What Is Self-handicapping And How Does It Affect Your Teaching?

While reading the book ‘Blackbox Thinking’ I came across a theory known as self-handicapping. “Self-handicapping is a cognitive strategy by which people avoid effort in the hopes of keeping potential failure from hurting self-esteem. It was first theorized by Edward E. Jones and Steven Berglas, according to whom self-handicaps are obstacles created, or claimed, by the individual in anticipation of failing performance.” – Wikipedia.

How does this apply to us as guitar teachers?

Students will often self-handicap early on by making sure they have competing priorities. This may at first seem subtle but if you are aware you will notice it. We all do it and yes that includes me. Think about how we create convenient excuses around why we can’t do something. We create narratives that justify our failure. “It wasn’t me. The circumstances (which I created but won’t acknowledge) prevented me from succeeding.” As an example I hear teachers using the excuse that the reason their school is struggling is because students don’t practice.

What does this suggest about you and your teaching?

Now the self-handicapping concept would suggest you have created a situation where your students generally don’t practice. It becomes a convenient excuse for the failure of your business. The danger is we don’t even realise we have set it up. We tell ourselves that to stay in business we have to lower our standards and expectations of our students. We tell ourselves that if we don’t pander to our students we won’t have any students. We also keep ourselves distracted with marketing for new students rather than addressing the issue of practice with the students we have. We even tell ourselves that our job is to entertain our students and make the lessons fun. We convince ourselves that all teachers have students who don’t practice and that’s just how it is. We use this excuse to keep us from looking for real solutions or taking risks by trying out new and bold strategies.

We know it’s true but choose to ignore it

We know instinctively this can’t be true of course because there are too many examples of teachers who are successful. Joe Satriani had a simple rule for his students. “Don’t come back until you have done the practice.” From my understanding they either did the practice and turned up the next week or they never came back again. Satriani did not have the issue of students not practicing. His standards would never allow it.

Ignoring the problem comes at a cost

So if 90% of your students aren’t meeting the minimums and practicing what they should be practicing you need to ask yourself if you are using this as an excuse i.e. self-handicapping. Look closely at your students and ask yourself if they are meeting your standards. If not do something about it. Challenge yourself to step up. The cost of not stepping up is ending up a mediocre teacher at best. At worst…

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