What Makes a Good Teacher?

Anna said: Jul 25, 2014
20 posts

I am a teacher so I guess I don’t really belong here in the parents’ corner, but I had a question for you parents.

To you, what qualities, etc. would separate an exceptional teacher from a good teacher? Or what qualities would you look for in a teacher? What things are/were important to you in finding a teacher for your child? What recommendations would you give to teachers?

Also, if any of you would like to share—where/how did you find your child’s music teacher? Word of mouth? Online search? Community event? Something else?

Thanks for sharing!

Holly said: Jul 27, 2014
Holly Smardo
Suzuki Association Member
Fayetteville, AR
1 posts

Dear Anna,
Fabulous questions!

As a teacher and parent, perhaps I can give you my two cents. :) Depending upon your geographical location, students will call you as a result of referrals; however, after many years of teaching I am learning this is not enough in the 21st century. You will benefit from an online presence through social media or a web page.

My grown children were fortunate to receive excellent teaching from John Finch (cello), Jana Burton (violin) and Liz Shuhan (flute) in Fayetteville, Arkansas. These three individuals continue to share the following qualities with their students; an exceptional musical knowledge, professional experiences as performers on their specific instrument, and extensive Suzuki training. Most importantly, they continue to share a sincere desire for each individual student to be successful and recognize the potential in all students!

Enjoy your teaching endeavors.
Thanks for posting your question, Holly

Holly Smardo

Elizabeth Mikols (Hajdu) said: Jul 27, 2014
 1 posts

Kindness is number one. My son never responded to a mean/strict teacher. His first Suzuki violin teacher would not let him take his violin out of its case for the first month of lessons. His enthusiasm was gone for learning the instrument and so were we. Teaching by the rules strictly does not work for all students. Teachers sometimes are teaching for the wrong reasons—to climb the ladder in the music world, choosing only the best students and families, riding on the coattails of their music degrees—it means nothing if you are not KIND human being. You teach as if God is watching you.

Elizabeth Mikols

Gina Devirro said: Jul 29, 2014
 18 posts

What Holly and Elizabeth said!

To expound: here are mine, in order:

  1. Proffesionally trained. Yes, for me, the degree matters. They just have to have mastered their instrument at a pretty high level.

  2. Friendly, accessible, and genuinely fond of kids. My daughter’s current teacher has many playful and fun ways of explaining and demonstrating the minutiae of technique in a way that she can picture in her mind and relate to.

  3. Organized goals and continuity from week to week. If my daughter is introduced to a song or concept which we then work on the following week, I like to see it followed up at the next lesson.

  4. Opportunities to perform and meet other students. Since my daughter has no close friends that do music, it is very helpful to keep her motivated by seeing other kids learning and performing, both more and less advanced than her.

btw, we found our teacher through word of mouth. I had called the local university music department for recommendations.

Anna said: Jul 30, 2014
20 posts

Thanks for sharing, Holly, Elizabeth, and Gina! That certainly gives me some good things to think about and put into practice. I still remember the positive influence that my teachers had on my life and I want to be that for my students.

Robert said: Sep 4, 2014
 17 posts

I attempted to start a new topic, but could not. Perhaps there’s an issue with the server here. So please forgive me for hijacking this already slightly-dated thread.

I’ve often wondered about the essential attributes of a good teacher—especially as I am one! Well, a teacher, anyway. But I don’t teach music. I recently came across a doctoral dissertation by John Cloer, at Teachers College, Columbia University, that examined the approach of Janos Starker, the famed cello teacher from Bloomington, Indiana. I found the paper to be fascinating as a way of thinking about what to look for in a strings teacher, but also about how I teach kids at school.

I can’t remember ever observing a music teacher (private or group) that I’ve had, or that my kids have had, following his regimen. May I ask how his approach compares with what Suzuki teachers learn? Are they mostly the same, or very different?

**** Starker’s Approach ****

-Lesson format: Initial Performance Phase; Assessment/Diagnosis Phase; Instructional Phase (most of the lesson time); Conclusion Phase. (this sequence is repeated at least twice during a lesson).

-Categories For Assessment/Diagnosis and Instruction: Diagnostic Teaching (consisting of physical, mechanical, and technical principles); and Musical Coaching (consisting of musical and communicative principles).

