Several years ago a piano teacher friend called me in distress, looking for support and advice. You see, during lessons with a teenaged male student, she was getting strange vibes. When she sat at the piano to demonstrate music, she said she got the feeling he was trying something behind her, maybe to touch her inappropriately.
She was very upset. He was a good student and she didn’t want to lose him by cancelling his lessons. And if she did cancel them, what reason could she give?
We used to live in a world where adults were believed and children were not. This didn’t work out so well for children who truly needed help. Now this has flipped and we live in a world where children are believed and teachers’ careers can be ruined by one false accusation. My friend’s dilemma was that if she called attention to her male student’s inappropriate behaviour, that he would be embarrassed and claim it wasn’t him, that it was she who had been acting out of place. She couldn’t risk a tarnished reputation as a teacher.
Here’s the catch — in a piano lesson behind a closed door, who could say what had actually happened? It would be his word against hers, and as I’ve already pointed out, these days, people believe children. Teachers lose community respect and credibility.
Your livelihood depends on your reputation. Period.
That is why you need a Child Protection Policy and Plan.
What is a Child Protection Policy and Plan?
[Disclaimer: in no way does this blog post take the place of legal counsel or demonstrate required action needed to be taken in your local jurisdiction. Please contact your local police department or RCMP detachment to learn what steps to take in your area.]
This year my church put into place a Child Protection Policy and Plan and out of curiosity, I asked for a copy. In studying its contents, I realized it is time for piano teachers to implement such a policy in our piano studios.
In essence, it is a document that identifies the vulnerability of both children and adult reputations, the risks involved when adults and children work together and the steps being taken within the institution (i.e. piano studio) to ensure safety of all and to mitigate problems.
A Child Protection Policy addresses and outlines:
- Definitions of all of the people involved
- Enactment and Enforcement
- Supervision of children
- Discipline of Children
- Education and Information
A Child Protection Plan encompasses the following:
- Overview: Reducing Risk
- Physical Health and Medical Response
- Communicable Illness, First Aid, Medication
- Supervision and Visibility
- Arrival and Dismissal
- Visibility: Physical Space and Oversight
- Teacher responsibilities and Limitations
- Oversight of children
- Physical Touch
- When to Report to a Child Protection Agency
- Record Keeping and Documentation
Free Printable! With this blog post, I have created a downloadable, editable Child Protection Policy and Plan. Feel free to edit it as necessary and print it for your own studio set-up. [Again, the document comes with a disclaimer.]
What lessons pose a risk?
Most piano lessons happen with only two people in the room — one teacher and one student. Some lessons are given in groups, and increasingly lessons are given online. All pose potential risk to the teacher.
With private lessons, the risk is quite obvious: an adult and child are alone, usually behind a closed door.
You may feel group lessons pose a lower perceived risk, but in a music conservatory or home with additional adults, should one child go to the bathroom alone out of sight of the teacher, it is a perceived risk (especially in a conservatory where there are unknown adults present, waiting for other children).
You may feel that online lessons pose a lower risk, but with so much inappropriate video chatting these days, you want to be sure you are protected from false accusation with these lessons as well.
Take steps to protect your students (and yourself)
Ultimately, your goal is to create a safe learning environment for your students and to ensure that you are above accusation. Here are nine ideas to make your studio a comfortable and safe teaching space; the final two points are of particular importance.
1. No more closed door
It is difficult with piano lessons to teach with an open door. Piano lessons make loud sounds. Closing the door decreases outside noise and contains your own sounds. In a conservatory or house, a closed door divides the lesson area from the public area or home. Some students only feel comfortable playing in a private setting. But can this continue to be an option for teachers? Try these steps:
- Teach with a French door (a door that is entirely made of windows)
- Install a door with some type of window
- Teach with your door ajar or completely open
- Keep your ground-level window unshaded and uncovered
- Invite parents to drop in (with student permission — the permission of the child is important)
- Video your lessons from start to finish (also with the student’s permission)
In my experience, even university professors avoid being alone with adult-aged students with their door closed. It is best policy to have an open door.
2. Have a waiting room
I have noticed online that some teachers have no indoor waiting area and cannot accommodate children who arrive five minutes early. All professionals should have an indoor waiting area. It is not legally wise for you to expect minors to wait outside where they are unsafe and vulnerable. The moment the child sets foot on your property or within the sphere of your teaching space, you are the adult who has a legal responsibility for their wellbeing and security. Find a way to accommodate an indoor waiting area.
3. Act professionally in the community and online
When you’re at the grocery store and you see a minister, teacher or professor, you don’t see just another person, you see a minister, teacher and professor. You expect them to behave with a level of dignity appropriate to their position. As a piano teacher, conduct yourself in public (which includes online) as a professional. Protect your image. Give reason for clients to put their trust in you. To others, you are a piano teacher, a professional, everywhere you are seen.
4. Appropriate dress.
Have a professional dress code. I’m not talking about jeans versus dress pants, I’m talking about avoiding clothes that are too revealing or suggestive. It is for your own good for you to dress modestly. For example, if in demonstrating arm movements you ask your student to rest their hand on your elbow to feel the movement of your arm, wear long-sleeved clothing. Besides hands, there should be no skin contact. In the same way, you may wish to ask students to wear long-sleeved shirts, as well, so there is a clothing barrier when you manipulate the movement of their arms or wrists.
5. First aid.
It is highly advisable for piano teachers to be up-to-date in first aid. This is something I am looking into for the upcoming year. Parents of children with Type 2 Diabetes and EpiPens are usually quite open about immediate first aid for their children. If you don’t address this on your registration form already, it is advised that you add health questions to it.
