If you want to run successful group music lessons in your school… you must create a safe learning environment in your music lessons.
In this video, Greg and Daniel draw upon years of experience in teaching group piano lessons and share those insights with you.
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This is one of many videos that we’ve published on how to teach group piano or group music lessons in general.
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Today we’re going to talk a little bit about class control. I know that this is a big fear factor for a lot of teachers that are moving from 1-on-1 lessons to group lessons…
“How am I going to keep a crowd of students from running away with the control of the class?”
Daniel, I wanted to bring you in because I have always respected the way you approach class control. I daresay that between you and me, I think you might have the edge over me. I probably put up with too much in my class.
I wanted to start out with just a question for you. What exactly is class control? Is it about discipline and rules? What is it?
Okay, so I think it can include that. And I do think when the term classroom control is invoked, people think about setting rules – having rules for the kids, having limits on behavior…
I think that’s good.
But one of the principles that I found to be really important in my own group lesson system was the idea of creating a learning environment – an environment that was safe for kids to be in. One that was nurturing & promoted learning.
And then even beyond that, created a space in which kids felt like they could explore. And of course, have fun.
I really had a zero tolerance policy for any kind of behavior that I consider disruptive.
And as you mentioned earlier, I was probably a little bit more hard-nosed than you are. I think it’s just due to personality. You’re a much more fun person than I am.
But… the far more important reason that existed was not to be a hard-nosed disciplinarian. It wasn’t so that I could fulfill some secret, like “I dislike kids.”
It was always for a greater purpose. And that greater purpose was, I wanted them to learn as much music as possible in the shortest time as possible.
I had to create an environment that allowed for that to happen – then I would have fulfilled my mission. I was in control of the classroom.
Were there rules? Were there things that I would allow and wouldn’t? Of course.
But it was always in service of that greater purpose, which was to create a learning environment in which kids could move through their books very, very quickly. So that’s how I define that term [classroom control].
I want to swap a couple of stories. I’ll go first.
I’m going to show you a book that has been a huge influence on me and how I run the order of class and class control. It is The First Days of School by Harry & Rosemary Wong. Great read, easy read. It’s a popular book.
This is a great book for teachers – especially public school and private school teachers. But I think for anyone teaching in groups, a lot of the ideas that I have for starting class with an opening procedure, something that’s predictable and routine, come straight out of that book.
One of the things that I have in my tips in the teacher guides that we’re putting our Piano Express teachers through is to enforce your guidelines with a yellow card and a red card like a soccer game.
If there’s an infraction to a guideline (I use these words, guidelines and infractions), then I love yellow cards because they are just nonverbal. I don’t have to break stride. I can keep teaching, but I drop a yellow card in front of a student to warn them. You’re interrupting me right now, and I need you to stop – but I don’t have to say it. The card says it for me.
If the child’s impulse control is so low that they break the guideline again before the end of class, then they get a red card, and they also get sent home with a guideline infraction form.
I’m going to tell you a little bit more about that in the second story that we swap. I want to tell you about some of the experiences that I’ve had this year. We’re sending children home with guideline infraction forms, because I know that that is another fear factor with teachers, especially teachers that are new to groups.
They may be thinking, “Oh, no, how am I going to talk to the parents about this? They’re going to think that I’m angry, or I lost control, or that their kid is the bad kid in my class… it might do damage.”
And I want to say very much that the opposite is true. But I’ll get to that.
I know that there is a book that has been a big influence on you. I want you to talk a little bit about that book and what you’ve taken from it – Teaching with Love and Logic by David Funk and Jim Fay.
That book alongside The First Days of School were both introduced to me by my wife because she was a public school teacher. She taught seventh grade English (or language arts).
A couple years before she moved to higher education, she introduced both of those books to me.
My wife and I have always had a very conversational collaborative relationship. She said, “I’m learning some things here that you should absolutely know about.”
And we would have these long conversations about this book… how she was using this in her classroom, at her school.
Very, very helpful.
There are three rules that they have in Teaching with Love and Logic: set enforceable limits, provide choices within limits, and apply consequences with empathy.
