December 16, 2013

Make-Up Lessons: Why You'll Never Win

Sisyphus, according to Greek mythology, was a king sentenced by the gods to roll a giant stone up a hill, only to have the stone roll back down. He was doomed to repeat this task for eternity. His struggle represents the futile quest for power, the meaningless of life and, for me, the absurdity of make-up lessons.

Sisyphus, the piano teacher, carrying his boulder of make-up lesson obligation.

If you talk to any piano teacher about their make-up policy you are likely to get either a groan, a bitter decree of teacher's rights, or a vacant stare that chills you to your very soul. Make-up lessons are the game that never pays dividends. In pedagogy classes one of the first things students will do is create a make-up policy. In the real world, this make-up policy is the first domino of bright-eyed idealism to come crashing to the ground.

First, let me tell you about my own make-up policies. I have two.

If the cancelled lesson is my own fault, say for a concert I'm playing in or if (God forbid) I get sick, then the make-up lessons are on me. I will come in on days I normally have off, or stick around for a couple of extra hours to do any make-ups. If I can't make it up over the course of the school year, students get a summer lesson credit.

If a student cancels a lesson here are the terms: If I'm notified at least 24 hours in advance I will try to find a make-up time for them. If I'm notified a month in advance I almost always make a time. If I find out less than 24 hours in advance the lesson is forfeit. I will only schedule around previously scheduled lessons, meaning I won't come in another day that I don't already teach, and I only offer times that are adjacent to existing lessons. If there's bad weather, as long as the building is open and I can make it to work we will still have lessons.

My makeup policy was created in response to an extremely influential (among teachers at least) article written in 2001 by Vicky Barham on the website Ottawa Suzuki Strings called "Make-up Lessons from An Economist's Point of View". In it Barham argues that lessons should be viewed as a non-returnable, non-durable good. Once a spot has been reserved for a student, a teacher should not be expected to have to make obligations for a student beyond that particular spot. The only way to make-up a lesson is to take some other time during the week, for which the student has not paid for, essentially asking the teacher to give the student two products for the price of one.

My policy is not as hardline as Barham lays out for a few reasons. If a student is the first or last of the day and I am notified well in advance I will usually reschedule because the time that they open up becomes free time for me. I head home early and trade that time off on some other day when I stay late. I will also gladly reschedule students into spots that are open. Sometimes two students can swap lessons in a week, or I can fit a student into a spot that is open in the middle of the schedule every day. Between these two things I can get out of the majority of bad rescheduling.

Overall though, the concept of make-ups is a losing bargain. Make-up policies are a social contract between the teacher and the parent. Both parties have to accept it. And even though at the outset of piano studies we sign an actual physical contract, parents don't always accept it. Many parents understand our arrangement. Some parents don't, and they are a constant source of concern for teachers.

The most obvious thing a parent can hold over teachers is the threat of un-enrolling their children from a teacher for inflexibility of scheduling. I've only ever had a couple of parents who became confrontational about this and pull their children from my studio, I believe in large part because of scheduling. In the case of one student, I had explained my studio policy (which gets presented at the beginning of the year in writing and verbally and which is posted on our studio blog all the time) and the student had cancelled or not shown up to at least two lessons in a term. At the end of the term a parent tried to schedule make-ups to which I told him that I wouldn't be able to and explained why, like I've done with many parents. He became very angry and we finished the term but he did not enroll the student in the following term. A similar situation happened with a parent who brought his children to a 45-minute lesson 30-minutes late and caught me in the middle of packing up to go home. We had a stand-off in the hallway to which I finally relented when I felt physically intimidated. This parent also did not enroll the following term.

The threat of lost income is the biggest thing shaping make-up policies. For a student to quit a studio, for the majority of teachers, is an assured loss of income in the near term, and a potential greater loss of income as long as the spot remains open. For me, a suddenly dropped student represents anywhere between $160-$1000 for the year. Often the spot can be filled quickly, but at certain times of year when enrollment is low this loss is hard to make-up.

Doing the make-ups themselves can also represent a loss. If you're doing a makeup for a student who is in the middle of your schedule, and you can't find a middle-of-the-day time to reschedule them into and no other student takes their spot, you are left with a blank spot in the time they paid for as well as a newly created time for which you are not getting paid. Essentially you are losing $25-$50 of potential income. This added up over the course of the year with dozens or hundreds of make-ups can equal a large loss of money. I have at least one of these rescheduling scenarios every week.

Barham recommends having a zero-makeup lesson policy. Because I also do free-lance musician work I don't feel that it's fair to have to impose rescheduling 2-3 lessons every year on my own account but offer no flexibility to students. My only zero-tolerance policy is for missed lessons that I haven't been notified for. If I get no warning (and an email 15 minutes before really doesn't count) then I never make up the lessons and parents (with the one exception above) understand this and don't expect me to make it up.

The school I work at is mostly patronized by middle-class urban dwellers who I think understand the predicament that music teachers are in. We don't earn very much and have limited hours in which to work. On the other hand lessons are expensive for families and people want to get their money's worth.

My advice to new private music teachers would be this: be tough for your own mental health, but expect to make concessions. It's not an easy business to be in, especially if this is the primary source of income in your household. Be extremely organized so that you don't waste a lot of time chasing make-ups around. Try to understand where parents are coming from, but also try to gently remind them of your own situation.

Good luck.

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