The Power of Personal Experience

musicBy Sabrina Bong — At the middle school last week, one of my students came to me and said that she had just failed a quiz in music theory.
She explained that she was confused when her teacher tried to explain the different notes on a scale and where they fell on a staff. After drawing out examples, my student asked if we could go into the music room and have me explain everything using the piano. Once we received permission, we went into the music room and we talked about the different piano keys, where all of them were on a staff, and how many beats each note counted as.
After a few minutes of this, my student said, “Miss Bong, do you know how to play the piano?”
I responded that I did take piano lessons for a long time when I was in elementary and high school, and that I had struggled with music theory as well. My student smiled and said, “Play something.” So I played “Let It Be” on the piano.
After that, two things happened: one, my student said she had no idea who the Beatles were (doesn’t that make me feel old!) and two, she said, “Wow, Miss Bong, you’re kinda cool. I didn’t know you could do that! Maybe I’ll learn how to do that too. And you said you didn’t like music theory.”
Whenever I work with my students, I do my best to keep my personal life out of my counseling life. There are times when it overlaps, like when a student goes out to dinner with their family and sees me three tables over. Or maybe they run into me when I’m at the mall. But for the most part, I try not to do a lot of revealing about my family, friends, and personal relationships.
However, I’ve seen how much revealing can do, when used in moderation. Simply telling my student that I too struggled with music theory allowed her to open up to me about her situation. She knew that I wouldn’t judge her, or laugh at her, or make her feel silly. And then having her see me play the piano seemed to reassure her that she was okay. She may not have done well on her one quiz, but this did not mean that she would be completely unable to do well in music. Despite my struggles, I still learned how to play the piano. It seemed like I was giving her hope.
I am still leery at times to reveal personal things about myself, but now I’ve realized that it can really help build a counseling relationship when it’s used appropriately. I see now that it’s okay for me to tell students that I struggled with math when I was in elementary school, or that I sometimes fought with my middle school friends. All it does is help the students realize that once upon a time, I really was in their shoes. I’d walked that road before. But now, it’s my turn to help navigate.

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