Of course, they detail this pretty exhaustively in the book – it’s a rather large book.
But it really is about not acting like a drill sergeant with the kids and actually trying to give them choices.
And… telling them what is going to happen if they make certain choices versus other ones. And so it’s this more conversational, almost Socratic way of doing discipline.
Going back to those environmental ideas that I gave earlier, it’s about setting an environment.
Let me give a perfect example of providing choices.
Imagine saying, “Hey, open your technique book, turn to page X.”
Now, I would do that plenty.
But for a beginner student, I would probably have a little bit more empathy towards that child getting them acclimated to the group environment they were in. So, I would maybe say, “Would you rather start in your technique book or your lesson book today?”
Now, on the surface, this could feel tactical – it could feel like a little hack, or inconsequential.
Yeah, if you did it once, it probably is.
It’s more about using this method of classroom control consistently with kids all the time – days, weeks, months, years.
They began to realize that you were kind of sharing with them.
Now. On the other hand, I would be very clear… and this isn’t necessarily in the book – I think it’s just important to mention this… that I’m not talking about letting kids dictate how the class is going to run.
I think sometimes, having talked to a lot of teachers about this, this is misconstrued.
When a child would come into the classroom for the first time, I would be very direct with them.
The other part of classroom control is that, absent a plan, a child will create one, and you’re probably not going to like their plans.
The longer I taught group, the more confident I was about what needed to happen with a child at any given time.
And again, I gave children choices within the range of choices that I was happy with them making.
I didn’t care if they started with their lesson or technique book. There were some things I never gave them a choice on. And they just felt those walls and they could exist within those walls.
I created an environment that felt safe for them because children do crave those limits. They want to know where the limit is and if you give it to them and you can do it without anxiety, I think that’s really it.
So, if a child came in, and during the first lesson they did something I didn’t think was contributing to a peaceful, calm environment in which all kids could focus on what they needed to do… I would simply redirect them and I would be pretty hard-nosed about it.
But I would be very pleasant, there wouldn’t be an ounce of emotion that I would bring into it.
This is not in the book. I’m not saying that they don’t. I’m not saying that they’re against this in the book – I’m just saying this is something I learned separately from that book, but it really dovetails quite well with it.
Anytime I delivered enforcement, or anytime that I felt negative emotions coming up in me, that was an opportunity for me to really step back and question myself, not the child. If the child did something that would bring emotion up in me, that’s not their fault.
That’s me reacting to something inside of them.
I would just say that, over time, I learned to be this very pleasant, very steady, very predictable person to that child. And so I was goofy, I made a lot of jokes.
But when it came to misbehavior, or a child pushing buttons that they shouldn’t be pushing on the piano, that sort of thing, I would redirect without a motion. But I would be stern. And I would drop the character I had been playing.
When they were redirected, I turned the character back on, and I became that other guy.
I think that those kids really saw that, and it only took seeing that a couple times that they just stopped.
It was very rare that I had to talk to a parent about a child’s behavior in the lesson. It was a very, very rare occurrence.
To be honest, I’ve never read the entire book.
I got the Cliff Notes from my wife and she told me the chapters to read.
I don’t know, there’s a lot to think about in these two books: the calm demeanor with which you need to approach the studio and not bringing your own anxiety into the environment (because those kids are really going to sense that).
It was interesting because those kids could do something and they never saw a monster come out. I had a child knock over something once quite accidentally – they went over to get a pencil and knocked over a whole container full of pencils and pens… broke the glass container.
Everyone looked at me and I said, “Oh, no, just make sure you don’t step on the glass.”
But I could see that child seize up, panic, and look at me, as if I were going to be really angry with them.
And… that anger just never came out.
I think that is actually a huge part of it. It’s probably beyond the scope of this video to talk about how to become a more meditative, calm, non-anxious person. But I do think that is a big part of it.
Greg, any thoughts or pushback there?
No, I love that.
I believe that the anxiety that you feel in class is almost never about the child. It’s about what’s inside of you. I totally believe that.
