A fine line 2.0 (Kimberly Barber, May 2022)

Last week’s post seemed to generate some interest amongst readers (thanks for writing, folks!), so I thought I’d keep riffing on this business of line-drawing in the teacher-student relationship. It’s a fine line we walk when we deal with the psyche and emotions of those we teach. And let’s not forget that these pandemic times have made all of us more fragile. So the work is delicate. We need to be gentle, but also build inner strength and confidence. We need to coach our students to harness their own considerable power and wisdom, make them believe and KNOW that they can do this, and equip them with the tools to do it. Sometimes this involves drying their tears, listening to their challenges and trials and offering a comforting word. So much for the obvious.

Artists are creative beings, many of them (all?) deeply sensitive and often emotionally needy types. We need a lot of support and encouragement to do what we do. For myself personally, I know I thrive best and do my finest work when I am in an environment where I feel validated, and dare I say: loved. I also know that I have spent my entire artistic life (and thereby pretty much my entire adulthood) doing deep personal work to build resilience, self-knowledge and self-reliance. I know too how much I have leaned on the support and compassion of wonderful mentors, teachers, coaches, family and friends. We often say (amongst my teacher friends and colleagues) that it takes a village to build a singer. But!

Where it gets trickier is when co-dependence develops. The student needs endless life-coaching and quasi-therapy sessions that hijack their lesson time. They need lots of extra meetings, extensions to deadlines (OK, that one is not necessarily a boundary issue, but it can be), they demand–and expect–endless encouragement, even when they aren’t really doing the work. And as a sensitive artist oneself, the teacher can get pulled into this relationship dynamic because it feels good to be the one doing the saving. We feel needed. Loved. Respected. Valued. But these needs can become a bottomless pit. Ultimately, no therapist or teacher in the world can fill it. The meaningful work of exchange and sharing between teacher and learner becomes poisoned with aching need and the desire to fulfill it. So we have to be brave and learn how to discern when the line is being crossed. And when it is, we need to be clear about where that line is and gently, but firmly, DRAW IT.