-Instructional Phase: Verbalization (by teacher); Imitative Demonstration (by the teacher); Objective Demonstration (by the teacher); Audiation (teacher and student sing the music); Trial-Error Experimentation (student plays);

-Conclusion Phase: Reiteration of Objectives; Prioritization of Objectives; Assignments; Question/Answer; Scheduling.

This seems like a very structured approach to teaching, and it apparently works well, considering where his former students are now.

*** The Kicker ***

What really caught my attention, though, was the author’s comparison of Starker’s methods to seven other prominent teachers. He found that “only the initial student performance phase was found consistently in all.” And this bothered me the most: “Instructional phases generally did not occupy the largest segment of time and there were no instances of a conclusion phase in any of these lessons.”

Not so bad? It seems to get worse: “The organization and format cycle of the other seven were not discernable and, surprisingly, student-centered instructional phases did not occupy the largest segment of time.”

I kind of wanted to scream at this point. Maybe I did. Aaaaaah! This is normative? But maybe these seven weren’t Suzuki-trained teachers.

If you’ve waded this far, then you must be a teacher. Or, like me, just curious/anal about pedagogy. This paper really made me think about how I teach, and what I should be looking for in a teacher for my daughter. Do Suzuki teachers learn these principles? I haven’t noticed this, so far, and I’ve had Suzuki trained teachers, as has my daughter. Do these things really matter?

I apologize if this is too heavy to post on a parents’ forum, but that’s all I am, in this context. And I want my daughter to get the most she can out of her lessons. And I’m still learning, too.

Thanks for letting me ask, and perhaps vent a bit. I promise not to do it again. Well, not too soon. ;-)

Jennifer Visick said: Sep 6, 2014
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts

Probably the closest thing to what you’re describing in terms of what Suzuki teachers in the U.S. formally learn comes from the SPA1 and the Practicum2 teacher training courses (which not all Suzuki teachers have taken).

SPA style teaching tends to focus on “teaching segments” which occur multiple times each lesson and which sound similar to Starker’s approach as you outlined it above. Teachers are encouraged to evaluate how they are teaching using the SAA’s Performance & Pedagogy Descriptors as a starting point.

However, SPA “segment” style teaching, while it is definitely good and can work well for many teachers and many students, is not the only style of good teaching out there. Teaching styles vary from teacher to teacher, and learning styles vary from student to student. One star is not less stellar than another merely because it does not occupy the same bit of the sky as the other star; similarly, one cannot judge that one person’s standard teaching format is more or less stellar than another merely because the teaching formats differ from each other.

1SPA stands for Suzuki Principles in Action, and is a two-day seminar/workshop held during the school year with teachers making videos of and evaluating their own teaching both before and after the course.

2Practicum is a usually a week-long summer course held at a Suzuki institute requiring teachers to bring home teaching videos which are watched, discussed & evaluated so each teacher receives feedback on how they teach well and how they can improve their teaching format, during the course, as well as requiring observations of other teachers during the institute, focusing on the Teaching & Performance Descriptors during observations.

Robert said: Sep 9, 2014
 17 posts

Thank you for the thoughtful response.

There’s certainly no doubt that there are many ways to teach well. I also find that a very intentional, structured approach helps a lot. I love to watch my wife teach elementary children—she is very structured, and also very child-centered in her approach. She also keeps working hard to take advantage of the latest brain research, and the results of new studies on effective teaching. So she’s constantly refining her teaching practices, and this is after 25 years of teaching. She sometimes expresses sadness that many of her peers don’t want to learn and change. And I wish I was half as skilled!

It seems like these sorts of refinements ought also to be true in teaching students of string instruments, and maybe they are with many teachers. I recently read an interesting doctoral dissertation by Elaine Judith Colprit, wherein she studied the behavior of 12 expert Suzuki teachers. She concluded, “Organization of instructional activities in lesson excerpts seemed to result from teachers’ reacting to the problems encountered in students’ performance of the repertoire rather than from a planned sequence of instructional goals.” I can say that if that was normative for elementary school teachers, the kids would be in really big trouble by the end of the year—and so would their teachers! The kids absolutely have to show progress, compared with established grade-level standards.

