How to Know if You’re Good Enough to Teach…?

How to Know if You're Good Enough to Teach?

Have you ever thought:

“I’m not good enough,” or “I’m just a student”?

Does that ever stop you from teaching or doing something that you would’ve done… if you were “good enough”?

I’ve got to admit that I never used to think I was good enough.

I kept thinking I’d apply for this and that when I get my next ______. It would always be later, when I’m good enough.

I want to say that my first formal teaching position practically fell into my lap, but that’s not true– I had to work for it.

But, how do you know you’re not “just a student” anymore, and you’re ready to go on and teach?

When are you “good enough”?

Once, I had an almost-epiphany.

I was in a math class, and the professor had a PhD in math. I’d taken university calculus in high school, so I knew most of the material.

Good for me, because he spoke alien. He made everything more complicated than it needed to be.

He was nice and he was great at doing math, but he couldn’t teach. It wasn’t just what he said, it was the way he explained things.

If you asked for directions to the washroom, he’d probably tell you to “Exit through those doors and enter the university from the West-End. Then, wait in line at the office for the washroom keys, and go down the hallway.”

It turns out there’s a public washroom right behind you, but he’d probably forgotten all about that since he only ever used the properly private washrooms.

He’d tell you to shake a Coke 30 different ways to fizz it up when you can just stick a Mento in there to make it explode.

I went to every lecture, bemused while copying his notes and remembering how I’d learned the material, in an easier way. And thinking how I’d explain it again to my friend beside me, who had trouble with math in the first place, without his mumbo-jumbo.

That’s when it hit me hard. There are many, many different ways to teach. That professor knew his math, but he didn’t know how to teach. Doing something doesn’t mean you can teach it, and vice versa.

Are you right for teaching?

Teaching is an art itself– it takes practice. Playing flawlessly doesn’t mean you’re an amazing teacher.

Some people seem like they’re just naturally great teachers, but really they’ve just had more practice. It’s like being a comedian.

Did you know that by the time comedians step onstage, they’ve told their jokes hundreds of times already?

Not kidding. The jokes are funny because those people spend hours tweaking and perfecting the jokes so they get just the right amount of laughter each time. It’s like a pianist performing onstage.

It looks easy, but it’s not. They just have a good sense of their glass walls and you’ll never know that they’re sweating under their suits.

Not everyone can be an amazing teacher right away. Heck, most people are only comfortable teaching certain age groups.

What’s the minimum level?

You don’t need a whole bunch of degrees.

In fact, I know people with a whole bunch of music degrees and they STILL don’t think they’re ‘good enough’ to teach. There will always be doubt.

With that being said, it’s generally acceptable to be at a grade 8 or 9 (RCM) level to start teaching beginners in Classical music.

You want to easily sight read beginner pieces and know the concepts well enough to teach.

Of course, if you have another skill like improv, then by all means, start running jam sessions.

At one point, I would’ve jumped at jam sessions– I was trying to figure out a jazz piece when I finally realized that I couldn’t improvise anything without embarrassing myself.

Teachers don’t actually know everything. It’s totally alright to keep a music dictionary handy. It just means that the world of music is so big that you can’t possibly store everything in that great head of yours.

That’s also why prepping for lessons can take a while; you have to know the material well and you have to plan to teach it well.

Should you learn or teach?

That’s always the question. Should you get “good enough,” or start teaching? How about “get better” for free?

If you’re even considering teaching, but you’re telling yourself that you’re not “good enough”, then you’re just holding yourself back. And that means you should go for it.

We should always be growing in one way or another. Like, some of the most technically-dazzling pianists I know can’t improvise. Which is a shame, because it’s like being unable to speak a language unless it’s scripted.

There’s always something new to grow with and you don’t have to do it through a new degree or diploma. There are online courses that you can do at your own pace in topics like business (I don’t have any experience with these, but I’ve heard great things about some… just make sure the instructor is reputable). You can even get some new vibes, or free motivation.

Plus, you can keep reading my writing and being in the Artiden community. That always helps you grow. ;)

The big idea is, if you’re even asking if you’re good enough to teach, then you are probably good enough. The question is whether you’re ready to teach.

When you’re a total beginner and you have no business teaching anyone anything, then you’ll be so focussed on doing that you won’t even think about teaching.

So you’ll know, when you start wondering if you should teach, is when you should be teaching.

The point where you’re “too good” and you don’t grow anymore is where you’ll fall off the tracks.

What’s Next?

SO, I’m going to publish a series of posts about teaching piano, and I want to know…

Do you teach piano? If so, how did you start? If not, what’s holding you back?

Just leave a comment below to join the conversation!

And, if you know anyone who will find this useful, go ahead and send it to them.

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  • Lynne June 10, 2013 at 10:54 am

    This is great – the idea of “am I good enough is one that applies to both teachers and students alike”. I love your point about looking stuff up in a music dictionary; I keep loads of dictionaries about my piano, and have no shame in looking things up (I’m terrible at remembering similar sounding foreign terms). In fact, I think it’s actually a good example to show that I don’t know everything but I do know how to look it up.
    Hugely looking forward to your series on piano teaching!

