Piano Student Attendance policies that avoid teacher burnout

Have you ever had piano parents cancel a lesson at the last minute, or who expect all lessons to be made up at their convenience, or have poor communication about attending or not? Unless you have a clear attendance policy, you are at risk of wearing yourself out, or of feeling under-appreciated. The quality of your lessons will suffer because over time you will come to resent all of the accommodating you do.

The alternative is to take a businesslike approach as any professional does. Doctors have cancellation policies, as do dentists, and all people in the care professions. When you sign up for their services, they are very clear on what their policies are on missed appointments. Piano teachers who want to deliver professional-level lessons must be pro-active about attendance in the same way.

The reason your clients want you to have clearly-stated policies is because they want your highest standard of teaching. In order to give your best, create a policy that keeps you in top form.

This is Part II of my series on attendance policies. Part I was about having a policy on teacher attendance. Read it here. Today’s post focuses on student attendance.

1. Print your policy

To avoid misunderstandings with your studio parents, put into print a very clear policy on student misses. Otherwise you are at risk of a policy grey area becoming a policy headache — which may lead to your own burnout.

The best way to ensure full understanding of your student attendance policy is to read it to your new clients in person at an initial interview or meeting, before you’ve even committed to work together. This gives you the opportunity to professionally and cheerfully explain each point. Once they sign up for piano lessons, give each family their own copy (mine is in my DIY dictation Handbook and Playbook). Each year, re-distribute your up-to-date policy to all clients.

It might seem like it would be equally effective to state your policies on a website. However, because websites can be updated anytime, there’s something less permanent about the information there. It’s far more effective to refer to policies that are printed. In mid-March when there’s a question from a parent and you cite your policy, your printed policies will have more clout. The parent will see that it’s been in their hands all year long — and there will be no question what your policy is.

I reprint my Piano Handbook each year so my policies are up-to-date.

2. Define your schedule parameters

If you want a clearly-defined and predictable piano teaching schedule, define when you will teach and when you can give make up lessons. Never give the impression that you are always at home like a sitting duck.

From the beginning, I explain to my clients that my teaching days are the only days I’m available for lessons. On other weekdays I’m busy taking my own children to activities, church choir, classes and band. In other words, I explain that there are no extra days for same-week make-up lessons. (Keep reading to learn how I handle missed lessons.)

If you don’t have children keeping you busy, simply explain that you are busy on non-teaching days. That is — unless you want same-week lesson make-ups. If you do, put that into your policy and explain how it will work.

Before discussing my Switch List program in the next section, here is how I word my student attendance policy in my Handbook:

Missed Lessons. Please switch to ensure that you do not miss your lesson! I am unable to make up missed lessons outside my regular schedule. If there is an open lesson time I will contact students who have missed a lesson to fill in.

3. Switch list

My switch list is the biggest pillar of my student attendance policy. It works wonders and keeps everyone happy.

  • It takes very little of my effort to run it; parents take care of switching lessons
  • It nearly eliminates the demand for make-up lessons
  • It keeps my schedule contained within my regular teaching days
  • It allows some flexibility for students, should they have an occasional activity conflict

For more than 20 years my students have been switching with each other if something comes up and they can’t attend their regular lesson time.

The program is optional. I give families the choice to opt in or out of the switch list. Participating involves releasing their contact information to others in my studio for the purpose of arranging switches. The vast majority opt in. They see the benefits.

In the old days before my switch list, if a students was invited to a birthday party after school, they had to choose. Go to the party and pay for a missed lesson (I didn’t make up for birthday parties), or miss the party and drag themselves to a piano lesson because their parents were paying for it (piano lessons are great and fun, but if all their friends are at a birthday party, it’s not their first choice).

Now, if a student has an occasional conflict, they don’t have to choose. The switch program allows them to find someone with whom to exchange lessons so they get to do both: their piano lesson and their fun activity.

My switch list program has been going strong for more than 20 years.

Here’s what I have printed in my Piano Handbook:

“Switch List

A copy of my schedule will be made available to all students who wish to participate in the switch program. If a student is unable to attend their regularly scheduled lesson, the parent may exchange lesson times with another parent. The switch plan gives you the freedom to miss your regular lesson time without missing a lesson altogether. Every time my schedule is updated I aspire to distribute the new switch list. Please follow these guidelines to ensure that this will continue to work well for everyone involved:

You need to switch a lesson…

  • As soon as you know you will need to miss a lesson, call someone to exchange lesson times. It is up to you to work out a good switch. 
  • Remember you are asking someone to change their week’s schedule. 
  • Parents should do the arrangements, not students. 
  • Call someone who has the same length lesson as you.
  • If you have more than one child in piano lessons, try to switch them with each other first, even if their lessons are a different length. 
  • You can switch into the next week.
  • If you need to switch but cannot find someone, your lesson is missed. 
  • Inform me of the switch (this is VERY important).

