V.com weekend vote: Do you respond best to a nice teacher, or mean teacher?

August 21, 2020, 5:30 PM · Do you find that you work best with a nice teacher, or a mean teacher?

nice and mean

I'd guess that most of us want a nice teacher, but perversely, a lot of people find fear to be a strong motivator. While some people thrive when they feel safe, others find they get too comfortable and complacent.

During my student years I experienced a number of personalities in teachers. Fortunately, my primary teacher during childhood was quite a gentle guide. I was already anxious enough, and I don't think I would have responded well to a harsh approach.

After that, though, I did experience several teachers that could be extremely scary. One case was very interesting: one teacher who inspired absolute dread and fear in nearly everyone was actually extremely effective in getting people to play well. In fact, I liked this teacher despite the very real anxiety - because we played so well! But this person had a sort of reckoning and then a rather major change in approach. Somewhat to my surprise, the kinder approach that came afterwards was actually just as effective and just as clever, without the fear.

I would probably have to say that I prefer a "nice" teacher. And "nice" does not actually mean lax, overly tolerant or lacking in standards. A "nice" teacher can be extremely demanding and persistent, just without the fear or abuse.

That said, I've had people say to me, "I need a mean teacher. I need the fear to motivate me." And I myself have found myself motivated by teachers who have been angry, who yell, who say demeaning things.

How do you feel about it? Have you had nice teachers, mean ones, or both? To which kind of teacher did you respond best? If you are a teacher, are you nice, or mean? Would your students agree? And of course I know that this is a simplistic way to categorize teachers, but think of it this way: have you been motivated by fear? Or by a feeling of safety?

Please pick the best answer for you, and then tell us your thoughts in the comments section.


August 22, 2020 at 01:35 PM · Laurie, one of your descriptions of mean teachers is “teachers who have been angry, who yell, who say demeaning things.” My childhood violin teacher, whom I love dearly, would sometimes get angry and yell at me, at times until I cried. His dog, who sat near me during my lessons, would bark at him whenever he yelled at me. However, he never said demeaning things to me. He had a very positive effect on me, partly because he was never demeaning but always gave me the impression that he respected and cared for me. I believe that this distinction is very important. My personal ethos is to treat everyone, including my students, with respect and not to demean them.

August 22, 2020 at 03:21 PM · The teacher I had from age 7 until college was definitely nice and I absolutely adored her. She fit your description perfectly of being "extremely demanding and persistent, just without the fear or abuse." It was devastating for me to think of disappointing her or letting her down, which, of course, I did multiple times. I remember times as a child when I almost wished she'd yell at me. I felt it would have been easier to take than seeing the disappointment in her eyes. But the desire to make her proud and see that smile on her face when I cleared a hurdle were incredibly motivating to me.

August 22, 2020 at 04:03 PM · Is an unmotivated student going to progress? I ask this as a perpetual student with certain limitations. Is it a teacher's role to motivate an unmotivated student? If so, will shaming or assaults on a student's emotional equilibrium prove effective? The student needs to know the purpose for an instruction, the problems to be avoided or solved. It's as a problem solver that any teacher will thrive, having the ability to express the problem and its solution. Insightful content in the instruction, expressed in a conducive style, works best.

August 22, 2020 at 04:44 PM · I became a teacher later in life. I've come to the conclusion that we need to move beyond describing it this way. It's not a dichotomy, and, more problematically, the words nice and mean are about personality rather than policy, and those things should be separate.

Last year, my first year as a full-time schoolteacher with my own classroom, I had some well-meaning people advise me that I should put on a different personality and be "stricter". They told me, not even kidding, "don't smile until Thanksgiving." They used law enforcement metaphors like "tell them there's a new sheriff in town". I couldn't do any of this. I had to find my own way with a positive reward system. So as a teacher, I'm probably what would be described here as "nice."

But that's separate from policy. You can still have policies of high standards, high expectations, and a challenging curriculum, regardless of your personality. IMO, as a teacher, the best personality is your own. Be authentic, if you're not authentic then students will smell that and won't trust you.

As a student, looking back now, I think I didn't understand this at all. I ended up being afraid of most of my teachers. I sensed the lack of authenticity. I couldn't see beyond the sheriff. The fear did motivate me but it also left me with a permanent sense of anxiety about school and learning, and a debilitating performance anxiety associated with the violin. I've spent more than half my life working on getting over these anxieties. I've made a lot of progress, for which I'm grateful, but there is also grief to work through about the time and opportunities lost to anxiety and fear.

August 22, 2020 at 05:22 PM · I voted "I find both effective." By this, I mean having both ingredients in one person. For me, a teacher who is nice but not indulgent, firm and demanding when needed but not "mean," is best.

