Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to build stronger relationships with my music students.
The opportunity came from an unexpected and surprising new addition to my life.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit it.
It was on Snapchat.
Today’s post is a short soliloquy on student relationships, empathy, and confronting my own selfish tendencies as a teacher.
When I first began teaching over ten years ago, most of my students were grade schoolers.
For the first five years that I taught, it was rare for a child to have a cell phone. Parents were still “nervous” about technology even for their high-school-age kids.
Almost all my students over age 12 have cell phones. And, roughly 30% of my students aged 9 to 12 carry a cell phone or iPod Touch with them.
Because of this, something odd has happened.
Parents are asking me to deal directly with their children and teens.
This hit home with me not too long ago. I was rescheduling a student.
Her mom said:
“Actually, I’m not even sure of Mary’s sports calendar this week. Here is her cell phone number. Do you mind to ask her?”
This was for a 7th grader.
I’ve received random texts from students. They text me links to piano arrangements of pop songs on YouTube.
“I want to play this Bruno Mars song.”
“Who is this?” I ask.
“This is Jane. Haha.”
“Oh! How did you figure out my number?”
“My mom gave it to me.”
How would you react in that situation? It’s becoming more and more normal.
The increasingly “digital” nature of our lives is tearing down barriers and decorum that used to exist. And, as I was about to learn, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
A few months ago, I downloaded the app Snapchat. I did this based on the recommendation of a 41 year old marketing genius. He thinks that Snapchat is going to be the next “big thing.”
I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe I’m too old?
1 in 3 high schoolers use the app every single day.
The average user on Snapchat is under 23. This is how Facebook was 10 years ago.
Facebook started “young.” As time wore on, the average age of the user has increased. The younger demographic (25 and under) has abandoned Facebook for greener pastures. They want to be where their parents ARE NOT.
Still, despite my advancing age, I was committed to figuring this thing out.
I went to Google. I typed in:
“how to use snapchat”
I found some informative articles. I found a very helpful and entertaining Buzzfeed article by a guy in his late 20’s. He asked his 13-year-old sister to explain Snapchat to him. Hilarity ensued.
After playing around with it for a week, I began to get the hang of it.
Only a handful of my contacts and friends were on Snapchat.
What happened next though, was quite interesting and quite unexpected.
As I mentioned before, students have discovered my phone number over time. I’ll point out (once again) that this was due to parents giving it to them!
Because of that, I started getting friend requests from students.
At first I hesitated. I didn’t add them to my friends list.
Shouldn’t students know better!?!? You are supposed to maintain a respectful distance from your teacher!
That logic didn’t hold up for very long. I was already scheduling and rescheduling lessons with 13 year olds by text. This was just a newer form of communication.
I added them.
It made my experience a lot more interesting.
Now, you might protest this.
“A teacher shouldn’t have that kind of contact with a student!”
Again, I will point out… this is all with parental input and blessing. This only works with communication between all parties. I wouldn’t recommend adding a student until you have spoken to a parent.
The handful of students that connected with me are students that I have seen for years. Some of the parents have become such good friends that we are invited over to their house for meals or game night.
I will also gently point out that there have been moral panics over every piece over technology that have come out going all the way back to the radio.
“This is dangerous for kids!”
That isn’t what this is about.
This is about trying to LEAD BY EXAMPLE. Wouldn’t it be better to teach youth how to behave better… instead of just taking away the tools in a fearful panic?
The truth is… we are in a new age. We can’t roll back the clock… We can either embrace it and make things better. Or, we can run in fear.
I prefer the adventurous route.
Snapchat has no “discovery” function within the app. The only way to add friends is if you know their username, or their phone number, or their “Snap code” (a visual representation of their username).
My total Snapchat friends list isn’t very large (about 3% of the size of my Facebook friends list). Some of my friends are on Snap. Old friends from college. I’ve added a few celebrities who (surprisingly) have added me back.
There are two main things you can do in the app.
You can send individual messages (Snaps) to users. Or, you can watch the “Snap stories” that your friends post.
Snap stories are like status updates on Facebook.
People post public pictures or 10-second videos that last for 24 hours.
There are no links to articles. I have not seen one single Snap about politics all year. It’s just a chronicle of the daily lives of people on my friends list.
The Snap stories last for 24 hours and then they disappear.
There are some cool features inside the app. You can turn on filters that make you look goofy or add special effects to your videos and pics.
After watching stories, I started posting my own. Lots of videos and picturesof my son. Funny things that happened while with friends. A few updates about the progress of this blog before I launched it.
On Monday afternoons, I see a quiet high schooler. She’s athletic and spends a lot of time on sports. She is a hard worker when it comes to music. She consistently learns pop song arrangements that are above her “level”. She has even made her own arrangements of songs.
This is one of the students that added me on Snapchat.
She doesn’t say much usually. I really have to work to draw her out.
We were working together one week and she suddenly said: “Calvin’s videos are really funny.”
