Get any group of 100 private music teachers into the same room, and more than likely a few of their discussions will find their way to the passionate subject of make-up lesson policy. Why such passion over something that seems so mundane? The passion comes out most often as a natural result of conflict teachers experience with their own clients. I do agree that we have all had the misfortune of serving clients who are difficult to please, but I believe teachers are more often to blame for this conflict than most would admit, and this proposition runs contrary to what I generally hear promoted within the teaching community (journals, conferences, blogs, and forums). Some make-up lesson policies, such as the no-make-up lesson policy, are so unfair that the resulting poisonous disputes within teaching studios are as predictable as the scenario shown in The Last Castle (Robert Redford), in which a fight on a prison basketball court breaks out after the warden deliberately provides inmates with only one basketball. Certain restrictive make-up lesson policies could be regarded as a similarly perfect design for conflict to take place.
My contrary stance here isn’t as bold as it might seem, because none of the opposing positions that I can find are supported with any kind of research; it’s more based on the experience and “business sense” of the author or speaker. That is all I can offer in this article, although I will also refer to other articles, which I guess technically makes this article “quasi-researched.” Regardless, I hope that the main difference between this article and mainstream thought will be the depth of analysis. First, some disclaimers:
- This article is written mostly for the at-home private teacher. Having said that, teachers who travel to a store, school or campus can still use a similar policy successfully. It is the “traveling teacher” (the teacher who travels to each student’s home) who has the most reason to have a strict make-up lesson policy.
- Long ago I had a policy that restricted make-up lessons in a way that resembled a no-make-up lesson policy to certain clients within my studio, so my past policy is among those policies this article criticizes.
- I will disagree with some colleagues very directly, but I hold every last person I reference below in high regard, so whenever possible, I’m going to refer to authors anonymously to keep focused on ideas rather than on people.
Also, it is critical to note that when a teacher charges for each lesson rather than having up-front payments, inevitably students who cancel lessons experience financial reward for their cancellation (no lessons to pay for that week). A teacher whose livelihood is affected by this difficult policy will be tempted to overreact and try out a “no make-ups” policy in order to protect their income. I never considered it an option to charge for each individual lesson, because unlike plumbers, dentists and auto mechanics, we teachers must rely on very small group of clients each week for our livelihoods, which means empty slots can’t be filled by clients who call each week. If a student wishes for a teacher to commit a time slot to them each week, the student must commit to paying for it each week. Additionally, under a system of flat monthly payments, some students do not request make-up lessons and instead just say, “See you next week,” even despite being offered alternate times. This article is written with the flat monthly or semesterly payment being assumed. (For more on this, see my article Flat Tuition Payments For Private Music Lessons.)
Let’s begin by analyzing rationalization behind the no-make-up-lesson policy. There are five reasons I’ve heard teachers give for having this policy, and one of them isn’t actually a “reason”, although I’m still going to address it.
1. Refusal To Engage
First, some no-make-up lesson teachers don’t explain it – they just say, “That’s just my policy,” and they cloak their refusal to discuss their policy as a mark of professionalism, even drawing proud attention to it among colleagues. In It’s All Your Business: Towards a Higher Definition of Professionalism (American Music Teacher, Aug/Sep 2007), the author writes, “When answering questions about your studio policy or business, clarify; there is no reason to apologize or justify.” I take the phrase “don’t justify” to mean, “Do not give reasons for your policy.” I believe that this confuses the already-poorly-defined concept of professionalism with respect, control and authority, when in fact professionalism includes so many more things such as honesty, friendliness, fairness, and respect in the other direction. Not ever giving make-up lessons is already difficult enough for clients to swallow; in my opinion, refusing to explain why to anyone is disrespectful and therefore quite unprofessional.
A reader’s comment on a blog post on this subject says something I’ve heard countless times before:
“It’s a respect issue, if you miss a doctor or lawyers appointment you can bet they are going to charge you. Teaching clients should view you as the same.”
The problem is that this policy of doctors, lawyers, plumbers and dentists is not the result of their attempt to posture themselves and gain respect; the policy is a very practical function of the fact that none of these professionals work from home, so when you miss your appointment with them, they really do lose that time. It is a policy of necessity. What is really funny about this argument is that I can’t even remember the last time I was charged for forgetting an appointment. Over the past couple decades, I’ve forgotten a couple of car dealership service appointments in addition to a dentist and doctor appointment, and I was not charged for the no-call-no-show even though they very well could have charged me. Again, as I stated in the beginning of this article, I am referring to teachers who teach at home and who therefore do not truly lose that time when a student does not show up.
I’ve also heard the respect argument many times in the context of sports, plays or dance lessons: “Why are private music teachers always given the last priority when competing with other activities?” The answer is simple, and it has nothing to do with respect: They do this because all of these other activities are group activities. One cannot ask an entire sports team to show up on a different day, nor can one ask an entire dance class or the entire cast of a play to show up on a different day; one would have to think the schedules of 10, 20 or 30 other people are cumulatively less important than one’s own schedule! In light of that, asking the piano teacher to bend around these other schedules is the only thing any intelligent, reasonable person can do. And suggesting that anyone taking piano lessons should never join a baseball team, sign up for karate lessons or audition for a play would be unreasonable. Nobody who signs up for these other activities has any idea what the schedule is going to be until the coach or teacher hands it out. If a conflict arises, we teachers need to be understanding of this.
