August 18, 2014

Why You Should Never Start Lessons Early (But You Will Anyway)

A while back I wrote about the economic cul-de-sac that is the make-up lesson. Makeups are a losing prospect for teachers, particularly when the makeups are due to a skipped lesson from the student. A less obvious, but equally (maybe even more) tricky situation is what to do with the early student.

Late students are simple to deal with. Their lesson has already technically begun so the student just scrambles in, throws their music on the piano and you make the most of whatever time remains before your next student. There is rarely an expectation from the parent that you will go long to make up for their missed time and if anything you, as the piano teacher, finally get a bathroom break while waiting for the tardy pupil.

But what do you do when and empty slot is interrupted by a kid who shows up 15 minutes early? Or even 5 minutes early? Kids will typically pace around the door, peek in the little window until they catch my eye, and proceed to enter the room. At this point, as the teacher, I have two options: begin the lesson, or kick them out and keep practicing while they wait. I've only ever booted a few students, and only because they were 20 minutes early and I had some sort of deadline that I needed to practice for. But really, is it a big deal? So what if you start their lesson early? You can end earlier right?

The reason for being a stickler to the clock is, of course, money. Well, money and being realistic about how long your lessons typically run. If you go to a piano teacher convention (and who of us hasn't?) you'll inevitably overhear some version of the following statement: "I'd love to do more _____, but I just can't fit it into the lesson!" Then all surrounding teachers will nod knowingly and agree that yes, 30 minutes is too short a time to teach everything that is required. Given extra time, teachers will fill it with extra things.You can try to end a lesson early to even out the time that was taken by the early student, but between adding extra stuff at the piano and having more time to gab with the parents, you've likely just given your 30 minute student a 35 or 40 minute lesson. By starting this lesson earlier, you've just given them an extra 5 minutes that you won't get paid for.

So your first student showed up five minutes early, and most other students show up five minutes early...so you can finish your entire teaching day five minutes early, right? Probably not. You may luck out and have all of your students arrive five minutes early but if the last student arrives on time (and why shouldn't they?) then you're still leaving at the normal time. And, even if a miracle like that were to happen, you'll likely give extra time to your first few students and end up back on your normal schedule anyway.

It's important to remember what it is we're selling as piano teachers. We are in the business of renting our time out. Our expertise is important yes, but the actual product that's being sold is the time. If you start watering down your time by throwing an extra 5 minutes here and 10 minutes there you are losing immense amounts of money. If you start 10 minutes early every day, but still end the day on time, you've lost an entire lesson's worth of time every three days and probably two lessons worth in a week. By the end of the year that adds up to several hundred dollars that you won't see despite putting the hours in.

Think of how you would rather be spending that time as well. I usually practice before students arrive. Let's say that I arrive to work 30 minutes before my first student is scheduled. I practice for 15 minutes and then my student arrives forcing me to stop. I teach that student for 30 minutes, talk to the parent for 5 minutes and then head back into practice. I've probably only got about 5 minutes before my next student will begin loitering outside the studio. My beautiful 30 minute practice period has been nibbled down to 20 minutes and with warm-up time and the near uselessness of a 5-minute chunk, it's really more like 10. Now imagine you have a concert coming up and you see where the extra stress starts to come in.

So, we've established why it's annoying, why it's unproductive (for you), and why it's bad business to start lessons early. Will you continue to do it? Of course you will. It's in the parent's (or student's) best interest to get started early. They don't have to wait around as long, the parent gets to drop the kid off and go run errands, and they might get to go home just a little bit earlier. And even if they do the math and realize that their kid is getting extra time, that's great too! Free lesson time!

It's really difficult to turn a kid away who has already walked through the door. I've chastised kids for not knocking, I've berated them for interrupting my practicing, and I've even continued about my business for minutes while the kid stands in the doorway, but I've only had the guts to turn them away a couple of times. You can make up a policy for entering the room, but only expect a handful of families to observe it. Plus, even if you don't invite the kids in until it's their turn, get ready for little eyes staring at you through the window, and banging as the student leans against the door.

It's unfortunate, but unless you terrify your students so much that they stay away in fear, you'll always have early students. Try to be tough, make your policy known, but don't be surprised when you lose money and time to eager parents and students. Always try to remember though, you are a teacher, but you're also running a business, and you need to think about yourself as much as you think about the students.

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