I'm not a teacher and no longer a student. I had six teachers from the time I started as a kid till I finished the degree program around 21 y/o. I had my first teacher only 2 years till she got married and moved to another city. It was a good working relationship. She encouraged and motivated me, drawing the music out of me, not frightening it out of me. She was easy to follow and the prime influencer for me, regarding the sound I wanted to achieve.

My second teacher was the most demanding of the six -- but not demeaning. Before starting with her, I'd been on my own for several months, and she had to help me break some wrong habits I'd gotten into. In our first lessons, she would stop me and say: "DIG IN -- that sound won't carry." "Don't flop your wrist around so much." "Don't lift the bow off the string after up-bows." "Keep [bow] pressure constant [from frog to tip]." "Watch your dynamics [piano, forte] -- you don't have any dynamics in this piece." "Don't slide like that in this music [Vivaldi]."

All six teachers gave me valuable pointers that I still review. I have their written notes in my study books. Their instructions continue to pay off. And their different approaches undoubtedly helped me become more well rounded as a learner.

August 22, 2020 at 07:04 PM · I couldn't vote - I've never had a mean teacher!

There's one FLUTE teacher that's gone down in history (at least in CPE Bach's letters to his stepmother) for being mean, or at least, for creating fear in a pupil (Frederick the Great): Johann Joachim Quantz, who was, in turn, tyrannized by hie wife (who, according to CPE, was ruled by her dog, so the true ruler of Prussia was a dog).

August 22, 2020 at 07:08 PM · I worked as a teacher's assistant at an elementary school during college as a work-study gig, and there were a variety of approaches of the different teachers who I worked for. The one I remember being particularly effective and memorable was a teacher who had consistently high standards for her class, and who, from the outside may have seemed strict. The thing was that she was actually very warm to the children individually, but her consistency and faith that the children could behave well and learn meant that the children internalized a sense of respect and worth, and this was with a somewhat more vulnerable population than the rest of the school.

It wasn't so much about her being nice or mean, but more the felt sense of caring, the consistency, and her extensive experience. Someone can be kinda lax and nice or lax and mean, and the students don't necessarily feel seen in the same way.

I think it's similar for violin teachers. First of all, the teacher needs to know what they are doing. The teacher needs to come to an understanding with the student that there is a path forward and try to be consistent along that path, which doesn't preclude flexibility. A perfectly "nice" teacher can also kind of let a student just not make progress for years, without the student internalizing a relationship between consistent work and progress.

August 22, 2020 at 07:14 PM · My current teacher could be called "nice": she's encouraging and collaborative. But she also has high standards and I've made a lot of progress under her. My former teacher could be cranky and impatient but was not "mean". I didn't make much progress under her, in retrospect because, when it got down to it, she was inflexible in her teaching methods although she had me convinced that she was a real problem solver. (She herself had teachers who were valued for their pedagogy skills.)

August 22, 2020 at 07:39 PM · Not an issue for me. For me, mean teachers were the ones who turned me away sight unseen as soon as they heard how old I was -- often with a gratuitous dig at how delusional I must be for wanting to start learning a string instrument in my teens.

So I voted nice teachers, because with the mean ones I never even got my foot in the door.

August 22, 2020 at 10:14 PM · I voted both, because I've benefited from both type of teachers.

The most effective teacher I had was a nice one, although I don't think the nicety is the reason for his good teaching. He had a "problem-solving" type of disposition, that when I faced difficulty, he came up with experiments and solutions. He was incredibly confident, having great faith in his ability of handling me, that anger didn't ever enter his mind.

I could learn effectively from mean teachers, too, although less pleasantly. I take "mean teacher" to mean someone who is stern, bad-tampered, and strict, to the students' eye, probably scary. Most of my teachers were like that.

I have never had anyone lashing out at me, though. That much rage from an adult is more telling of the teacher's personal problem than the students' technical difficulties.

However, actual abusive behavior, regardless of the efficacy at improving techniques, shouldn't be tolerated.

August 23, 2020 at 03:18 AM · I always prefered ( and still do) a nice teacher. When I took driving lessons in Germany many years ago I had a mean teacher.I was scared and dreaded the lessons. Same with any other subjects. So also on violin. The violin teachers I had were always nice and encouraged me ,what I needed to do well( otherwise I would be so scared I actually would make more mistakes...) I actually had a crash on one of my violin teachers during High school..and guess what I practiced more..??

August 23, 2020 at 03:46 PM · As a student, I never had a mean, ill-tempered teacher, and probably would have left early if I had one. At the upper levels of instruction a student that does not yet have high performance standards and self-disciplined practice habits will benefit from a strict, demanding teacher. As a teacher I always try to be positive, even when I can tell that they have not practiced. 99% will not go on to be professionals and for them the lesson should be a high point in their week, something that they want to do. Music should be fun.