The idea of “respect” can be tied to busyness, and the same reader quoted above comments:
“If you are busy, then have a ‘no make-up’ policy. I know plenty of teachers that do this and are booked solid.”
I agree that one can build a big studio with restrictive policies. But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. We can increase prices or restrict access to things in high demand, but taken too far, we are taking advantage of people, similar to charging $10 (or even $2) for a bottle of water after a natural disaster. As for the idea that private teachers are “busy” or “overworked,” I will address this point soon.
3. False Alternatives
The most common reason for a policy of no make-ups is, “I cannot fill that time slot with someone else if you don’t show up, and if I make the lesson up, I have to reserve extra time in my weekly schedule for that one student.” The problem with this rationale is that it assumes that whatever alternate time is scheduled for the make-up lesson would have been personal time for the teacher, when in fact every teacher knows that in a studio of 20, 30, 40 or 50 students, hardly a week goes by without at least one cancellation. Cancellations of other students are perfect opportunities for make-up lessons. That is why I don’t even require 24 hours of notice to reschedule a lesson. In fact, if someone calls three minutes before their lesson would have begun, it still isn’t a big deal for me to take one or two minutes of my time to offer them an alternate time. If no cancellation time exists, I simply tell them there is no time this week, and I ask them to remind me to look again at my schedule during next week’s lesson (or tell them to monitor my Google Calendar and request to fill in gaps as they appear).
Putting yourself in the shoes of the client, how would you feel if your teacher thought it was more acceptable for you to lose the $30, $40, $50 or $60 you paid for that lesson than it is for the teacher to lose one or two minutes of their time confirming an alternate time that was part of their allotted teaching schedule anyway? If I were the client, I would most definitely think that the teacher is just trying to score themselves a paid break in their teaching schedule at my expense no matter what they say to try to justify it.
What we have here, and what I’ve observed from top professionals who advocate these policies at meetings, conferences and in journals, is the fallacy of false alternatives: pretending that the only alternative to giving no make-up lessons is to give them during the teacher’s personal time. I myself have given make-up lessons very generously over the years, and I have done so without any infringement on my personal time, other than when I am the one to cancel a lesson. Teachers with a no-make-up policy sometimes assure students that the time is being used to create lesson plans or other things related to that student, but this is not assuring, because in the end, the teacher still gains personal time since the time that would have normally been spent creating those lesson plans is now freed up.
As for teachers who teach at a university or at a music store (or especially who travel to students’ homes), they can still operate in the same spirit of generosity, giving make-up lessons whenever possible, but this is where less flexible make-up lesson policies show a little more function: there is more need for giving 24 hours notice, make-up lessons of course still need to be given during the normal teaching hours of the teacher, and the make-up lesson shouldn’t cause the teacher to have to drive extra miles. It is wise to ask students to try to give 24 hours notice when possible so that the resulting cancellation time slot can be used to give other make-up lessons, but I would only word this as a request in the policy (not a mandate). Giving 24 hours of notice isn’t always possible, especially in the case of sickness, but if students understand how advance notice of a cancellation helps to contribute to this make-up lesson system, they will put forth their best effort.
If teachers offers rationale for their no-make-up lesson policy and they don’t rely on explanations of respect or false alternatives, all that is left to do is exaggerate the down side of making up lessons. Let’s examine a couple of these exaggerations.
4. Exaggeration #1: We’re Overworked
First of all, remember that the make-up lesson policy I’m advocating for – making up every lesson students want made up as long as it occurs during the teacher’s normal teaching schedule – takes up negligible personal time on the part of the teacher anyway, so this is a moot point. But just for fun, let’s suppose it did infringe on more than a negligible amount of the teacher’s personal time. High school English teachers can easily work 50-60 hours per week, spending 2 to 6 hours of personal time each night preparing lesson plans and grading papers. These are people who truly can say that even the short 42-second phone call from a student is asking too much. College music professors are also generally overworked, but this is because of the demands of being salaried music faculty, not the demands of the private teaching they may opt to do on the side. Private music teachers aren’t even in the same universe as teachers at schools and institutions: we consider our schedules “full” when we reach somewhere between 20 and 50 students, which usually translates to anywhere from 10 to 35 hours per week.
Even if most of us spend two hours every day being so-called workaholics outside of our teaching hours, I still don’t buy that our hours even add up to what is considered “full time,” let alone “workaholic” time. Granted, I spend some time ordering books for students, working out fingerings of advanced pieces for students (I once spent five hours working out fingerings to three Prokofiev pieces I assigned to students), planning repertoire for students to play for festivals, etc., but this is work that only occurs occasionally throughout the year. We private teachers are the spoiled brats of the teaching field – we work less hours than K-12 teachers and earn more per year for it, and yet we still act like victims when asked to give students time that they’ve already paid for! Unless the teacher is actually spending hours selecting repertoire, practicing advanced repertoire their students are learning, scheduling make-up lessons, etc. every work day of every week of the year, the teacher is in no position to complain about one- or two-minute phone calls.
