Fear of being judged. This is a fear I am out-growing. In fact, I’ve almost completely out-grown it, but I still remember the pain of some early experiences of being (what felt to me) condemned, and the anxiety of pending critiques by others.
One of my earliest memories of being “judged” was when, in first grade, my teacher made “an example” of me. I know I excelled in math. I was doing multiplication and division by the age of four. I don’t think I was aware at the time of my advanced skills. I just enjoyed math activities, and I greatly enjoyed my dad teaching me! However, there came a day when I neglected to sufficiently read the instructions at the top of a test paper. The test comprised only subtraction problems. Each problem was presented with a larger number over a smaller number with a line below, but there was no plus or minus sign beside the second number. The instruction to do subtraction was indicated only in words at the top of the paper.
I sped through the test, adding each pair of numbers. I even took time to check my work. I knew my addition was correct. I was the first to turn in my paper. I was expecting an A+ per usual. When everyone had finished, the teacher called everyone’s attention, held up my paper, and said something like “I’d like you all to learn from a mistake by [she said my name]. The instructions were to subtract, but she added each pair of numbers. Her addition was correct; however she failed the test because she did not follow the instructions!” As she held up the paper, everyone saw a huge black “F”.
I was horrified. I felt such burning shame. I was shocked I hadn’t done what was instructed. And I was appalled to receive an “F”! But I was even more dumb-struck that the teacher was humiliating me in front of everyone. I wanted to hide, but there was no-where to go.
I don’t remember if I told my mother about it when I got home. I probably did. I think she looked at all my school papers. She probably “consoled” me with some unspoken sign of sympathy, yet reinforcing the teacher’s lesson that it’s important to follow instructions. I certainly learned the lesson to read instructions, but I’m too much of a non-conformist to pretend I always follow them. But I also learned another lesson, one I believe is even more important: teachers should never, ever humiliate a student! Shame is cruel. And as a teacher, I follow THAT instruction faithfully and consistently!
In fact, the #1 rule I set for myself is to ALWAYS show respect to each student, and if they make any kind of mistake (which all learners do because that’s part of exploration), first find the good in what they’ve done. I believe in first empowering what is good in a child’s native ability, and reinforcing the goodness of every particle of excellence. More often than not, what needs correcting can be done in terms of showing how what they did well could be furthered.
A simple example of first focusing on what works regards fingering: if a piano student stumbles through a passage, and I perceive it’s because of faulty or sloppy fingering, I don’t immediately point out what they did wrong and how it marred their fluency. Instead, I point out passages they played correctly and beautifully/ fluently/ meaningfully, and then I show them how their good fingering facilitated that. Then I ask them what they think they might improve. Most of the time, students will know well enough for themselves without being told what could be better and how to make improvements. If they need a little nudge, I gently help them notice. Often simply modeling better alternatives is sufficient. Even if a student were to play a piece composed in a minor key entirely in the relative major, I still wouldn’t make them feel shame for not reading the key signature! I might even note how interesting it was to hear it in a new key! We could have a chuckle at how marvelous it can be to hear something from another angle! But then, that’s the luxury of being an artist: multiple viewpoints are valuable.
Even (especially?) as a teacher, I sometimes discern a mistake need not be corrected at all. I am aware that often the guidance a student needs from me in a particular situation is simply how to think, how to focus forward, what to actually DO (rather than what to avoid). I find that, for myself, and I believe for most creative types, what we focus on in our thinking is what will be made manifest in our art. If I were to instruct a student to not do a particular thing and they kept thinking “don’t do x,” they would likely DO x, despite the “don’t” in the instruction. But if I were to say “focus on y,” they would focus on y and they would DO y. I.e. the object of focus is the issue, not the instruction about it. So, in my opinion (and vast teaching experience!), it’s far more important to direct growing minds towards good habits, strengths, goals, choices, rather than call (especially any unnecessary) attention to mistakes, weaknesses, or what to avoid.