    • Grace Miles June 11, 2013 at 6:59 pm

      True! Sometimes, knowing how to look it up is more important than knowing it… instead of knowing just one sometimes-mundane fact, you’ll know how to get hundreds of them plus you get to focus on other things like musicality (which you can’t memorize). And yes, it does set a good example– these days, there’s so much info that the most successful people don’t know the most, but they know how to use the most, in the best ways. In other words, the meaning of “smart” is changing, don’t you think?

      • Irina January 15, 2014 at 12:52 am

        So I was troubled by this question of being good enough for quite some time now..and recently I got a
        Pretty smart student and got even more doubtful about my qualifications.. This is very encouraging tho:) thank you for writing this. Also, how do I test my skills by the RTC standards?

  • Lynn June 10, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    I started teaching piano by accident. I have a Master of Arts in music, flute and conducting emphasis amd was a band director and private flute instructor for many years. After my daughter was born, our family moved and I was having trouble breaking into the flute lessons market after laying out for a few years. People at church asked me if I taught piano so I decided to give it a try. Wow-after much research, a pedagogy class at our local college, a great local MTA and a hunger for learning (all my ideas are stolen from other teachers), I love my new career and feel I am a pretty good teacher with lots of room for improvement, of course. My playing is definitely not where it should be, which bothers me tremendously. I can sightread early intermediate to intermediate literature well enough but never had enough piano lessons to become really proficient. This is a journey and, with plans for continued lessons and maybe returning to college one day for a pedagogy degree, I hope to offer my students as much as I can.

    • Grace Miles June 11, 2013 at 7:35 pm

      Love this. Really connecting with people will get you places. And you’re in a great place right now– you’ve got lots of room to grow and you’re ready to do it.

  • Leia June 11, 2013 at 1:40 am

    I’ve always wondered this about myself :)

  • JohnW June 11, 2013 at 7:44 am

    You’re article is great! With personal experience, I have attended masterclasses as a student in the audience with the ‘mentor’ teacher being able to play these amazing things and yet couldn’t explain the simplest concept to the person at the bench. So I have seen it with my own eyes..just b/c you can play anything doesn’t make you a good teacher (and vice versa).
    I am a fairly new piano teacher, but through observation and applying my own methods myself while practicing, I’ve gotten better at ‘teaching’. Working with beginners, you have to be careful as to what you say (as they, not knowing anything yet, may take your word as authority) but it helps to let them know while you have experience you don’t have all the answers. The music dictionary is a perfect example, and it helps to be humble about it, as the role of teacher. (nothing worse than the arrogant teacher like the masterclass example above). I started teaching others who were curious in high school, then I talked with the local music teachers in the area, who knew of my playing, but I asked them how to build up a studio. Music stores weren’t hiring someone like me, (even with a degree in music ed. and performance) so it ended up being a new local arts Academy that just opened up and they brought one student to me and then now I have about ten. By now, after two recitals, my students can play simple pieces and know how to read music! And I learn from each lesson (what I did and what I can do better) as well as from my students who ask basic questions I never thought about before. It’s all about research, networking, and not being afraid to start teaching instead of doubting it. But yes, it’s very important to how you say something, as saying one thing to a 5 year old isn’t the same as when I speak to my adult student! And yet, you should also be able to explain a concept 5+ different ways, if the person doesn’t quite understand the first time. Hope this helps!

    • Grace Miles June 12, 2013 at 5:34 pm

      Great points, John. Being able to explain something 5 different ways is a quick check for yourself… and sometimes seeing things from a new perspective is eye-opening. It’s also important to talk about goals with students, so you can help steer to the right direction.
      Thanks for sharing– I’m sure you’ve helped someone out.

      Would you have done anything differently, knowing what you do now?

      • John June 12, 2013 at 7:40 pm

        Thanks for the words of encouragement! I think if I had to do things differently, knowing I wanted to be a music teacher, I probably should have bypassed the public school route (or while trying to get a music positions everywhere) at the same time, really talk with people/local private teachers and networked more (could’ve in the summers when I visited home, before I graduated) so I would’ve starting teaching beginning students earlier to see what it was like. It wasn’t that I doubted my abilities, it’s just I put more emphasis on finding that Full time job right away, than really thinking if I would be happy doing it at the time. Although I also believe you have to do a lot of things you realize you don’t like in order to weed out the things to find your true calling. The kids in the schools were great, but sadly, treated a music class as something “extra”, and not important; I’m noticing you get more out of them with one-on-one instruction (and maybe since their parents are paying for those lessons!)

  • Marla June 11, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    I “fell” into teaching through my former piano teacher, who needed a fill-in while she had major surgery. I had been her most advanced student and she felt I would be okay to handle her students for a month. It was an eye-opening experience and scary, too! I was only 16 years old and some of the kids were my age and had to listen and do what I said! But, that instilled a love of teaching in me and it is what I have been doing (with a few breaks) since the age of 16 – and I love it!

  • carol September 5, 2015 at 1:52 am

    Started teaching from age 16. I was asked to pick up the Band Director’s son from school one day. I had to also practice piano before going to my piano lesson that afternoon too. He asked if I could teach his son a few simple things on the piano while waiting until his mother picks him later. I said sure. I felt so proud of him that he picked up the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ so fast and he wanted me to teach him more! That got me thinking. The Band Director was shocked. From that day on, I was not only being paid to watch him for a few hours, but also got paid to teach piano. I was hooked. Today, that little boy is a lawyer with 2 children of his own. And never stopped teaching. That was in 1979.