Monday, September 5, 2011

Piano Parent Tip: Know and Respect Your Teacher's Make-Up Policy

Graphic by Marco Buonvino
Labor Day seems like an appropriate time to take on a subject that creates additional labor for piano teachers:  make-up lessons.  There's a wide continuum of policies among piano teachers about making up missed lessons. On one end is the teacher who will bend over backwards to make parents happy, even if it means giving up personal time and making financial sacrifices. On the other end is the teacher who makes no accommodations for missed lessons. Your own teacher's policy will depend on several things including the number of students he/she teaches and how full the schedule is, the presence or absence of a waiting list, and their own personality.

Over the years, I have found that parents often haven't thought through what they're really asking when they ask me to make up missed lessons. For instance, I had a parent once who wanted her two boys to be able to reschedule lessons for a month due to a sports schedule. I had already told my daughter that she could not sign up for soccer because the practices met during my teaching time which happened to be during these boys' lessons. It was now too late to sign my daughter up for soccer - we had already made the sacrifice. So, now that I'd already irretrievably dedicated one slot of time to this family, she wanted another time as well - which could only be taken from my personal time since my teaching schedule was full. In short, she wanted the ability to make some other activity a priority over piano, and she did not mind asking me and my family to be inconvenienced to facilitate it. Teachers who agree to demands like this become burned out. Quite often, their next course of action is to adopt a very strict no make-up policy because they've grown very tired of trying to make a studio full of over-scheduled families happy at their own expense.

I had another family once who wanted to take a month-long vacation and simply pay no tuition while they were gone. This would have resulted in a significant financial sacrifice on my part as I had no way to recoup the lost income. I can't just stick another student in that slot for a month and then kick him out once the original student returns. Even if I had not had a waiting list at the time (I did, which made this request absurd), I would not have agreed to it.  If I allow one family to do this, I'd have to extend that policy to all, and this would mean that any of my students could come and go as they pleased with no financial obligation. I can't run a business that way. Better to refuse and risk losing that student but maintain the integrity of my policy and the stability of my income.

Teachers also struggle with the fact that we have a very short number of after-school hours to devote to teaching. I usually try to fill up all of my available teaching time, which means that if a student is sick, I simply don't have an open time to shift them to unless I resort to using my personal time. The more students I have, the more burdensome this becomes.

I tell my parents that they should think of their monthly fee as tuition which reserves their place in my studio, not a per-lesson fee. Hopefully, your teacher has a clear, written policy about missed lessons. If he/she hasn't provided you with one, you might ask for one. It's much better to deal with this issue before it actually comes up so that you know what to expect. I've found that the best practice, by far, is to make my policy clear before the student ever begins lessons. Some teachers will make up lessons under certain conditions, some teachers may provide a swap list so that you can rearrange lessons yourself, and some teachers may make no accommodations at all. Know what your teacher expects, and don't go into the situation thinking that you'll talk her/him out of it or that you'll somehow be exempt.

I have some wonderful families who truly "get it." Last year, two families had situations come up which created a conflict with piano for a period of a few weeks. In both cases, they apologized for the conflict and simply pledged to continue to pay the tuition until the conflict had passed. They offered this up front without my having to defend my policy in any way. While I would have loved it if piano had been a bigger priority, I felt that they showed me a great deal of respect, and I respected their handling of the situation in return.

Those parents fully understand what Vicky Barham writes in a fantastic online article:  Make-Up Lessons From An Economist's Point Of View.  She teaches economics at her local university, and is the parent of music students. She explains, from the business perspective, why music teachers should not be under any obligation to find another spot during the week or to refund for missed lessons. Be sure to read it!

Thanks in advance for your support!

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14 comments:

rowsellpiano said...

Way to go, Laura Lowe!

me said...

The article by Vicky Barham is a must-read for every music teacher. Finally, someone has put into words every frustration I've felt regarding make-up lessons. I still do give occasional make-up lessons, but now only at times that are convenient for me & for reasons that I believe are legitimate. Thanks for reminding me of this great article.

Susan Paradis said...

Laura,
Very well written! I wish all parents and teachers could read this.

Joseph Pingel said...

I think your post is as good as Ms. Barham's. It's the plight of all professionals to deal with this situation.

That's why it is good to be paid by the month in advance rather than weekly and to stipulate clearly -up front- that there are no make up dates.

It's like renting a motel during Superbowl week. You're free to give up the room but if you do so, don't blame them for renting it to someone else.

Joseph Pingel
www.keyeduppiano.blogspot.com

Dustin said...

I believe I may be one voice that isn't entirely 'for' being too rigid and strict about make up lessons and rescheduling. If my schedule permits it , I will do what I can to accommodate. If you want to look at things from an economists point of view, parents don't have the obligation to continue lessons with their local studio either. =)

I always expect payment a month in advance. This takes care of most issues. If a family is going on vacation for 2 months and they notify me ahead of time , that is their business and I wouldn't feel like I still deserve payment. I suppose if someones studio is already jam packed with a waiting list, you reserve the right to be as strict as you desire. But I don't think the families would appreciate that as much and might even be so annoyed they could write a bad review about you , etc. But I like the opposing the view , it really made me consider my own policy a little.

Laura Lowe said...

Hi, Dustin, and thanks for your comment. Every teacher must decide their own policy based on their circumstances, and my main point is simply that parents should know and respect that policy, whatever it is, and to see things from the teacher's point of view. My own policy is to make up for illness only, and I also included a phrase in my policy sheet that says I will do it as long as I have available time (preferably during another student's cancelled lesson or on a pre-set make-up day) and as long as families do not abuse the policy.