Someone asks you to switch…

  • Check for conflicts before you agree. 
  • You are not obligated to say “yes”. 
  • Once you commit, stay with it.
  • If you agree to switch but forget to come, your lesson is missed.” 

If the switch list idea is new to you and you’re interested in it but still have questions, please let me know in the comment section below.

4. Decide how you’ll handle misses

It is inevitable that some of your students will miss some of their lessons without switches. Do you want to make them up once a month? At the end of the lesson year? Your make-up plan should be designed according to what you are willing and able to give (or not willing or able to give!). Here are some ideas to minimize make-up stress and prevent burnout:

Qualifying misses. Decide what reasons you will accept for giving make-up lessons (even with a switch program, I still give some make-up lessons). I’ll make up for student illness. Read more about this in Part I (click here). During my initial interview with families I verbally explain reasons that don’t qualify for make-up lessons: sports (they could switch), shopping, parties, a trip to Disney World or other vacation getaway.

Fill-in lessons. When a student is suddenly ill and cancels last minute, offer their open lesson spot to others as a potential make-up lesson. On a first-come basis, let them book their make-up in your open spot. The fill-in student gets their make-up. You give the make-up inside your regular schedule. By using this one win-win strategy, I usually have very few lessons to make up by year-end.

I do this simply by sending an email to families whose children have missed a lesson (and qualify for a make-up). Some teachers have an online interactive schedule. I’m not that fancy…yet!

Organized make-up days. At the end of my 10-month lesson year, I’ll make a list of students who qualify for make-up lessons. I try to book them into their regular times if possible, because I know they’ll be able to attend and it makes scheduling easy. I usually only need one or two make-up days after 10 months of teaching.

In 2018-2019 I missed several lessons because of a house fire and a compromised power line.

Make-up exceptions. On the very rare occasion that I do schedule a student for a make-up on a non-teaching day, I explain that it is not a usual teaching day, that I’m normally busy on that day, and that it is an exception. I want to avoid the parent assuming they can ask for the same thing again.

There are only two reasons I will break with my own policy to do this:

  • Perhaps I was the one who missed a lesson due to illness and there’s an upcoming performance and the student needs the coaching;
  • Extenuating circumstances have caused the student to miss more than the usual number of lessons and out of compassion I’ll give a make-up to catch them up a little, to avoid having too many missed lessons on the books and I have the time to do it.

5. Emphasize a helpful attitude

In the initial interview with prospective students and parents when I conclude my introduction to my attendance policies, I impress upon them that I’ll try to do everything I can to ensure that they’ll get the lessons they’re paying for. I sincerely mean it. With the switch list and fill-in lessons, and making up for illness, very few lessons are actually missed.

I do add a caveat, “Very few students ever get to the end of the year paying for a lesson they don’t receive.” This is true. However, by saying it, I am admitting that it occasionally happens that clients pay for missed lessons. When they fully understand my policies, much of the onus is on my piano parents to participate in the switch program and make sure their children attend regularly.

With clearly-stated policies in place you will set yourself up to experience very few misunderstandings with parents. With a helpful attitude you may disarm parents who might get upset about your policies, which could avoid stressful situations.

With a multi-faceted approach to giving piano lessons, you will save yourself time and effort and you’ll be able to put more energy where you want to: into making music.

Do you like this post and want more? In the side menu click “follow” to get notification of my posts each week in your inbox.

I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching! ❤

Rebekah Maxner, composer, blogger, piano teacher. Follow my blog for great tips!

Video of the week

Gargoyle’s Night Out (Intermediate, Level 5). A musical adventure that starts with a march-like feel and has a B-section waltz. What is this adventurous gargoyle up to? You can find this Intermediate piano solo in the Red Leaf Pianoworks Anthology II, Saplings. Or you can get the Gargoyle’s Night Out eSheet!

Listen to Gargoyle’s Night Out on YouTube!
Here’s a sound clip of Gargoyle’s Night Out!

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