5. Exaggeration #2: People Abuse Lenient Policies
First, offering make-up lessons generously is not lenient. In my opinion, this is a fair policy, while offering no make-ups is strict. Offering make-ups outside of one’s normal teaching hours on a regular basis is what I would call “lenient.” That’s not what we’re talking about here – we’re talking about a fair policy of offering make-up lessons during teaching hours.
Second, I believe this so-called “abuse” I hear teachers complain about is most often not abuse; it is the feeling teachers get when clients don’t approve of one of their teacher’s unfair policies, so understandably, the client tries to extract as much benefit/time from the teacher as they possibly can so that the client feels less abused. The vast majority of people are only going to engage in a battle of tug-of-war when they feel they need to, and when a policy is truly fair to everyone, virtually everyone will operate with a happy, generous mindset. Under this different mindset, the same clients who might have argued about a make-up lesson might instead tell the teacher, “Aw, don’t worry about it – just enjoy the free personal time. We’ll see you next week.”
I know what many teachers are thinking here: sometimes the abuse isn’t a result of tug-of-war; sometimes it happens unintentionally. Some people cancel for just about any reason on Earth and expect the teacher to accommodate them. To address that, let’s examine a “lenient” policy of mine (again, I don’t think it’s lenient, but readers who most need to read this article would). If my students want to “bank” missed lessons for several weeks (or even months!) before finally making them up, that is also fine with me, again as long as the make-up lessons are scheduled during the cancellations of other students. I don’t keep track of them – I trust that if someone tells me they’re missing a lesson, 99 times out of 100 they’re going to be right. If the cost of this policy is that I have to give out a free lesson 1 time out of 100 (and I don’t think it is – I don’t think I’ve ever once been conned into giving a free lesson), this is totally acceptable anyway – we cannot pretend that this is intolerable when classroom teachers are required to hold extra office hours every single week.
But it’s very difficult for anyone to abuse this policy anyway, because again, whenever we finally decide to have the make-up lesson, it’s going to be during normal teaching hours. That means that even if someone has a tendency to reschedule every other lesson because soccer is more important to them, my policy allows me to not care. I can easily reschedule every other lesson. Nobody is upset. It’s just as much trouble for the client to spend that one or two minutes rescheduling the lesson as it is for me, so if they’re willing to go to the trouble, so am I. In fact, most clients are going to start feeling embarrassed when they request to reschedule really often, even as flexible and friendly as I am, so when they ask, I know that within the context of their world, they must have a great reason1. Not only that, but I’ve constructed a policy that gives incentive to both me and the student to make up all those missed lessons: if students get a make-up lesson that creates two lessons in one week (which is what happens when they don’t make up a missed lesson within a couple days of missing it), they must also put in extra practice time that week to make the extra lesson worthwhile. If students are willing to invest the time to justify those two lessons, then so am I.
The Cost of No-Make-Up Lesson Policies
My principles would be enough by themselves to convince me that it’s wrong to not give make-up lessons, but practicality only reinforces my argument. If your studio is a running engine, a flexible policy is the oil and grease that makes it run smoothly, and a no-make-up lesson policy is rust and corrosion. Speaking from experience of once being a teacher with an inflexible make-up lesson policy (i.e. students had to make up missed lessons within 2 weeks or they were forfeited), I believe that in every studio, somewhere between 5 and 15 percent of students/parents have strong objections to the concept of paying for time slots rather than for time with the teacher, and even more have mild objections that are deliberately hidden from the teacher out of politeness. Can we blame them for it? No matter how many times teachers remind their students, “You’re not paying for lessons, you’re paying for me to reserve time slots in my schedule,” certain students and parents still continue to believe that they’re paying for lessons. Go figure! This is a game of tug-of-war that cannot be won by either side by simply pulling harder. In fact, the harder one side pulls in this case, the more likely they are to lose the game (e.g. the teacher finally drops the student, or the student finally withdraws from the teacher’s studio). Teachers continue to poison their own studios each year with these policies, causing the loss of a student here and there because of bitter disagreements.
Worse, teachers rationalize this loss with “good riddance” thinking. Think of all the times we have heard ourselves and our colleagues speak like a reader’s comment on this article, which reads:
It [having people read about the teacher’s rigid make-up lesson policy up front] weeds out the people who may disrespect our time (or the ones who are totally clueless about piano teaching being a serious PROFESSION)…
Dr. Robert Solomon, in his course The Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions, classifies this kind of thinking as resentment, when “we make it sound as if we are lucky not to have those things that we want [highest retention and greatest happiness in our piano studios] but don’t have. We feel self-righteous precisely because we are not rich [or precisely because certain students withdraw from our studio].” I used to succumb to this kind of thinking until one day I realized that a simple change of policy (changing a rigid, unfair policy into a flexible, fair one) would turn all of these so-called “people to be weeded out” into clients who are just as happy and joyful to be in my studio as everyone else. Instead of these people sowing poisonous “stay away from that teacher” comments into the community, they continue to give me positive word of mouth. Often it is the people who are willing to express dissent who are the most committed to greatness – the people who, much like ourselves, do not sit quietly and idly when they feel a sense of injustice (or who are more sensitive to it). Have you ever noticed that some of our very best students have parents who are the most “difficult” to work with? I don’t think this is a coincidence, and with the right policy, this “difficulty” disappears.