So, I guess where I’m wandering, in this wordy reply, is toward wanting to find a teacher who thinks in terms of performance goals, and measurable student progress. The presence of lots of warm fuzzies and frequent feedback don’t seem to do the trick, by themselves. It seems that there must be planning, structure, and measurement. And it should also be fun, or my daughter will become discouraged. Can’t these attributes coexist?

Heather Figi said: Sep 13, 2014
Heather FigiViolin
Eugene, OR
97 posts

This question was recently addressed on the website for D. Coyle, author of the Talent Code:


Here are some of the key points (copied and pasted):

1) They are exceptionally good at small talk.

Most master teachers don’t start sessions by teaching. They start by connecting. They want to chat, to engage, to figure out where you are, who you are, and what makes you tick.

A few years back, Dr. Mark Lepper of Stanford organized an extensive video-based study on the habits of the most successful math tutors, and discovered a curious fact: the best tutors started each session by engaging in idle chat. They talked about the weather, or school, or family — anything but math.

This seems nonsensical, until you consider the role small talk plays in building trust. We do not naturally give our trust to people; small talk is the doorway to trust and learning.

2) They ask LOTS of questions.

We instinctively think of great teachers as repositories of knowledge, and deliverers of brilliant speeches and lectures. This is hugely wrong. From Socrates to John Wooden, great teaching is about asking the right questions, not about providing the answers.

Lepper’s study showed that the most effective tutors spent 80 to 90 percent of their time asking questions. They weren’t dictating the truth, they were doing something far more important: creating a platform where the learner can struggle toward the answers.

Geno Auriemma, coach of UConn’s nine-time national championship women’s basketball team, is particularly good at doing this. From a recent profile:

Here’s the phrase Auriemma utters most often to his players at practice. “Figure it out!” he bawls.

If he says it once, he says it a hundred times. He halts practice every time a kid looks at him quizzically, and asks, “What do I do here?”

“Figure it out,” he insists. “What do you think you should do here? Why do you need me to tell you all the time what to do here?”

3) They have a good sense of humor.

Yes, there are a few ultra-serious teachers out there who rarely crack a smile (I’m looking at you, ballet teachers), but the vast majority of master teachers use humor the same way you might employ a Swiss Army knife: as a multi-purpose social tool. Humor can defuse tension, create common ground, and build bonds. In other words, being funny isn’t just funny — it’s also smart.

Which brings us to the next question: what other skills should we add to this list? What fundamental skills did your best teachers possess, and how did they make you better? I’m eager to see what you think.

Robert said: Sep 24, 2014
 17 posts


In the absence of more informed comments, I’ll add a bit more.

Absolutely agree with the need for humor, dialog, and questioning. The brain is so much more than a sponge.

The latest brain research shows the importance of the amygdala in learning. That’s simply something that wasn’t known just a few decades ago. Quoting from Judy Willis, a neurologist and middle school teacher (interesting combination, no?), “the amygdala also is stimulated…when students are in a positive emotional state with feelings of contentment, joy, play, and a comfortable, but stimulating, amount of challenge.” Much of her book, “Research-based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning,” addresses ways to improve learning by recognizing the crucial role played by this little part of the brain.

Constructivist pedagogy emphasizes the role of the student in making meaning of what s/he is learning. I very much appreciated a cello teacher I had who would often ask me to analyze what I’d just played, and identify what I’d done well, and what could have been better. Some teachers simply point everything out. I found her approach much more helpful, and essential in good teaching.

I still remember visiting a teacher who was musically phenomenal, but might have been helped by using a more constructivist approach. I was playing a piece for her that was still challenging for me. “That note was flat!” she loudly exclaimed, about half-way through the piece. I stopped. “You’re right,” I replied. “I struggle with that extension.” “Well, you need to play every note in tune,” she replied. I carried on, now much more tensely. Before I left, I asked a rather impertinent question. “Do you struggle with perfectionism?” She replied, “I used to, but I got over it.” Or not.