August 23, 2020 at 04:16 PM · I think the indifferent teacher is worse than either the mean or the nice teacher. By indifferent, I mean someone who isn't really invested in whether or not your playing improves, so they they don't try too hard. Play in-tune or out-of-tune; learn a skill or don't learn it--they don't care. But the indifferent and pleasant teacher is probably worse than the indifferent and mean teacher. With the indifferent and pleasant teacher, you're more likely to delay seeking another. At least with the indifferent and mean teacher, you're going to have motivation to move on.

That said, at this point in my life and education (over-educated adult with substantial university teaching experience), I can't abide rudeness or bad manners; I just won't tolerate it anymore.

August 23, 2020 at 07:37 PM · Christian Lesniak, you said the following about one of your teachers. “Her consistency and faith that the children could behave well and learn meant that the children internalized a sense of respect and worth.” This is true about the best teachers of any subject. I remember that my college chemistry professors let us know that they were making the work difficult for us and also that they believed that we could do it. This was especially valuable to me because I was so low on self esteem. It was downright therapeutic. Teachers of any subject can have this effect. As a violin teacher, I tried to send the same messages to my students.

August 24, 2020 at 05:00 PM · So many insightful comments! "Indifference" is an interesting concept. The best relationships are when students and teachers find a way to meet halfway - the student practices and remains open to new ideas and techniques, the teacher remains attentive, helpful and focused on the student, and it's all in good faith. When any of these things get out of balance, there are problems all around.

August 24, 2020 at 06:48 PM · For me, it depended on the discipline. For dance, especially classical ballet, it is based on a more military model. Very strict, in a large room with 20 or more people with music, a lot more yelling goes on just to be heard. In a private music or voice lesson, if a teacher yelled at me it would freak me out, since they were standing maybe 3 feet away from me in a small room. Acting, you tend to be in a workshop setting which is somewhere between music and dance. Sometimes the teacher in this setting has to say or do something that seems mean at the time to take the student emotionally to the next level.

While decades have passed since my own career, boundaries seem to be much more established across disciplines, and outright abuse is much, much less tolerated than before. The old adage to "suffer" for your art is thankfully becoming a relic of the past!

August 24, 2020 at 06:56 PM · Thanks to Friederike Lehrbass, I now remember when I did have a mean teacher, a not yet registered youngster called Mr H..... employed by the British School or Motoring (not to teach violin, but driving). I had to take another course of driving lessons at the next opportunity with another school that taught on automatics. Having passed, I used a lesson I'd prepaid BSM for to revise the gears (This teacher was far better) and enquired after Mr Houghton, I was told he hadn't made a go of driving instructing, surprise surprise. His aggression had been an attempted cover up for total incompetence.

August 24, 2020 at 08:13 PM · Laurie Niles: this blog is about graduate school academic advisors, but I think it describes what can be wrong with the "nice" violin teacher too. That is, if your teacher never told you what is wrong with your work, someone out there most definitely will, when it really, really matters. She's referring to academic job talks and book proposals, but it could easily apply to auditions. http://theprofessorisin.com/2014/02/23/the-5-top-traits-of-the-worst-advisors/.

I like her suggestion to look for a teacher who is "intense" or "fierce," but not "mean" or "nice."

August 24, 2020 at 10:12 PM · Excactly, jocelyn!

Like Karen, I take issue with this dichotomy - there's a world of variation between 'nice' and 'mean'. Not to speak of the fact that both those trends are highly subjective.

No teacher should every make angry or degrading comments. However, as a high school teacher, lots of kids describe me as 'mean' simply because I give constructive (not negative) feedback and don't praise at-least-I-handed-something-in non-attempts. Apparently this is unfogivable in english teachers.

On the other hand I have students from other classes who continue to seek out my help exactly for that reason - they want real feedback on how to become better writers. Unsurprisingly, these are the students who've won places in creative writing projects and been finalists in competitions and excel in the humanities.

Personally, the only time I needed a 'fluffy' (my definition of 'nice' - all about the positive) teacher was when I first started singing lessons, to help with finding the centre of 'in tune' on violin. After a family who decided I was 'unmusical' and years of being thrown out of choir in primary school (now that's my definition of mean - someone who denies learning to anyone who hasn't already learned it), I was impossibly self conscious and needed it. But she was an excellent teacher, so 6 months later I asked to do an exam and needed to know what I was doing well or badly. (my first ever A for music!)

Mostly, if I'm only getting positive feedback (in any context), I start worrying what I'm doing badly and why noone is telling me...

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