Students also pay another kind of price for no-make-up lesson policies: they are much more likely to show up to their piano lesson sick a couple times each year, transmitting their germs to other students. We do want students to give attendance at lessons a high priority, but exactly how high? We can disinfect piano keys all we want, but germs are transmitted in many other ways, including the bench, doorknob, couch, the rest of the piano, and air itself. No teacher is that thorough disinfecting their studio. And do we really want our students getting lessons when they’re operating at 50% or less capacity anyway? This will happen if our make-up lesson policy is too restrictive.
The Benefits Of My Make-Up Lesson Policy
What does this policy of freely giving make-up lessons during my normal teaching hours cost me, really? One or two minutes each time. How does it benefit me? Not only does investing more time into my students always result in better students, which furthers my reputation as a teacher, I also have an extremely low turnover rate in my studio and very happy parents, which in turn makes me very happy all the time. There are virtually never any disagreements about anything, no bickering, and no having to engage in mental gymnastics in order to justify policies that give the teacher a sweeter deal at great expense of students. In this article, the author writes, “It’s amazing how quickly conflicts over the business-side of running a studio can zap you of enthusiasm.” I wholeheartedly agree, and I would argue that experiencing this zap even once or twice a year is way too much. Once every few years, we’ll all have some unreasonable person to deal with before they finally leave and go terrorize some other poor teacher, but this shouldn’t happen more than once every 3-5 years, if it happens at all.
Think about the kind of mindset my generous policy creates. From my point of view, I’m offering something that is completely fair to everyone.2 From students’ point of view, I’m being generous, because clients get everything they want. No student who has wanted a make-up lesson for any reason has ever been denied the lesson. Because of this one simple policy in my studio which comes at nearly no cost to me, there is a lot more happiness and even love between myself and my clients. It facilitates a priceless, genuine attitude of gratitude for me when I teach, which means I experience feelings of teaching fatigue or burnout a lot less often and a lot less intensely.
Make-Up Lesson Lip Service
There are a lot of teachers who recognize how unfair it is to not give make-up lessons at all, so under the illusion of fairness to everyone, they offer make-up lessons with various limitations. For example, they might offer one single group make-up lesson each month for all students who have missed lessons. I’ve even spoken with two teachers who have this policy who are very deliberately aware of (and smilingly gloat about) the fact that it is nothing more than lip service to “get those penny pinchers off my back” [this is a real, direct quote]. This is “lip service” because, supposing 5 students miss lessons that month and show up to the group make-up lesson, we have that the teacher is being paid 5 times their normal rate for this single lesson (the teacher was paid for all 5 of the time slots the students missed), and each of the 5 students is getting one-fifth the individual instruction they normally get.
Teachers are aware of the limitations of group instruction, which is why these lessons typically cover subject areas that are more cognitive in nature, such as music theory, music history, or music appreciation (or perhaps it covers ensemble playing with electronic keyboards, in which case it would be a very basic lesson on sight-reading, rhythm and note accuracy, paying very little or no attention to finer musical or technical elements of individual performance). Group instruction simply doesn’t offer the same opportunity to provide the thorough one-on-one instruction that is required by music. Teachers who teach in a group environment never charge what is charged for individual instruction – they normally charge half or less the rate that those paying for private lessons pay, because group instruction is never as valuable as one-on-one instruction. Unfortunately, students who receive lip-service group make-up lessons never get 50% or 80% of their lesson payments refunded.
Good, But Not Good Enough
Another attempt to bring more fairness to a no-make-up-lesson policy is the swap list, wherein students can call each other to switch times. Unfortunately, this only works when students know they will be gone well in advance and they have time to send e-mails or make phone calls. It also doesn’t work perfectly for those with unconventional time slots, such as a family of 3 siblings who occupy a 2-hour time slot.
I’m all for the swap list. I’ve maintained an online swap list for students since the year 1999, but I’d never use it as a substitute for giving make-up lessons. I use a swap list in addition to being fair with make-up lessons. In my studio, the swap list is only there to give people the maximum number of options for getting everything they pay for. There are also Skype or phone lessons that can substitute for the in-person lesson in the case of sickness, but like the swap list, this is just a scratch on the surface of fairness. This will only work for specific scenarios such as having no transportation or being too sick to travel but not too sick to sit at the piano. This option does not suffice for the student who has a schedule conflict or who is very ill.