If a teacher is feeling angry, it’s not because of something that child is doing. It’s because the teacher does not know how to stay in control. The teacher wants control, doesn’t know how to stay in control, and that’s what produces anger.
Don’t take it out on the kids. I go home at the end of the day and think about it in the quietness – I stare at the ceiling of my bedroom after lights out just thinking about how I could do things differently…
I don’t want to react in class. I know I have to take it home and think about it, because there are improvements to be made. And that is such a big deal. If students know that they’re always going to get the same teacher every week, they will ultimately respect the teacher.
You can lose a battle and still win a war, right? Maybe in that moment, you don’t know how to react.
You’re thinking, “Man, if I just blow up on this kid, they’ll probably stop acting up for the rest of this class” – you might win that battle. But at the same time, you could lose class respect.
In my last year of teaching, I think there may have been two times where I’ve had to talk to a parent about a guideline infraction form.
Usually, if a student is going home with a guideline infraction form, it’s because they got a yellow card and a red card in class.
I want to talk to the parents just to bring in a little bit of a bigger team. And I have found that this is one of the biggest opportunities for me to create a trust bond with that family, if I can do this the right way.
Parents already know that their kid is a disruptive kid. If that child is perpetually disruptive, they’ve already gotten letters sent home from school and they’ve probably seen some varied reactions.
I can come in with the mindset that it takes a village to raise a child. And here I am, I want to be part of that village. I care about your child. I want your child to understand how to respond and behave in the context of a classroom.
I will always say a few things. And I need to make sure that I keep it together in my class, so I can go out and look a parent in the eye and say, “You know, there were some interruptions today. There were some guidelines that your child knows about and for one reason or the other, they crossed these guidelines today.”
I have a guideline infraction form with some thoughtful questions. I came up with these questions on my own – a copy of this guideline in fraction form is included in all of the licensees packets, so they’re going to have a copy if they want to print it and use it.
But there may be questions, like:
“Why does this teacher have this guideline?”
I want students to stop and think from my point of view and then write it down.
Even better if that child can’t write yet – they talk to the parent and the parent writes it out, and then it’s a family exercise.
“Why did I choose to cross that guideline?”
I love the word choice, going back to what you said, empowering the child, helping that child understand that they do have choices, and they have that power.
“How can I choose to make better choices? Or how can I make better choices in the next class?”
Reflexive, reflective questions.
I’ll tell a parent, “These things happened in class today. I’m not angry, I don’t feel like we lost control of the class. But I do want your child to learn how to behave in the context of a classroom.”
Parents really appreciate that.
My Sterling manager, Julian, had this conversation with a child and our brightest, most glowing review on Google came after Julian had this conversation with this child, who was actually on the autism spectrum.
This student learned that my studio was going to be a safe place for him to learn and that he was going to be respected as a human being, as he learned to acclimate to a classroom.
That mom is a fan for life now because of our guideline infraction forms.
I wondered if you have ever had any stories from your studio where you had to enforce rules and you saw a stronger bond either between you and the class, the students, family, whatever?
I don’t know, I can’t think of a place where there was a huge, egregious error that a child made. Usually they were just small corrections, where the child was just a little wound up that day, or maybe they were having a bad day.
There were a few times where there were siblings in the same class. A lot of times I could prevent a problem by just putting them on the opposite side of the room facing away from each other at different pianos.
So there’s things like that. I will say, though, there are a lot of stories where I can remember where a parent was actually surprised.
They’d say, “Well, are you sure they’re behaving? We get a lot of reports from school that they don’t behave.”
And I’d say, “You can come in and sit and watch if you’d like.” And I would have parents come in and sit and watch. And the hour would go by, and they watched their child through the glass door for an hour, basically focused on their music.
Now, of course, they knew mom was watching.
But I didn’t really see a lot of difference in behavior between that week and the week before that. It was just, it was a normal Tuesday for me.
I think there’s actually practical wisdom about rules that we can give here for an instructor or an owner that’s watching.
Maybe I can just kind of list out a few things to think about / do.
