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How to deal with parents who interfere during lessons.

I've had my share of parents hovering over the keyboard while I'm trying to teach their child—constantly chiming in, answering questions, calling out note names, etc. It's really distracting, disruptive, and not conducive to a positive learning environment—we know that, but the parent doesn't. We have to be slow to become defensive. The parent is simply doing what they think is best with the knowledge that they have. The most common advice is to "re-establish authority"; let's call this advice what it is: absurd. No qualified and quality educator would ever suggest that a teacher establish their authority over a parent. So this post is somewhat related to "Working with (not against) the so-called "tiger-parent" as it advocates building relationships, not establishing authority, and at the end of the day, the parent is the authority and the student will always default to the way their parent wants them to practise. So, it's our job to educate them.

As I wrote in "Working with (not against) the so-called "tiger-parent", we need to establish genuine parental partnerships built on equality of power, a shared sense of purpose (the best interest of the child), mutual respect and a willingness to negotiate. Building a parental partnership requires frequent transparent and respectful communication. It requires being slow to act defensively and quick to reflect. It requires being proactive in including the parent in the child’s learning, allowing them to contribute to the decision-making process, and connecting your decisions to the parent’s wishes, goals, and expectations. This starts on day one at that first meeting, but let's say you don't have this relationship with the parent, what then?

Be prepared. Before you say anything to a parent, be sure whatever it is you say is something you have thought about, you know how to articulate succinctly without aggression, and it isn't coming from an attitude of defensiveness. Here's what I say:

I know it's important to you as it is to me that he/she learns at a good pace, but that's really difficult if we don't teach him/her how to think for him/herself, identify errors, the reasons for them, and how to correct them. So when I ask him/her a question, it's really important that we give him/her time to think and answer for him/herself and it doesn't matter how long it takes. I'm also very aware when he/she makes mistakes, but I strategically ignore some because those mistakes may be either trivial or simply not what I'm concerned about right now.

There are a few things about this statement to highlight. Firstly, and most importantly, it clearly communicates that the parent and I are a team. This comes in part from using the plural pronoun "we", but mostly it comes from acknowledging that we have the same goal: the child's best interests. Secondly, the statement communicates that what is needed applies to both the parent and me; I didn't tell the parent that they need to be quiet, I said "it's really important that we give him/her time to think". It's no good if I'm not giving the child time to think, either. Thirdly, the statement communicates a good reason for what I'm suggesting, and I link that reason to a common goal: the child's best learning interests—"Because I am the teacher" is not a good reason. Finally, this statement communicates that I am making strategic decisions. The parent might otherwise think I'm clueless and missing basic errors in their child's playing. The parent wants to know that I know what I'm doing.

There are lots of simple things you can do during a lesson following "the talk" to break the parent's habit. Most commonly, when the student turns to their parent for an answer, I move my head into their view and say in a light tone, "I'm not asking mum/dad, I'm asking you." Similarly, if a parent offers up an answer and the child repeats it, again in a light tone, I say, "Is that your answer or mum's/dad's answer?" Another strategy I use is telling the student, "Let's see if you can answer my next question without mum's/dad's help."

But what about just kicking the parent out? I fundamentally disagree with instructing a parent to stay out of the room—it's their child. You could try, "Can we see how he/she goes without you in the room" if you must, but you're dealing with "tiger" parent; they want to be there, they want to be involved, they want to help, and they want the best for their child. Who are we to deny a parent access to their child's learning? After all, you want the child to practise the way you tell them to; if the parent doesn't understand what that is (because they don't see what you do in the lessons), they'll make their child practise the way they think they should, and it's naive to think the child will practise any other way.

So, don't make it about you and your "requirements", establishing power and authority, clarifying who the expert is and all that ego crap. Don't hide behind passive emails or write up policies or send reminders. Don't tell the parent they are "observers"—they're not, they're equal part of this. Don't make up some lie about their child achieving a new milestone that removes the parent from the room—it's patronising and insults the person paying your wage. Instead, build genuine parental partnerships built on equality of power, a shared sense of purpose, mutual respect and a willingness to negotiate. Adopt these strategies, be consistent, and the parent will stop interfering.

Steven Armstrong is a multi-award-winning former lecturer of musicology with post-graduate qualifications in educational leadership. He is the founder and director of Advantage Music Academya music school of over 300 students in Western Australia widely recognised for its professional approach to pedagogy.

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