Finally, giving lessons to others (a grandmother, cousin, sibling or neighbor) is a wonderful option. This can sometimes result in the gain another student. I see all of these things as healthy additions to include in one’s policy, but again, not as sufficient effort to remedy the no-make-up-lesson policy. Even if all of these alternatives allowed a majority of missed lessons to be made up, there’s a lot to be said for the message we send to our students by telling them, “I don’t give make-up lessons, but here are some things to suffice,” vs. the message we send by telling them, “I give whatever make-up lessons are needed, and here are some other options on top of that.”
Some Truly Painful Alternatives
In To Give or Not To Give Make-up Lessons, the author does a good job presenting a comprehensive list of ways to minimize the number of extra hours teachers work (thanks to her for reminding me of Skype/phone lessons and giving lessons to siblings as alternatives to make-ups). One of these ways is that teachers can create an extra teaching week to give lessons to all those who missed lessons. Depending on how often this happens, this may be better or worse than the lip-service group make-up lesson. A student who missed 10 lessons during the year ought to feel gypped when offered one single annual make-up lesson to balance things out, and a student who missed 5 lessons each year would make out like a bandit if an extra lesson were scheduled once every two months. I can’t imagine any teacher scheduling an extra teaching week more than once or twice per year, and that probably means that this policy is always an even less effective attempt at lip service than the monthly group make-up lesson. Worse, the teacher must sacrifice non-teaching weeks to provide this lip service, which is why I would consider this the worst possible way to provide make-up lessons – everyone loses!
Another terrible way to approach make-up lessons, this time being way too generous to students at my own expense (this was my policy for my first couple years of teaching), is when I gave “vacation weeks” to all of my students. Students were free to take as many as 4 vacation weeks per year (kind of like sick days for employees) and not have to pay for the lessons. The huge problem this created for me is that it meant I was only being paid for 48 out of 52 weeks per year, but I never got the benefit of those 4 weeks off! Instead of getting chunks of time off, I got unpaid absences sprinkled here and there throughout every week of every year. Worse, probably half of the total vacation weeks used per year were used during the months of June and August, meaning I had a hard time paying bills during those months. As a result of this policy, I only took one week of my own off that year, and that was during Christmas. I was absolutely starved for vacation time, and I couldn’t wait to revise my policy for the next teaching year.
Rationale For My Past Mistakes
After that huge policy blunder, I over-corrected. I went from being unfair to myself to being unfair to students: I required people to make up any missed lessons within 2 weeks of missing them, otherwise the lesson was forfeited. I also had a swap list, and I allowed lessons to be taken by siblings or neighbors. Interestingly, this is the same as my policy today, except that the 2-week limitation is now gone. You see, even this seemingly small difference still probably caused me to lose 1 or 2 students per year, and it was enough to reduce a fair make-up lesson policy to the status of very unfair to certain people, especially those who left on long vacations during the summer and could only get two make-up lessons when they got back. My rationale for the policy was that once a couple weeks went by without making up the missed lesson, any make-up lesson at that point was almost acting like a penance for the teacher to pay with not much gain on the student’s part because of creating two lessons in one week (so half the normal practicing occurred between lessons). If only I had considered having students practice extra during those 2-lesson weeks, I wouldn’t have lost so many students because of parents feeling gypped by the 2-week clause in my make-up lesson policy.
I would also often tell people about how I used to miss lessons once in a while when studying piano in college. I paid for my own piano lessons with an extra $300-per-semester “lab fee” on top of the normal per-credit tuition, but I was still happy to give my teachers free practice time during those rare weeks when I couldn’t attend. I continue to behave the same way today, insisting on paying my kids’ tennis instructor for lessons we cancel and don’t make up (i.e. if we’re gone visiting family for a week), but that doesn’t make it right to impose this personal preference onto all of my students by saying, “I’m okay forfeiting lessons, so you should be too.” This is an example of the mind projection fallacy. Similarly, if I were a student today, I would never be one to “bank” missed lessons for another date, asking my teacher to make up a missed lesson weeks or months after I missed it. But it’s obviously not petty to everyone since some people request it, and it’s my goal to make everyone in my studio feel welcomed rather than alienated. In general, we should be careful about thinking our policies are valid only because we would approve of them from the other point of view. We must instead pick policies based on the actual reality of how our clients view our policies.
Where the really sad rationalization began was where I found myself telling people about all the extra services I provided and overhead I had: free recitals, group classes, outside performance opportunities created by my music teachers association, my own attendance when guest clinicians give me a continuing education opportunity, various fees such as liability insurance and MTA membership fees, etc. The reality is that these things are all part of the whole package of assumed expenses and advertised services, and therefore they are already accounted for by my rates. We shouldn’t bait and switch our students by advertising certain features of our teaching, only to use them later as justification for charging students for lessons they don’t receive. The only services that are truly “extra” are expenses that are specific to one student (e.g., traveling with the student to an out-of-state competition), expenses that we don’t know about in advance and therefore don’t offset them with lesson payments (e.g., a recital venue changes its policy and now charges $100 more to host a studio recital), or benefits we do not advertise to prospective students (e.g., giving extra free lessons to advanced students when a festival or competition approaches). Also, think about the message that is really sent here: “The way I define and have designed my business model is as follows: in order to be fully compensated for my services during the year, at least X number of people must miss their lessons but still pay for them.” This is the wrong way to go about seeking compensation.
