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Teachers are paid to fail students. | Sheltered Turtle



It’s been over a month since my last lessons with my students in Pennsylvania. Recently, I received an letter from a parent about the recent success of her daughter who was a multi-talented voice/piano/guitar/songwriting student of mine. The article she linked to commended my student for her passion, originality, and strong audience response.

My immediate response was pride. Pride in Sarah, her work ethic, her passion, and her dedication toward music. However, as much thankful as they might be for my hand in Sarah’s success, it ultimately was Sarah herself to truly earned it. More on that in a moment.



I recently taught a band of students who frustrated me. I was simply substituting while their usual teacher was out. The frustration stemmed from several sources. Their behavior was mostly of teen-aged horseplay and acts of defiance. They were clearly trying to get a response out of me and test my patience: intentionally playing and singing poorly, criticizing every critique I had for them, questioning my musical abilities, mocking my “elevated” vocabulary, hinting ethnic slurs, and doing everything except trying to work on music. They clearly weren’t interested in taking any direction from anyone, let alone some guy they were seeing for a day.

So I let them goof off. And they got nothing from me.

Here’s the sobering reality: teachers are paid to have students fail.

Whether a child is learning piano or arithmetic, the teacher will get paid regardless of the student’s success. That said, it’s not a sustainable business model to do nothing and fail all students. In my experience, most teachers want to see their students succeed and thrive. However, our living doesn’t depend on that success necessarily.



As a teacher, I don’t think I can inherently teach anything. My role is to guide students down one of several paths of my expertise. However, if the student’s destination is opposite of mine, I can’t guide them. I can lecture. I can spout facts. I can demonstrate. Yet, if the student is not receptive, nothing is heard. Nothing is learned. Nothing is taught.

That said, it would be completely irresponsible of teachers to do nothing every time they meet resistance from students. Yes, part of our role is to be babysitters. For those poor souls teaching a public school class filled with students unwilling to learn, their role is simply a government-sanctioned babysitting service. The teacher can try to teach in class, but his/her ultimate job is to make money to support his/her family.

But beyond babysitting, parents rely on us, our training, our experience, and our expertise to help think of creative ways to frame the lessons in ways where the student becomes willing and able to learn. After all, a large part of being an adult is doing things that you really don’t want to do. Kids have to learn that lesson some time or risk staying in a state of arrested development. (Or they can become musicians.)



I’ve had many students like Sarah. I’ve also had many students like the band. Most students fall somewhere in the middle. In my experience, many lean a little closer to Sarah. I’ve had many students go from being apathetic or even hating music to becoming music lovers. I was one such student. All it took me was the right guidance, the right way of framing music, a way that made the lessons relevant to me.

I feel sad and guilty that in the short, single lesson I had with the band, the parents wasted their hard-earned money. I feel sad and guilty that the students didn’t even appreciate what their parents were trying to do for them. Even more sad was  that the students were talented and capable of doing great things with some guidance.

Yes, I’m paid to see my students fail, but I want to see them succeed. They don’t have to become musicians, but I don’t want them to be among the millions of people who say, “I used to take lessons, but I was never any good at it. I wish I stuck with it.”

Students like Sarah make my job easier. They also make it rewarding. They help me grow. Progress can be seen with every small effort made on both the part of teacher and student. The teacher’s experience becomes an open well of wisdom and ideas rather than a dousing hose to get misbehaving students to cool off. Parents are happy because their hard-earned money is going towards guidance that helps make their child’s life more full, rich, and fulfilling. Kids are happy because they realize they have a talent that empowers them to be active parts of their communities.



There’s only so much time in the day, so many calories to burn, so much emotional investment I can give. And as much as it hurts me to say it, I would rather devote that time, attention, and energy toward those who want my guidance than to let lessons with the willing suffer for the sake of those who actively resist my efforts. I would rather.

But a flaw in my personality makes me want to try harder with the difficult students. To try and reach them. I mull over these things (even write blog posts about it to process my thoughts!).

So what happened to those students in the band? The ones who got nothing from me? They ran out of energy. There was only so much fooling around they could do. Once they got it out of their systems, they played. They practiced. They got better. And they didn’t need me. Then they hit a wall and needed some help. And our time ran out.



We’re a culture obsessed with punishment. “Bad” behavior is returned with punishment. The original intent is to deter the undesired behavior, but soon, the focus becomes finding the right punishment/avoiding punishment, often on technicality rather than doing the assigned task.

Many religions have this idea of the afterlife where one’s ethics and values throughout life are measured and assigned appropriate judgement balancing punishment and rewards.

It’s a metaphor for how life is. We can be terrible, selfish, cruel people, but it catches up with us. After all, who wants to be around a person like that, let alone help them? Those who choose the path of kindness, love, generosity, mindfulness, gratitude, and diligence find great rewards in life.