As I said earlier, if you don’t have a plan, the child will.
Open class with a very strong procedure, like Greg was saying. This could be the most important thing you do. If you can get them through that first two to five minutes, they will settle in.
We have emotions, we have blood sugar levels, hydration levels, hunger – so much that can affect behavior.
So if we can settle them into a routine, there’s a much greater chance that the child will then behave better.
Next, there needs to be an awareness of what they need to be working on. I was very direct. I said, “Do this, do this.” I didn’t beat around the bush, I didn’t try to ease kids into things. I was very direct on those things that I didn’t leave up to choice.
The child could choose what they wanted to do with the song, but I would tell them which song to work on.
If I ever got a sense that a child was floundering, I knew exactly what I needed to do to redirect them.
How much bad behavior did I save from happening simply by just being self-aware in the room?
“Oh, this kid in my own head is struggling with where to put their right hand. It’s so obvious how they’re acting.”
I would just come over and say, “Your right hand goes here.”
Instead of spending five minutes trying to bash something into their head, I just put my hand on the keyboard and said, “This is where your hands go. Can you do that?”
Then I walk away.
These are practical things that a studio owner or a teacher could do in the context of a group. But a lot of it just comes down to being self-aware & environmentally aware.
I’m going to add one here. I see so many teachers do this. I’ve actually had occasion to work with some of the studios that I’ve helped convert to group lessons where they were having some behavioral issues, and I said, “Record a class. Let me see the video and I’ll fix the problem.”
And I just wasn’t even prepared for what I saw. It became so apparent to me within 30 seconds what the problem was because I see teachers do this.
They’ll say something, the child immediately ignores it, and they start doing something on their own. Then the teacher approves of the behavior with their words.
Let me give you an example because that’s kind of abstract.
It’s a psychological coping mechanism for the teacher, a defense mechanism to overcome their own feelings of powerlessness in that situation.
They’ll say, “Okay, we’re gonna play this song now. And then the six-year old starts playing some high keys.
“Oh, I see you found the high keys there. Oh, don’t you like those sounds?”
And they’re doing this because they’re trying to control the situation without actually having to control the situation, and then they feel bad that the child is not listening to them.
They make the child’s behavior okay by pretending like it’s okay that the child is doing this. I see teachers do this quite a bit.
Once you start doing that, students will do it more and more.
Let’s say that happened during a trial lesson – first time I’ve met this kid. Maybe they’re a little rowdy and they’re trying to figure out what’s going on.
If they do something like that, I just say, “Oh, that actually isn’t what I wanted you to do. Could you put your hands right here and do this?”
Most of the time that took care of it. I would say it in a certain tone.
Again, I drop the character a little bit. If they wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t say a word. I’d say, “Oh, you must not have heard me, could you put your hands here and do this?”
I said that five or six times, and the child ignored me every single time until they didn’t. And then they didn’t ignore me after that.
This kind of leans back on what I said earlier in this recording – I could feel inside that I was heating up a little bit. But it wasn’t anger towards the child. It was like, “Oh, this is kind of an awkward situation, because it’s the first time they’ve met me.”
That’s about all the inner soundtrack did, but I didn’t let that come out. What the child experiences is a very neutral, very calm, response to their behavior, probably something they don’t experience a lot in life to be quite honest. And so it’s probably a little unfamiliar to them at first, but I just saw that technique work very, very well with kids where you just repeat, you’re calm. You’re neutral.
If the child did that 20 times, where they just kept ignoring me, I don’t know what I would do.
Like, what if I just did that for a half hour because I committed to it? I would do it. But probably at a certain point I would call the game and say to the parent, “I don’t know. I don’t think they want to do this. Maybe we should try again in a year.”
You got to stick to your guns.
That is so good. Just being consistent. You can’t compromise. If you want control of the class, then you have to stay within your own rules that you make for yourself.
Wow. All right.
Well, Daniel, we’ve got to land this plane. Thank you so much for having this conversation. I think that this is so good. It’s inspiring for me to hear your ideas. Thanks for coming on and talking to our people that are training with Piano Express.