Deena Mathew said: Sep 25, 2014
 5 posts

As a teacher you need to hold yourself to the same expectations and standards as you hold your students. A teacher must be willing to change their teaching if half the class does not understand a particular concept, then you cannot move on and must quickly come up with a better way to teach that concept. Teacher has to be compassionate and recognizing that your students have problems outside of school and making the necessary adjustment to help them through those issues.

Heather Figi said: Sep 26, 2014
Heather FigiViolin
Eugene, OR
97 posts

Thanks Robert—I love hearing about research in how specific areas of the brain are used so especially appreciated your note here.

Happy music making!

Jennifer Visick said: Nov 12, 2014
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts

Robert wrote:

So, I guess where I’m wandering, in this wordy reply, is toward wanting to find a teacher who thinks in terms of performance goals, and measurable student progress. The presence of lots of warm fuzzies and frequent feedback don’t seem to do the trick, by themselves. It seems that there must be planning, structure, and measurement. And it should also be fun, or my daughter will become discouraged. Can’t these attributes coexist?

Well, yes, I think they can, and do, in many good teachers, both Suzuki-style trained teachers and many other kinds of teachers, too.

Robert also writes:

She concluded, “Organization of instructional activities in lesson excerpts seemed to result from teachers’ reacting to the problems encountered in students’ performance of the repertoire rather than from a planned sequence of instructional goals.” I can say that if that was normative for elementary school teachers, the kids would be in really big trouble by the end of the year—and so would their teachers! The kids absolutely have to show progress, compared with established grade-level standards.

I’m not sure what the problem you’re driving at is.

  1. private lessons are not elementary school classes. A classroom teacher has to and should teach differently to a class than they do to a single student. That’s the point: private lessons are much more customizable than a class is, right?

  2. leading off of that—private lessons can be and, in my opinion, should be, more diagnostic than class lessons—more like a doctor’s appointment, more like having a personal trainer, less like attending a p.e. or general health ed. class—where the doctor pays attention to my specific problems, that have come up in my life, at the point that I am at in my life.

  3. Yes, a private lesson is not a doctor’s appointment—and yes, there should be a planned sequence of instructional goals integrated into private lessons—but that’s part of the curriculum being studied, right? I can APPEAR to respond in private lessons to the problems encountered in student’s performance of the repertoire while having carefully planned for the student to encounter those problems as part of the sequence of instructional goals.

What I mean is (for example): Suzuki student plays “Song of the Wind” for me, the third song in Suzuki Volume 1. As a teacher, who both knows the problems this song will present which are different from the previous two songs, and who knows how this student dealt with problems in the previous two songs, I can plan how and when this student will encounter problems in Song of the Wind. I have a sequence of instructional goals in mind, and letting the student encounter such-and-such a problem in Song of the Wind allows me to teach the next set of goals while simultaneously “responding to the problems”—which Suzuki set up by placing those songs in that order, and which I allow the student to encounter, in that order.

Because you can’t open up a student’s head and pour your planned set of instructional goals into their mind and heart and muscle memory, the way that you can carefully add ingredients to a blender in just the right order.

The student has to come to you and open the door of their own mind (these doors do open outward, not inward, you know: and they don’t have handles on the outside: so you can’t pull them open from outside, and pushing on them only closes them more tightly).

One way to get the student to open their door and invite you in to teach them is to allow the student to encounter a problem and have them realize how difficult it is, and that they need a teacher, and then they come to the lesson and have this problem. Responding to a problem in a student’s performance: that’s an open door.

In other words … the planned sequence of instructional goals is intrinsic to the order in which the music is presented in the Suzuki book. So it’s no surprise that a Suzuki teacher is responding to a student’s problems in performing the repertoire… the secret is that the repertoire isn’t random. It’s the repertoire that’s been carefully planned.

One of the reasons people become Suzuki teachers is because they see how well-planned the early repertoire is to carefully present challenges to a student in a certain order.

And the fact that a student can move at their own pace that is right for them is a benefit, not a drawback, of private lessons. The student can move faster than the “grade level standards” or slower; the teacher can set challenges according to the student’s abilities and developmental readiness; there can be objective evaluations and performances; but the student can also be an individual.

Nick said: Nov 13, 2014
 3 posts

Great comments all over this thread!
I guess this also holds for online teachers and subscriptions to lessons.
However, it is hard to find out these things before you pay..
You see many online music lessons being offered nowadays, but I don’t know much specific or specialized online Suzuki classes.
Traveling for me is out of the question unfortunately.

