When I started teaching full time back in the 1990s, the best known teacher in my neighbourhood was Sidney Pope, a venerable older gentleman who tuned pianos by day and taught the local children once the schools turned out in the afternoon. Sidney continued teaching until his health finally gave out, and was a much loved and very able teacher.
I was a tuning client of Sidney’s, and when he learnt that I was entering the fray as a teacher he couldn’t have been more encouraging, referring pupils he couldn’t personally fit into his busy schedule, and generously sharing a lifetime’s advice.
This perplexingly included his list of rules for student conduct; rules which were certainly very thorough…
Teachers today tend to provide contracts that for the most part relate to parental behaviour – paying on time, not cancelling at the eleventh hour, and so on. Sidney’s rules pertained to the children themselves, outlining his expectations of practice, attitude in lessons, and even the clothing they wore.
In this regard, Sidney’s demands were crystal clear: boys’ shirts must be tucked in, and dresses or skirts were compulsory for the girls – no trousers!
Why, I wondered in my professional naivety, should girls not be allowed to wear trousers to their piano lessons in 1992?
Sidney patiently explained that piano lessons must be regarded as a special occasion, and that students benefitted from making an effort to dress up accordingly…
Retirement and Transition
Sidney’s rule seemed to me somewhat anachronistic, and would most likely be regarded as discriminatory by today’s standards, but at the time his pupils seemed happy enough to oblige the old man, and no less adoring of him.
And their exam results, the quantity and quality of which he paid to have published in the local newspaper each term, testified to the popularity and efficacy of his highly successful teaching practice.
When Sidney decided to wind down his practice due to ill-health, some of his students transferred to me for lessons. Having adopted some of my elder’s advice, but rejected his dress code as arcane, I was curious to see what my new students would wear to their first lessons with me.
I’ll admit that part of me was expecting this:
As it happened, many turned up in shorts, a self-conscious rebellion from the old regime! They were pleased that they no longer needed to spend fifteen minutes dressing up before rushing along to their lessons. But still they were happy to remember Sidney fondly, even with an affectionate acceptance of his quirky old-time dress code.
And if my students’ results in those early days weren’t the match for Sidney’s, it was undoubtedly due to my inexperience, and not my students’ fashion choices.
The Joy of Setting Our Own Rules
One of the great things about running my own teaching studio is that I get to set the rules. I’ve worked in other settings too, where that wasn’t the case, and it wasn’t always easy going!
One of the most important skills needed for running a successful teaching practice is the ability to think through the issues and make good decisions about precisely what our rules and policies will be.
In doing so, we can seek the advice of our real-world colleagues and contacts, professional organisations, online communities, and take time to listen to feedback and the opinions of our students, parents and clients.
But having done that, the decision still ultimately rests with us.
Whatever apparently good advice we read or hear – whether at a pedagogy conference or browsing through a Facebook group – it is essential that we take time to reflect and to personalise, rather than blindly accepting others’ well-meaning advice without thought or condition.
It would be possible to wrongly conclude from the story of Sidney Pope, for example, that a gender-specific dress code is the secret of a successful piano teaching practice. It isn’t.
With this in mind, it strikes me that those of us who teach should reflect on a few questions at this point:
- What are our goals for our teaching practices?
- How do our policies reflect and support those goals?
- Are our teaching rules fit for purpose?
- Are we being held back by attitudes that have passed their “best before” date?
- If our students and families could change one rule we have, what would it be, and why?
A Whole New World
I am struck by the many differences between the world in which Sidney Pope operated, and the one in which my own teaching practice thrives in 2018.
Of the 60+ regular students I work with, around two-thirds are adult learners, often snatching time for their lessons between their many other activities, professional or otherwise.
It would clearly be inappropriate, impractical, and immaterial to insist on a specific dress code – my students’ fashion sense is entirely their affair. For my own part, too, I tend to choose outfits that are comfortable and assist my working day, rather than any uniform that gets in my way.
Only through reflection, evaluation and personalisation can we ascertain what genuinely works for us, as opposed to the many and varied ideas that suit others.
The Real Story Here…
But to focus on Sidney Pope’s dress code would of course be to miss the powerful point here, to be so focussed on trivia as to miss the big picture.
What then is the Real Story Here? Simply this:
Sidney Pope believed that every lesson should be a special occasion, and he built the framework of his practice around this magnificent goal.
The Real Story here is surely that all of us who have the honour of teaching the piano should be inspired to follow Sidney’s extraordinary lead. And in doing so, we are certainly more likely to enjoy his true success!
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