Age-appropriate: why teachers should be honest about their skillset

When I started teaching, as I’m sure a lot of us did, I’d teach anyone who came my way, who was interested and who was willing to pay. My first five pupils included two adults, two primary-age children, and one of secondary age. The longer I’ve taught, the more I’ve come to realise that my skillset as a teacher is best suited to some age groups rather than others. But, it’s taken me a long time to accept that, and to get over that sense of failure at not being a great teacher for all ages.

I think that as instrumental teachers, we’re often expected to be everything to everybody. If you take my Thursdays for example, my youngest pupil is 9 and the oldest is 75. They range from beginner to post-Grade 8 levels. As teachers, we have to quickly adapt our skills to meet the needs of a whole range of individuals of differing ages and ability levels, and I’m sure that many of you would agree, that as much as this can be challenging, it’s a rewarding part of the work we do.

I’m going to be honest, I’m happy to start taking pupils from the age of around nine, with no upper age-limit. This may surprise some people, for we so often see pictures of small children learning instruments, and of course, all of our national ensembles are geared towards children starting as early as possible. As one choirmaster once said, “We like them out of the cradle singing the B minor mass”.

That’s not to say that those younger than nine shouldn’t learn an instrument. On the contrary, I started piano lessons just before my seventh birthday. Over the past 18 years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve come to realise that my skillset is best-suited to those age nine and upwards, predominantly adults and teenagers. There are many teachers around whose skillset is far better suited to younger children, and hats off to them.

With this sense that we should be everything to everybody, I think we can feel ashamed to set parameters such as the ages we teach, maybe even feel a sense of failure. It could be perceived as a weakness in our teaching ability if we exclude a certain age group. I don’t think this is the case at all, and actually, I think we should be more upfront about where our skillset best lies.

It’s not always easy though. I’ve had enquiries in the past from parents whose children are younger (often considerably so) than my lower age-limit. Explaining to them that I don’t teach children that young, but that there are plenty of teachers that do, can be challenging. There have been at least two occasions in the past when I’ve been shouted at down the telephone because the enquirer feels that it is a slight against their child that you won’t teach them.

Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I’m being honest with them, knowing that there are teachers out there who will serve their child better than I ever could. The temporary inconvenience of having to enquire to another teacher is surely superseded by long-term benefits?

I’ve always believed that it’s right and fair to be honest about what I can, and can’t offer, as a teacher. I think more teachers should do this, and I suspect they would feel far more satisfied and fulfilled for having done so. If you’re teaching privately, you’re in charge of what your business offers. Maximise on the strengths, and let other teachers pick up those pupils for whom your skillset is not best-suited.

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