Robert said: Nov 13, 2014
 17 posts


Thanks very much for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully to my concerns. I think perhaps my one vice in life is that I keep asking questions—about nearly everything! Sometimes this isn’t helpful, but occasionally it turns out to be very helpful.

These questions arose out of the intersection of four different experiences/sources: 1) Watching my daughter study with Suzuki-trained teachers; 2) Learning to play, from Suzuki-trained teachers; 3) Learning to teach children, from a well-regarded university, and in the classroom; and 4) Reading two doctoral dissertations about the teaching practices of strings teachers. More than anything, the questions came out of the two dissertations, one of which specifically addressed Suzuki teaching methods. So they’re not really my questions, as much as those of some highly-experienced researchers.

I hope I correctly understood your responses. I believe you’re saying that the repertoire is the structure, is that right? And that a lesson is more about troubleshooting than presenting new material. I believe this is in line with the findings of Dr. Colprit. She found that most Suzuki teaching is reactive, rather than proactive. According to Dr. Cloer, some of the teaching of Janos Starker might be described this way, but this seemed to be only one component of his highly-structured approach.

There’s no doubt that one-on-one teaching is the best possible environment for differentiated instruction. But every good classroom teacher also differentiates, to take each student as far as possible. Grade-level standards are only a minimum. I want every student to go as far as possible—especially in reading and math. Each and every student is indeed treated as an individual, even when there are 29 other students. So this seems to be something shared by the Suzuki studio and the healthy school classroom. It’s just much more difficult with many children in the class. And it certainly doesn’t prevent the inclusion of finding joy in learning!

Maybe this conclusion by Dr. Colprit did the most to make me wonder: “Most surprising was the low mean rate of successful student performance trials and the infrequency of repeated successful student performance trials. Given the high rates of positive teacher feedback, it appears that teachers evaluated student performance more positively than did the observers who evaluated student performance by the criteria used in this study.” This was the observed outcome in “48 violin and cello lessons taught by 12 expert Suzuki string teachers.” Hence, my questions about the potential value of a more highly-structured, purpose-driven pedagogy. I don’t think these are frivolous concerns or questions, but I admit I don’t have the answers, either.

Also thought-provoking was the study by John Cloer, at Teacher’s College, Columbia University (which I consider to be the very apex of teacher training and research). He states, “Starker’s teaching is significantly different than any other experienced by this researcher and unique in its effectiveness, organization, intensity, and impact.” And Starker was extremely structured, as I mentioned in a previous post. If you haven’t read these dissertations, you might find them interesting. Maybe you’ll find them to be filled with bad assumptions or conclusions, but they made me stop and think a lot about how I might help my daughter best learn to play the violin. And how I might become better at playing the cello, too.

And thanks for allowing a parent to ask such “impertinent” questions here.


Hello all,

Robert, could you explain what you personally would classify as reactive vs proactive teaching with a couple of concrete examples? Also, would you mind detailing the criteria used to judge student performances in Dr. Colprit’s research (and perhaps give a bit of her background as well?) Lastly, how many strings teachers have you (and/or your daughter) had and how would you describe your learning experience (and/or that of your daughter) with those teachers?

Robert said: Nov 13, 2014
 17 posts

I’m really not the one claiming that there’s reactive and proactive teaching out there. That was the finding of the research paper. I don’t know Dr. Colprit, but found her research to be interesting. I thought that the paper by Dr. Cloer was perhaps even more interesting, because of the unique approach used by Janos Starker, and because I play the cello. If you have trouble locating these dissertations, I might be able to help.

I’ve been privileged to study under three excellent teachers long-term, two of whom learned and practiced Suzuki methods. I’ve been in shorter workshops with excellent teachers as well. My daughter has studied under two teachers privately, and two more in a group setting. I don’t know whether all were Suzuki certified, but at least two of them are. I think they are all very good teachers. So, if it sounds like I’m attacking these teachers, I’m not.