She was talking about one my Snap stories.
We talked for a minute about it and I mentioned a public video that she had posted recently.
There was a genuine moment there.
Over time, I began to receive little texts or Snaps from students. Asking about an assignment. Random pictures.
Two of my high schoolers are both in choir. They had a choir concert on their lesson day. They sent me a Snap because they couldn’t make it that day.
Students would randomly ask to take a selfie with me to post on Snapchat. Later, I would see it in their Snap stories.
One week, I had a difficult conversation with a student. She’s a junior in high school. Her practice had been dropping off. After the conversation, I could tell she was a little sad.
This student has an email address. In the past, I’ve emailed her songs, questions, assignments… she never gets them or only notices them a week or two later. Like most students her age, she doesn’t use email consistently.
Email is for old people.
A few days later, I wanted to follow up on her conversation. I sat down to send an email – and then stopped writing.
I sent her a quick video Snap instead. I asked her how she was doing.
I got an almost instantaneous reply that turned into an encouraging text conversation.
All my high schoolers use Snapchat.
Parents are loosening up and allowing their middle schoolers to use it, too.
In just a few years, I would bet that every student over the age of 10 will be using the app.
I began to think. I began to strategize.
“How can I use this? I’m getting through to students and making some connections here.”
What if I created a “Snap assignment”? I would ask students to send me a small video of them playing a tricky part of their song.
Or, I could send them a Snap during the week (perhaps on a day that I know they usually don’t practice). I would ask them to send me a video of them doing one of their technical exercises.
My mind really started racing.
I bet yours is too. Are you following me here?
That is when I had my second big revelation. Fortunately, I had it in time.
Although I had just spent months building stronger relationships with students, I didn’t see it that way.
I didn’t see it as relationship building.
This was why it amused me when students would ask for a selfie with me. I didn’t get it.
I hadn’t been taking Snapchat seriously. It was just a funny, immature distraction to me.
To my students? It was incredibly important.
How painfully dim of me.
I have preached before about the importance of understanding your customer. Of getting inside their heads. Of thinking about the world from THEIR perspective.
I failed to do that here.
I failed to recognize that the “profit” was not a new way to “get them to do piano.”
The profit was that I built or strengthened relationships with these students.
I was about to make Snapchat a way for them to do “more homework.”
I almost strained a half-dozen relationships with my high schoolers. Exactly the kind of student that can be the hardest to reach.
I don’t know what sort of relationships you have with your students. I don’t know what kind of relationships you have with their parents.
Fortunately, I had built a lot of trust and goodwill with my families before discovering Snapchat.
There was no weirdness or raised eyebrows when this new communication opportunity presented itself.
Do you already communicate with your high schoolers or middle schoolers by email or text?
If so, then I have a suggestion for you:
Join Snapchat or Instagram.
See who you know that is already on the platform.
Play around with it for a month or two.
Post Snap stories.
Even if you never connected with a student, you would still be making efforts to understand their world. That’s what this all about!
Is this worth your time?
As a teacher, I have goals. I want to see more and more of my students join the Royal Conservatory of Music program.
I want students to stay with me for many years. I love seeing them progress and moving into intermediate and advanced music.
And, of course, I love to see kids fall in love with music and apply themselves.
Lofty goals. But those are MY goals.
When we make piano lessons about us and our goals, kids (and especially teens) pick up on that.
Few people take a general interest in other people. That’s too bad, because it can make a powerful difference in the lives of others.
Building a relationship for the relationship’s sake is a noble, authentic goal.
We’re not doing it so that we can eventually lean on that relationship. We’re not doing it so we can find a new way to get a student to “do what we want.”
We are doing it just for the sake of building that relationship! Even if that means leaving our comfort zone.
Here’s the funny thing though… When we don’t put that extra emotional freight on the relationship, we often end up achieving those goals anyway.
If you want to understand your students, build a relationship, and meet them where they are at… then I would say:
Yes, it’s worth your time.
UPDATE: There have been a lot of fear-based, alarmist responses to this idea on Facebook. I suppose the nature of social media is to react in an anxious manner. The comments here and in private (by email) have been 100% positive.
Some teachers have expressed concern over the nature of Snapchat’s private messaging system. Others have expressed squeamishness over the idea of communicating with students outside of the lesson time.
That’s fine! I do want to point out several things:
1- As I mentioned, this really only works within the context of parents giving you a student’s contact info. If you don’t have that kind of relationship with families in your studio, this probably isn’t for you.
2- I would recommend that you use Snapchat before casting judgments. The main function of Snapchat is a news feed. Just like Facebook. That is the main draw of the app.
You could do this and never once personally communicate with a student.
3- The main takeaway of this article should not be “use Snapchat to communicate with students.” You could just as easily use Instagram or post to a Facebook wall. The point is to meet students where they are at. To be self-aware. To care enough about students to understand their world.
Thank you very much for reading and your comments!