Having unreasonable policies – even policies that were moderately unreasonable like the one I had myself – turns even the best of us into desperate rationalizers. Very few of us will actually ponder the error of our ways and change our policy after we realize that one of our clients’ complaints about our policy actually has more logical merit than our defense of the policy. It’s difficult to admit a mistake, and it’s even more difficult to admit a mistake that is etched in writing, handed out to all our students, posted on our studio’s cork board and website, and possibly even signed and returned to us by all our students. This is the real reason why some teachers offer little or no explanation to clients when their policies are questioned. It’s not about respect, it’s about the teacher’s own discomfort of knowing deep down that their policy is unfair. Teachers might convince themselves that they’re withholding pearls from swine, but in reality they’re simply trying to avoid being on the losing side of confrontation.
Responding to the strongest argument I could find
Vicky Barham, an economics professor and parent of a student (or perhaps a student herself), wrote an article titled Make-Up Lessons From An Economist’s Point of View. She is not a music teacher, and she firmly advocates against giving make-up lessons. The strongest point this article relies on is the claim that piano lessons fall into the “non-returnable merchandise” (or “non-durable goods”) category since a Monday slot at 3:30 cannot be turned around and sold again once the time passes. Again, this relies on presenting false alternatives: either a teacher must not give make-up lessons, or the teacher must give make-up lessons during personal time. It ignores the option of giving make-up lessons during time slot cancellations.
In Vicky’s defense, since she is a client and not a teacher, it is likely that she innocently believes this false alternative to be true since that’s probably the way her teacher presented it to her, and she trusts her teacher. She probably doesn’t realize how easy it is to give make-up lessons during one’s normally-scheduled teaching time. I wonder how Vicky’s perspective might change after spending a year in my studio, seeing how quickly and easily I make up every last lesson that students request to make up… and then some more, since sometimes I’m the one to suggest the make-up lesson, such as when a recital, festival or competition approaches, or when the student has missed a lot of lessons recently.
Vicky brings up a point I hear a lot regarding make-up lessons: that teachers who adopt no-make-up lesson policies are saving themselves from burnout. I believe a no-make-up lesson policy (or even a policy that restricts make-up lessons) may burn teachers out faster than a fair policy does because of all the negative emotional baggage it creates during the inevitable disputes or “uncomfortable discussions” it creates each year. Not only that, but even if refusing to give make-up lessons does prevent burnout for some, I don’t believe this is an ethical way to achieve it. There are other ways to prevent burnout, the most obvious ways being to cut down on the number of students one teaches each week or learn to say no when asked to take on other commitments. Remember, you and I are responsible for our own busy schedules; we can only blame ourselves if we are too busy.
That said, if we find that we are teaching more students than we can handle emotionally and we simply can’t handle a fair policy, then we must be prepared to sympathize with our students when they complain. We must explain to them that we wish we could do better, but we just can’t. We should say, “While I really hope you’ll decide to stay, I will certainly understand if this isn’t acceptable to you, because I realize my policy is not ideal.” At least then, there is no dispute; only validation of their complaint and a calm decision to be made with no hard feelings on either side no matter which way it goes.
In the third paragraph, Vicki points out that classroom teachers (such as herself, an economics professor at a university) don’t offer individual make-up tutoring sessions for students who miss class, and therefore neither should private teachers. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard this line of reasoning. There are three big problems with this comparison:
- Student absences from classes do not give college professors extra personal time: Professors still conduct their 50-minute class as planned, regardless of which students are present. Private teachers don’t do this – even when the teacher spends the student’s lesson “creating lesson plans or worksheets,” such work would have otherwise been done during the teacher’s personal time had it not been for the cancellation, so in the end, this cancellation still ultimately gives the teacher more personal time.
- Private students don’t have any way to recover the full benefit of a lost lesson: In the case of an absence, classroom students can borrow notes from friends or have friends obtain an audio recording or video of the lecture and derive the same benefit from the lecture as if they were there. This is not the case for the private music student. Private teachers teach one student at a time interactively. We don’t give lectures, we give lessons, because we’re not only disseminating cognitive information, we’re also diagnosing problems and preparing the student to practice over the next week. Without the ability to interact with the student, there is virtually nothing the teacher can do with that time that provides even remotely equal benefit to the student who lost the time and who needs problems to be diagnosed.
- We don’t give our students weekly office hours: One of the requirements for being a salaried college professor is to hold make-up lesson time in the form of weekly office hours that are mandated by their school, sometimes even every day, but usually 2-3 hours per week in addition to “by appointment” hours since some students have conflict during the professor’s M/W/F or T/Th office hours. No private music teachers hold weekly open “office hours” for their students to take advantage of that week if they miss their lesson.