But I think a lot about pedagogy, and about how to teach more effectively. I also have frequent conversations with my wife about teaching methods. I’m always wondering how to be better at teaching, and how to help my daughter become the best she can be. Sometimes I feel blown away by what I find out about new research in teaching. My wife spent part of the summer at Columbia University, where Dr. Cloer studied, and came home feeling overwhelmed and amazed by what she’d learned. And she was already a fabulous teacher! I guess Suzuki teachers must have similar experiences at workshops they attend.

Here’s Dr. Colprit’s bio: http://www.bgsu.edu/musical-arts/faculty-and-staff/elaine-colprit.html
And Dr. Cloer’s: http://coaa.uncc.edu/people/john-cloer

And I’m starting to regret opening this can of worms…

Heather Figi said: Nov 14, 2014
Heather FigiViolin
Eugene, OR
97 posts

I just have to say that I love these topics and all of this food for thought. Thank you everyone for taking the time and energy to share. These are great things to think about.

I also spend my mental moments on pondering how I can teach better. One thing I make an effort to do on a regular basis is be a beginner.

Last Saturday I took a Samba dance class—I am not a samba dancer, I have no dance background so this was a true beginner experience for me.

It was both thrilling and baffling to be a beginner student—In this experience we can study our unique reactions to being a beginner and a student:

- What ignites you
- What overwhelms you
- What words click in your learning
- How do you receive the teacher’s ideas
- What makes you check out?

I think teachers will get some of their richest professional development by arranging things like this for themselves from time to time.

Just my 2 cents. Again, thanks—I think these are compelling ideas being presented.

Paul Reynolds said: Nov 15, 2014
 7 posts

I think being perceptive is perhaps the most important thing in being a good teacher. Everyone student has his/her own unique character, background (history), and ways of learning and setting personal goals etc…. A great teacher not only is knowledgeable and knows their stuff, but is keenly aware of how a student will react to the teachers words of wisdom.
A great teacher can connect with any student and inspire, persuade, correct, and open that student’s ears through careful use of the spoken language and musical demonstration. Some students crave left brain analytical descriptions while others react well to humor and a more playful atmosphere.
A great teacher is adaptive and always has the highest standards and expectations for each individual student. For some, the sky is the limit, but for-lets say a beginner adult in their 50’s— goals and expectations are on a different scale.
A great teacher is confidant in their ideas and believe in their approach to string playing and has a history of knowing what is right and what works because of experience and their “Pedagogical ‘bloodline’”. Usually they possess a good reputation/track record. There is a “religious” feeling to lessons- in the sense that the student has complete faith In what they are being taught. Later, if they go and study elsewhere, they can take what they believed in from the previous teacher, but might eventually drop a few things- if the new teacher’s way of doing things works better for him/her. Not that the old teacher was wrong, but was SO right that comparing the two ways would be an “apples to oranges comparison”. Just too different— because…..
All great teachers cannot fight or disagree on rhythm, intonation, general dynamics written, straight bow, good sound, working set up, anything relating to real physics etc…. these are things are black and white. Things that are interpretive are phrasing, sound quality, vibrato use, actual dynamics- relative to what the previous dynamic played was, tempo, bow distribution- when thinking about weight vs/bow speed etc ….
In conclusion, the best teachers possess a sensitive and/or perceptive quality toward each individual student and knows how to discipline them, verbally speak and connect to each individual through words and demonstration. They should also have a strong unwavering conviction in what they feel is right (and an incredible amount of patience). :)
…….just my 2 cents. www.wristrascal.com cheers.

Kristiina said: Aug 15, 2016
 7 posts
  1. I agree that kindness is the most important. Genuine love of children and music. If you have personal problems, love music and children so much that the teachingtime is a relief for you instead of a burden to just make money. It isnt easy, but the children know if there is genuine intrest or not.

  2. Ability to change teaching techniques to be suitable for every child. Demand more when the child is able and demand less if the child is not able to do everything. If you can see the child will not be a professional musician, dont expect the same standards. It is too boring to play twinkle for 3 years and still have the feeling of no success. On the other hand be flexible enough to let a gifted child do things which are advanced. Dont bore either one. Let them play violin early. Dont just follow a teaching principle regardless of what happens, instead adjust.

  3. Be able to confront in your mind problems that you encounter when teaching and think ways to solve them. Be creative.

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