Frustrated with How to Discipline Students?
Gently Give Them "The Feather"!

Frustrated with How to Discipline Students? Gently Give Them "The Feather"!

In these days of political correctness, I find it difficult to know how to "discipline" my students when they are behaving badly or doing something wrong. I have struggled with this issue for over thirty-five years, ever since I started teaching privately while still an undergraduate music major. We've all heard the stories of teachers who rapped students' knuckles with rulers or pencils, humiliated them verbally, or worse.

I recently discovered a tool that has made my life as a private music teacher much easier. But before I explain how you can have a similar one for just a few cents, I want to relate some of the worst memories from my childhood of teachers who behaved improperly. Sad though it is, these teachers have motivated me to not repeat their wrongs and to search for better ways to deal with students who sometimes behave poorly.

Frustrated with How to Discipline Students? Gently Give Them "The Feather"!

When I was in school my classmates and I were very unlucky to have several teachers whose bad behavior would hopefully get them fired in a heartbeat in today's schools. Here's a list of suspects, all guilty: First, the shop teacher who built specially-designed paddles with holes cut in them to produce aerodynamically faster, and thus more painful, paddling. He would have a student place his chest on a waist-high shop table, exposing his back side to a paddling in front of the whole class. (That same teacher once flipped the light switch on and off quickly in succession while ironically proclaiming that this sort of activity wasted electricity.) Second, there was the normally docile gymnastics teacher who one day made the entire gym class do an excessive and painful number of sit-ups, far more than ever before, for no apparent reason. We students clearly felt punished but were clueless as to why. To this day I cannot explain it. Third is my least favorite teacher, the one who verbally accosted his gym, basketball, baseball, and football students, using fear for motivation. He was a terrible and imposing bully with the physique of a football guard. Oddly, he could be remarkably gentle and sweet at other times, making him the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde of the school. The principal was an alcoholic. (He later became a recovered alcoholic thankfully.) One of the English teachers who was normally nice - but dry - allegedly once fired a shotgun at a passing car. When I recall these poorly-behaved teachers and all of the fearful events associated with them, it is no wonder that I found the afterlife of undergraduate studies so relatively blissful.

It was a small school that was out of control. I have not compared it with other schools at the time, but my guess is that some of this behavior was not all that unusual for the times (mid-seventies). The school was shut down decades ago, ostensibly due to low enrollment.

Frustrated with How to Discipline Students? Gently Give Them "The Feather"!

Of course there were many good teachers too. My particular favorite was the teacher who taught us physics and did a wonderful job, admitting courageously that he had never actually taken a physics class himself. This sort of honestly and openness is rare of course, and I personally found it noble. His humility, in the face of the challenge of having to teach something unfamiliar, was all the more impressive when he succeeded. He earned my respect and I am thankful to have his example to emulate.

I have related these stories because I want to depict the cauldron from which my own teaching style has emerged. I have always used non-violent methods when teaching my students, though it has been a very difficult challenge at times, especially when I'm faced with students who don't behave the best.

Recently, by complete coincidence, a truly wonderful teaching tool dropped into my lap - almost literally! I was walking down the street and noticed a feather on the ground. I hadn't seen one in quite some time. That's probably why I was compelled to pick it up and bring it to my business office.

Frustrated with How to Discipline Students? Gently Give Them "The Feather"!

There was nothing remarkable about this feather - it was quite drab actually: It was mostly gray, darker on one end, turning gradually lighter towards the quill end. It was soft, as are all feathers I have ever touched. Without much more thought, I attached it to the bulletin board, in the space between the cork and the wood frame, with a firm jab.

The feather stayed there, motionless, untouched, and unused, until one of my younger private music students noticed it. I removed it from its resting place and let the student touch it. That's when the thought entered my brain: "Use it to benevolently tickle your students to remind them that they're doing something wrong or to get their attention." That was a revelation! But almost immediately a cautionary thought came like a flash: "Might not tickling be thought to be a form of torture?" I thought it could be, but it would depend on the intention. Mine was to use the feather in a positive way, as a reminder, to change a behavior, to get a student's attention. The main purpose of the feather was to remind my private music students, while playing the piano or guitar, to use their hands, fingers, arms, head, shoulders, legs, feet, and torso correctly - good, solid body position for musicians.

I decided to start using the feather in this way. I was astonished at how well it worked, without any hint of the terrible examples of discipline that some of my teachers had used. It has become a remarkable tool that has been accepted by students and parents alike. It has also brought a welcome note of brevity to otherwise serious music lessons.

At first I just used the feather as I found it, plain and simple. Later I attached it to a plastic straw with a piece of tape. That made it easier to use at a distance. The students loved this idea! Then came the next addition: I attached the opposite end of the straw to a pencil. Remarkably, the straw's diameter was the perfect size to fit over the eraser-side of the pencil. The result is a pencil and feather with over a foot of reach. You can write with it, tickle with it, point and reach with it. I discovered it can also double as a conducting baton, which students also welcomed. Most students fancy the idea of being a conductor and that's the perfect motivation for learning how to conduct meters with two, three, and four beats. It's brilliant!

Constructing this super tool is easy. I'm sure you can figure this out without any directions. I disinfected my feather by spraying it with rubbing alcohol and letting it gradually evaporate until it was dry.

Try it - you'll like it! It's the best all-around writing, conducting, pointing, and disciplining tool I have ever used! Just make sure you don't use it in a negative way. Heck - you can even use it as a magic wand! (Kids adore that too!)


Jeff Anvinson, owner/operator of JLA Music

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