Vicki also points out that teachers are victims of their clients’ expectations of make-up lessons since they personally feel pressure to accommodate expectations in order to keep their clients from going to another teacher (and therefore continue to run a profitable business). This is a dysphemism for saying, “In order to run a successful business, we must be competitive.” Pressure itself is not inherently bad. If I never put on any studio recitals for my students, I would probably feel pressure from a few of them to do so, and this is pressure I would deserve to feel since the students are right to hold me to those expectations. Likewise, students are right to expect that their teacher give them make-up lessons when the cost to the teacher of doing so is so minimal compared to the benefit derived by the student. With exception to those rare individuals who are truly miserable to do business with, teachers are generally not victims of their clients’ expectations. The vast majority of people are reasonable and know an unfair deal when they see one.
Where Did We Get This Concept of “Professionalism”?
Over the years, I’ve felt more and more bothered by the association of professionalism with unreasonable make-up lesson policies (among other associations which are outside the scope of this article). The straw the broke the camel’s back came after I moved across the country and read through the Recommendations for Studio Policy document distributed by one of the music teachers associations here that I joined. In this document, only four policies are recommended, listed in order of most strict to most lenient:
- No make-ups, no swaps.
- Swap list with no make-ups.
- Swap list with make-ups for lessons missed due to illness, death in the family.
- Make-ups at the discretion of the teacher.
Notice that even the most lenient policy advocated here by an association of professional music teachers is still a policy that is unfair to students, since it doesn’t even guarantee that the teacher will make their best effort to make up the lesson. Under this “most lenient” policy, the teacher still has the freedom to reject make-up lesson requests at whim.
Earlier in the recommendations document, it reads, “It is recommended that the teacher write a stricter policy than what, in fact, may be followed.” Is it really more professional for one teacher to constantly make exceptions to their unfair policy than it is for another teacher to do exactly what their fair policy states? It seems that Angela Myles Beeching might agree with me when she says in an interview (American Music Teacher, December 2011), “…good business practice also includes having a clear studio policy and standing by it…”. The AMT article I referenced in the “Refusal to Engage” section is also in agreement: “Integrity of the studio policy: Do you enforce it consistently and fairly?”
I don’t mean to pick on one particular music teachers association here, and in fact I think it’s a fantastic organization. It just happens to be the unlucky end of a very long string of journal articles (both AMT and Clavier Companion) I’ve read, conference I’ve attended, conversations I’ve had, etc. that keep feeding me definitions of professionalism that don’t sit well with me. This is what lead me to develop a theory about where our messed-up meaning of “professionalism” may have come from, and it starts with big business.
Simulating Corporate Disconnect
The age of big business has been upon us for a long time, and yet I’m still saddened that we can no longer call a 1-800 number with even the most remote expectation of talking immediately to a person, thanks to our never-ending pursuit of cheaper prices (good customer service comes at a price). We demand predictability and familiarity at restaurants and retail stores, causing many mom ‘n’ pop places to go out of business. What troubles me the most about our big business society is the additional power it gives to businesses themselves, one example of which is the power to care less about the overall fairness of their policies. Top decision makers in corporations don’t have to ever speak with a single customer way down below unless they actively seek them out (which they should do, but often don’t), and this disconnect shows in their policies.
Take cell phone service as an example. Years ago, my wife and I paid AT&T approximately 5 cents per minute if we divided the number of minutes allowed per month by the flat rate we were charged for those minutes. It was once AT&T’s policy to charge 35 cents per minute when we exceeded our plan. It never actually cost cell phone providers 7 times the normal rate for customers to exceed their planned usage. The only purpose, and I mean the only purpose of this policy, was to make AT&T criminal profits. Calling customer support and asking them to explain why those extra minutes cost so much would have been futile since there is no explanation other than greed, and you aren’t going to find “Explain to customer our philosophy of greed” instructions on any call center flowcharts. The only answer we would have gotten was, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but that’s just our policy.” When the only real justification behind a policy is greed, we are told that it exists because it exists. Policies that justify themselves circularly are red flags. [See “Refusal to Engage” toward the beginning of this article.]
The disconnect between corporation decision makers and outsourced call center employees in India is extremely unsettling, but at least we understand the mechanism behind the creation and maintaining of these policies. But I believe this senseless greed has infiltrated small businesses too, despite the fact that no such disconnection mechanism exists for small businesses. Small businesses do not outsource their customer service, and for sole proprietors, the business owner is the call center, billing, tech support, etc. I believe that many small business owners have come to associate harsh, rigid policies that benefit the business owner at the customer’s expense with “professionalism,” or perhaps they even knowingly cloak certain unfavorable policies behind the concept of professionalism. Private music teachers are among these small businesses, and I’ve observed several teachers speaking at local, state and national conferences and who write articles in blogs and journals that encourage teachers to “be more professional” by adopting strict policies and “standing your ground” when a customer disputes one of these policies. I believe that many business owners think (at least, subconsciously) that if the biggest successful corporations act this way, this must be part of why they are so successful, and therefore small business owners too must act this way in order to signal to others that they are more “professional.” This is my theory, anyway, for why there are so many private music studios today who are proud of their harsh make-up lesson policies.