I see from your blog that you are 24. When I was your age and single, it was very easy to make up lessons. Today, it would be impossible for me to operate the same way I did then. My "personal" time is not my own to give away. I have a husband who works changing 12-hour shifts, a child, and another part-time job.

Some things to think about: We get no tuition reimbursement from my daughter's private school when she is absent, even if there are student openings at the school. If she doesn't attend a dance class, there's no makeup and no reimbursement even if the dance school is not full. Just like those establishments, I have overhead that does not abate if my students are absent. Without a predictable income, I can't set a either a personal budget or a budget for my studio business, and while I love my work, I can't do it just for love. I need the income, and I can't allow it to be at the mercy of whether or not students feel like coming or have family visiting or want to go on vacation or have a test coming up or a ballgame or a rehearsal for a play or... the list would never end. If you start off being willing to accommodate those things then try to become more strict later once you have a waiting list, your parents may not be as understanding as they might be if you had been asking for that respect all along.

Sorry this was so long - you are absolutely entitled to establish the policy that works for you and your circumstances! I'd just say, be sure you've considered all of the circumstances that may apply to you eventually, and start as you intend to go on. You'll be glad later.

Joseph Pingel said...

Dustin, you made me rethink my thoughts as well. I felt a certain openness to your words of freedom-and-forgiveness. Your point follows the flow of children and parents' life patterns; vacations, etc...

Not having a full roster may play a part in a teacher's agreeableness. There are many teachers with just a few students that do it part-time (and that's okay too).

If you're running a business you've got to run a tight ship and do what's right for everybody involved. Maybe one grace, a lecture and forgiveness...but don't do it again or else! People must respect your time.

I used to say they give me 24-hour notice but if they didn't, wouldn't charge them anyway.

If your doctor charges you for a last-minute cancellation, you might rethink your relationship. At least you get the message that he's busy.

Doctors, however see many patients, whereas piano students are more like friends (parents too). If it's no big deal to be flexible, that's the way to go.

Just saying . . . you gave a nice counterpoint to the conversation.

Joseph Pingel
www.keyeduppiano.blogspot.com

Laura Lowe said...

Good points all around! And, I might add, the strictest of policies can be expressed in the nicest of ways. I find that when I explain things as honestly and nicely as possible, most people understand completely.

Dustin said...

Wow. I read your entire post Laura and I think you nailed my specific situation. Well , I suppose my eagerness to please is definitely based on the fact that my studio is not yet full. I kind of let myself get trampled on a little when I started my studio with only a few students ... I gradually became a bit more strict and picked my battles. I had families that would request ridiculous things like 30 minute lessons every other week, call me last second to say they 'won't be able to make it' without an apology or an offer to reschedule. So I got tired of that and got more firm. After a while, I even began to seriously encourage to every parent that their child would benefit more by taking hourly lessons. I was so surprised to see many parents say their child LOVES lessons and would love to take hour lessons. So that was the point I realized they are paying ME for my expertise and services and I was much more comfortable putting my foot down when I could.

I suppose that when I have a full studio, I will be more comfortable writing an official policy and following it to the last word. But right now , I'm desperate to please I guess =)

Great conversation so far.

Laura Lowe said...

Yes, Dustin, this a FANTASTIC conversation because it demonstrates so well the process I think we all go through. I started off, just as you did, giving in to every request. The process of developing a policy was just that - a process. I think that the fact that I enjoy my work so much also made it hard for me to treat it in a business-like way right at first. Congratulations on having so many motivated students! That means you're doing something right for sure!

Terence said...

Great post - I think too many teachers are being taken advantage of.
I have a studio policy derived from similar frustration. But this has given me support.
When a parent or student asks to make up a lesson (usually by sms or email at the last minute), I respond by saying that the answer is in the studio policy - I have no comebacks.
Secondly, I do offer a made up lesson under 2 conditions
1. When I am sick and I cannot make the lesson.
2. If there is a dire emergency - car accident, death in the family, sudden need of a hospital.

But mostly I find that courteous communication is the best.

One last comment. Have you ever had those people who forget to pay (my fees are all monthly in advance, directly into my account. I receive no cheques or cash)) and you do not know how to get your fees.
I wait till the fee deadline (usually 3rd of the month) and then send an email/sms stating the following - "I am reconciling my books and cannot find your payment on my bank statement. Please could you send me the date of your payment". This works everytime and its polite and puts no pressure (sometimes people have truly forgotten)

Keep on blogging. Thanks

Terence

Laura Lowe said...

Terence, thanks for your comment. I LOVE your wording for reminding parents of payment!

Becky said...

Thanks for addressing this. I was thinking about make-up lessons, and completely confused of what I should do. I think that I've figured it out, but I still haven't decided on illness. It's true (loved that linked article, by the way) that if I missed my class in college, due to illness or otherwise, I didn't receive a credit in tuition. But I feel bad about asking the tuition to remain the same if I'm sick (or one of my kids) and cancel short notice on them. I'm hoping that you could shed some light on this as a more experienced teacher and mother?

Laura Lowe said...

Funny that you should ask that today because I cancelled three students this afternoon. My throat is too sore to talk! In general, I almost never cancel, and instances like today are extremely rare. When it happens, I do offer to make up the lesson, and if we just can't work out a make-up lesson, then I credit for a lesson.