week after week even though you can't really play the lesson material, and that would really be okay with the teacher, they are not going to do anything extraordinary to change that situation.

If this is what is actually happening in lessons (and it often is) then one would have to conclude that the teacher's motivation for teaching is not really to have anyone learn the guitar, but is rather to provide the teacher with a livelihood.

If the teacher were to define "teaching the guitar" more like this "a relationship to another person in which I perform a series of actions designed to enable that person to play the guitar", then we would see a very different behavior on the part of the teacher. If this really is where the teacher is coming from, then you are going to notice a few things.

You will notice that the teacher, far from being unconcerned with whether the student can actually play or not, is severely concerned about it. In fact, you will notice that the teacher keeps trying one thing after another to make that happen. You will also notice that the teacher makes sure the student is doing their part in terms of practice time, and following directions. And if the teacher finds out the student is not doing that, and is even unwilling to do that, the teacher would say "hasta la vista, baby". Or, as they used to say in Catholic school, "shape up or ship out", or "someone else would love to be in that seat, you know" (that I could never believe!). If a teacher keeps teaching someone who is obviously deficient in the desire to play and the will to back that up with the right amount and right kind of practice, than that teacher is certainly showing that they define teaching as "the process by which I get people to give me money on a weekly basis"!

All students and all teachers should understand that the role of the teacher is threefold: to give the student the right information in the right order, to show the student how to put it together through proper practice and review, and to make sure that the student is doing their part and is learning and growing. Of course, the role of the student, as the "buyer of services" here, is to make sure all of this is being done, and they are getting what they (or their parents!) are paying for.

Yes, we treat a thing the way we define it. If learning is not taking place, then teaching is not taking place. Our real attitude about something is shown in our actions, not our words. We would do well to examine ourselves, and others, in light of this understanding.

For other essays on the art of teaching, click here!

Jamie Andreas is a virtuoso classical guitarist from New York.

She started playing guitar at age 14, by 17 she was giving concerts and teaching guitar.

Jamie Andreas