Pick the best teachers instead of the best curricula

best teachers

My son’s first cello teacher, Gilda Barston, died when he was 10. He warms up every day with a short song she taught him for getting his fingers in tune. He’s been playing the exercise for so long that it’s no longer an intonation exercise as much as a prayer. A prayer to teaching, I think.

Usually parents have their kid learn the instrument they played  or the instrument the family needs for a trio, or the piano because there’s one in the living room. Cello is not a frequent choice because the violin is so much easier to carry around. But lots of parents told me they chose cello so their kid could have Gilda as a teacher.

At the time that sounded crazy. There was a time, really, when everything about cello sounded crazy to me. But I’m seeing more and more clearly that the teacher is what matters.

My older son has a lot of tutors. He is at the point where he can blow through curriculum if he has a good tutor, and if the tutor isn’t good we spend most of our time on logistics and teaching methods.

Also, he wants tutors in person. So I agreed to pay for a really passionate Shakespeare tutor because she was close and could come every day. For someone my son’s age, when there is so much in the world to learn, he has found that routine and enthusiasm are more important than the topic a particular tutor chooses.

My son’s favorite tutor prepared him for the the AP biology test and then left for medical school. My son missed him. And the tutor didn’t know physics or calculus well enough to tutor, so we decided on statistics. My son didn’t care about the topic. He just like working with this particular guy.

I think this is a good lesson for adult life as well. Who you work with matters so much more than what you do with that person. I coach people who spend so much time trying to find the right industry. But no industry is the right industry if you don’t have a good mentor and a good boss.

Teach kids to look for the right person to connect with. That’s how you build a network. And — I’m hoping! — that’s how kids create a support system once they leave home.

9 replies
  1. Elissa Smart
    Elissa Smart says:

    A student isn’t a container to be filled, a student is a torch to be ignited.

    Dear Penelope, I realize that it is only your blog where you express your thought, but don’t you want to invite guest authors from time to time. I wrote many articles on similar topics and I’d love to share my experience with your readers.


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I’m always happy to publish guest posts. Here is the standard for a guest post here: You need to express an opinion that is controversial. Or you need to tell a story that is new — we haven’t heard this sort of story before. Also, there needs to be a reason you are writing the post and not me. So you should either have done a good deal of research or you should have a perspective that I don’t have, based on your experience.

      If you have an idea for a post that meets these standards, then please email it to me. I love guest posts. I love publishing a point of view that is not my own!


      • Elissa Smart
        Elissa Smart says:

        Hi Penelope. I tried to reach you out via email, but probably your email is overloaded. Aren’t you interested in publishing an infographic named “Trends in education in 2019”? I covered many topics from hybrid homeschooling to a genius hour. Let me know, where should I send it.


  2. Christiane
    Christiane says:

    This! I made very unusual career choices and people keep asking me how I was able to break into this or that area. I followed people with passion, that’s all. My mentors are some of the most important people in my life. And as a side-effect, I have an interesting and unusual profile that gives me the luxury to do work that I love. Life does not work like school, you don’t get rewarded for doing the same thing quietly over and over again.

  3. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    I think this is along the lines of people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. Good lesson for kids to learn. Find people you want to work with (whether that work is learning, your job, or whatever) you’ll always be happier no matter what the work is.

  4. sevanetta
    sevanetta says:

    Totally agree. I felt proud of my high school for this reason, and also my dance studio growing up, and it’s partly why I’m with the dance studio I’m with now. My high school was totally crumbling in terms of infrastructure in the 90s (Australia), but because it was in a coastal town, it was highly desirable and so we always got experienced teachers, it was really hard to get in as a young teacher other than for a one term placement. I was there six years and I could count the number of bad teachers I had on one hand – and they really weren’t truly bad, they just weren’t fantastic for me compared to all the rest of my teachers. Dance school similar. It was not the most prestigious even though my teacher had trained, taught and worked overseas – she focused on getting the best out of dancers rather than building up her own name and prestige – to the extent that we did not do eisteddfods because she considered it too bitchy and not the way to become the best dancers or performers we could be. My current studio doesn’t teach my preferred styles, but the teachers are amazing, promote a truly inclusive and friendly environment and it’s so worth it. I left a dance group before this one in my preferred style because after a year there they still very obviously had an in-group and an out-group, and only two dancers were allowed solos.

  5. Tom Papers
    Tom Papers says:

    Penelope, I fully support you, this should give us a pretty good idea of what my child will actually know and be able to do by the time he leaves school. And, after all, education is ensuring that children learn everything they need in order to start their life well. Knowing what the school principal thinks is really important, and will reassure us when we choose a school. A properly structured selection process should create a situation where teachers are selected based on a variety of factors that ultimately affect student performance.

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