A beginning music teacher is learning to swim the best way. He threw himself in the deep waters of teaching at a school that hadn’t had a music program before and it appears that some of the kids keep throwing him back in the deep water each time he comes up for air. But being a thoughtful reflective person, I have complete faith he’ll not only keep his head above water, but learn to swim and enjoy the cool, refreshing waters. It will take time and a little help from his friends. So below is my answer to his excellent questions:
…This brings up one of the most interesting aspects of teaching as a profession and art. Are the students who are not following directions to blame? Or can I look at their lack of following directions as really, the fact that they are not engaging with my “lesson” and that the responsibility lies on me to develop a more robust and accommodating classroom flow?
And my response:
Though in the long run, the 50-yard line is where I believe the ultimate responsibility is, in the short run, I think the best response is for you to pretend it's all your fault and to work on developing the "more robust and accommodating classroom flow." For one thing, your own lesson is the thing you have the most control over, certainly more than fixing habitual attention issues in kids or remediating dubious parenting or fixing our culture of over-entitlement, etc. Though children do have responsibility toward their own level of engagement, you first have to make sure you've done everything in your power to engage them. Make sure things are simple enough for early success, complex enough for worthy challenge. Use techniques of non-verbal teaching to avoid over-explaining and keep an unbroken flow to the music you're releasing so that there is little space for inattention. Watch the children like a hawk to note when you or the material has made a connection and let them know that you saw the best musician they can be in that moment. For starters.
Here's a quote that has helped me: "Behavior is the language of children." If habitual inattention persists, then an actual private conversation with a kid can help both you and them find the words to communicate what the issue is. You can ask them: "Which part of music class do you like best? (And don't accept "none.") Singing? Dancing? Playing? Improvising? Games?" You can tell them without anger that you notice they're not wholly engaged and that you're doing your part to make the lessons more interesting and doing your part (by talking to them) to take the time to find out how you can teach them better. And then here's a good place to throw in the 50 yard image and remind them that they have a responsibility for their own learning and level of attention and you expect them to do their part. Shake hands on it!
Hope some of this is helpful. In the words of the great Thelonious Monk, when asked to comment on the performance of a college band:
“Keep on tryin’!”