My theory, of course, would be very hard to prove or disprove, but no matter. Whether or not this greedy policy can be traced back to an infiltration of corporate business mindset into the general populace doesn’t change the rationale for why this kind of policy is so very unprofessional.
In an article called It’s All Your Business: In Search of Excellence (American Music Teacher, December 2007), we are asked to strive for a higher meaning of professionalism by examining eight “best practices” followed by the most successful businesses according to Peters and Waterman in their bestseller (In Search of Excellence, 1982). The “best practice” #2 on the list is “Close to the Customer”, and the author writes:
Our students are our customers; do we consistently listen to what they are interested in? Goal setting in the initial lessons is not enough; children go through many growth phases: intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical. We must be responsive to each phase and take the time in every lesson to listen to their concerns and interests. As a local or state association, do we ask for and then listen carefully to ideas and suggestions from our members, advertisers, and communities?
True enough – we listen to students during lessons and we listen to outsiders who give our MTAs feedback, but what about listening to our clients when it comes to our business policies? Haven’t we all lost students who were thriving in our studios because the parents had a disagreement with us that has nothing whatsoever to do with our teaching? In these cases, we can meditate to the students’ pulses all we want; it won’t do a shred of good. When a teacher listens to clients during lessons but fails to listen to them outside of lessons, no-make-up lesson policies and other rigid make-up lesson policies are born (or maintained). Nobody with rigid make-up lesson policies can say yet that they abide by all eight “best practices” outlined by this book. Amazingly, most teachers lacking in category #2 aim to convince us that this lacking is precisely what makes them more professional than those who listen!
Achieving Balance, Honoring The Customer
I absolutely agree that our policies absolutely must protect ourselves, but I believe the policies that seem to be advocated within music teachers associations, blogs and journals are policies that go too far – they provide too much benefit to ourselves at our students’ expense. We want the benefits of charging “tuition” without any of the drawbacks. We nod our heads when we hear that “the customer is always right”, but our policies say otherwise. Policies that are truly professional should not exist to ensure a 100% perfectly desirable environment for the business at any cost to the customer. They should exist to strike a perfect balance of fairness between both business and customer.
I believe there are some teachers who are genuinely striving for the greatest possible fairness for everyone, while others are striving for the policy that gives the greatest possible benefit to themselves. Because the latter group of teachers still know they will lose a lot of students if their policies come at too high a cost for students, these teachers still seek a “balance” in their policies, but instead of this balance being based on a purely theoretical and inherently good fairness (a sense of justice for everyone), it is instead based on the question, “How much can I get away with without my students’ objections to my policy becoming too vocal and too frequent / How much can I get away with without losing too many students?” Remember, this is the same question that results in 35-cent-per-minute overage charges and $35 one-day late fees. Some may argue that capitalism itself is built around this question, but that still doesn’t make me want to be greedy. Even Adam Smith believed that greed is a vice.
If there is any one piece of advice I can give to teachers that would encapsulate the philosophy behind my entire studio policy, it would be to embrace the cliché, “The customer is always right.” As consumers, we piano teachers are no different from anyone else when we bring a complaint to the Target or Home Depot Customer Service desk:
This employee better darned-well take every word I say as truth, or I’m going to raise hell. I am not a liar. I will not be cheated, and if I think I’ve been cheated and the store doesn’t, I’m right and the store is wrong.
And you know what? If that’s how we feel about it, then a vast majority of times, we’re right. We have been cheated. We know this, and yet we turn around and construct a studio policy that cheats other people by design and tells people, “My way or the highway.” We let our waiting lists and reputations go to our head and create policies that simply have no place in the realm of ethical behavior, justifying it with fallacies and broken analogies. We brag that our studios are full even despite our unfair policies, which doesn’t mean as much as we think it means since just about any average teacher will eventually have a full studio given enough time (this is just a simple matter of demand for lessons). It is true that we can get away with more when we’re in greater demand, but do we really want to abuse our status? This makes us no different from crooked politicians who operate above the law once sufficient power has been gained. An unethical policy is no good no matter who we are.
(c) 2013 Cerebroom
- This is a good time to point out another attitude problem I’ve been guilty of myself in the past: the idea that giving anything (dance, soccer, gymnastics) priority over piano is unacceptable. We cannot expect music to take the same place in everyone’s lives as it does in our own – not everyone is as passionate about music as those who teach it. If we hold so few recitals per year that a student’s absence devastates the recital, then perhaps that’s a sign that we should hold more recitals per year. I hold three per year, which I regard as a minimum, I have six group classes per year that allow students to perform for each other and critique each other, and I also put my students into various recitals, festivals and competitions (if they’re willing of course) put on by local music teachers associations. When there are that many performance opportunities for students throughout the year, it’s not vitally important that every last one of my students plays in any particular event. ↩
- Some might suggest I’m “more than fair” because sometimes the one- to two-minute phone calls occur during non-teaching hours, but considering the fact that all other business owners must spend uncompensated time on phone calls as part of their business model, I really don’t think it’s valid to think of phone call time with students as something “extra” that we “shouldn’t” have to do. It’s just part of the job, and we need to normalize it. ↩