6. Bathroom policy.
Usually with piano lessons, the time a child is with you is so short that there is no need for them to go to the bathroom. You could suggest to parents that they make sure their child has used the bathroom before arriving. However, this is a situation for which you need a plan for any teaching set-up, if the bathroom is out of reach of the teaching space. In a private lesson, the teacher (the trusted adult) should walk the child to the bathroom. In a group lesson, two children should go together. Additionally, it is advisable to accept only students old enough to take care of their own bathroom needs.
7. Video all online lessons.
Personally, I have not taught online lessons. While there is no risk of touching, there is still a risk. Fellow blogger Jennifer Foxx, who is jointly blogging on this topic this week, has come up with some ideas to assist teachers of online lessons with specific suggestions for that teaching platform.
8. Voluntarily demonstrate that you are “Low risk”
For years schools have been requiring volunteers to complete two record checks prior to helping with school activities: the Criminal Record Check/Vulnerable Sector Check and the Child Abuse Register. These are the checks you will need to complete in Canada. Piano teachers would be wise to voluntarily complete them.
To keep yours up-to-date, complete the paperwork for the checks every three years. There is a charge for this, and it will simply be part of the cost of doing business. You will be able to claim the cost on your income tax as a business expense under “Professional Fees.”
Make it known to your studio families that your checks are up-to-date and are available for them to view upon request.
If you’re an American, read Jennifer Foxx’s companion post to this blog entry for what to do in your country. Check with your local police department to obtain the necessary paperwork for your checks.
9. Have a written policy on touching
To touch or not to touch? As a piano and organ student, all of my teachers manipulated my fingers, hands, wrists, arms, elbows, shoulders, back, and feet. I can’t imagine how I would have learned the techniques they were teaching without the physical guidance they offered.
In the same way, I do touch my students for very specific reasons. In my DIY Piano Handbook, in the section called “Teacher Responsibilities,” I state:
“Comfort: It is my primary goal to ensure the comfort of my students. Piano teaching requires a limited amount of hands-on instruction. I need to touch my students in the following circumstances as there is no better way to instruct them in their physical approach to the piano: correct hand position, I move arms, elbows, wrists and hands to adjust and improve technique; slur gestures, I manipulate arms and elbows; pedal technique, I move feet with my hands; sitting posture, adjustments to shoulder and backbone.”
In observing teachers and students of other musical instruments, I have noticed that it is not as necessary for them to guide through touch (guitar, trumpet, flute, voice). But with the piano, the sound is quite dependent on the working of the entire body: how the arm approaches the support of the finger creates so many different qualities of sound.
I do feel it is necessary to use touch for the purpose of teaching, so it is critical to explain when, how and why so that it can be recognized as a necessary part of your instruction and professionally appropriate.
Liability to professional associations
Prior to being issued a license to teach (or substitute teach) in school, public school teachers are required by school boards, educational offices and governments to complete all paperwork for the Criminal Record Check/Vulnerable Sector Check and the Child Abuse Register. That means that before the teacher is allowed to teach, they 1) must have an education degree, and 2) prove that they are low risk.
No such provision or failsafe exists for piano teachers.
I communicated with several officers in the CFMTA (Canadian Federation of Music Teachers’ Associations) and the NSRMTA (Nova Scotia Registered Music Teacher’s Association) and it appears that this topic has not yet reached our associations. While we in the CFMTA are covered by group insurance, it is unknown whether this insurance covers us for accusation of inappropriate touching (a medical doctor’s insurance does cover malpractice). I asked the insurance company and got an unclear answer.
I personally feel it is time for the CFMTA to consider the liability to the association, should they unknowingly endorse an adult to teach piano lessons in a professional capacity without knowledge of prior misconduct, and for the person to offend again. What would the response of the parents of the child be if they put their trust in a teacher because of membership in the professional association?
One response I received from an officer within the association was that a volunteer would be required to process all of the record checks and that it would be too much work.
I checked the CFMTA “Code of Ethics and Standard of Conduct” online and the only mention about their support of the student stated, “Students shall be treated with consideration and patience.” The rest of the code deals only with enhancing the status of music as an art in the community and cautioning teachers about fair competition and not stealing one another’s students. To see the CFMTA Code of Ethics, click here.
For the MTNA (Music Teachers’ National Association), I will refer you to Jennifer Foxx’s blog post, which covers this matter in the USA.
My friend’s dilemma
How did my friend’s situation with the teenaged male student turn out? I suggested that she teach with her door open, which she started to do. She began to wear oversized, frumpy sweaters on those lesson days. She enlisted the help of her husband to “hover” in a nearby room during that lesson, and he did see misbehaving on the part of the male student when her back was turned.
After an extended period of time teaching with the door open, the behaviour faded. She never did need to discuss it with the boy’s parents. I contacted her in preparing this article, and she let me know that she now keeps her door open during all lessons and will never go back to teaching with the door closed.
Call to action
No longer are piano teachers in the league of friendly neighbours who teach community children Saturday morning music lessons for a little extra cash. Or, highly trained musicians who believe good conduct only has to do with how teachers act professionally with each other.
We are professionals who must adhere to a standard of conduct and accountability as all professionals do, to our clients, and this includes paying for necessary screening and taking steps to design our studio spaces to show that we are serious about protecting the safety of minors who are in our care and under our supervision.
It is my hope that teachers will take this message to heart on an individual level and that music teacher groups will raise this up as a topic for discussion — to find ways to inform and educate experienced and new teachers on how to create safe studio environments for all of our students — and in so doing, to also protect ourselves.
Jennifer Foxx with the Music Educator’s Resources blog and I collaborated on this topic. She lives and runs her studio in the United States and has different ideas, perspectives and experiences to share on this topic. Be sure to read all about her 10 Safety Protocols for the Independent Music Teacher (click here). It’s informative and smart advice for today’s piano teacher!
This post’s free printable is an editable template for a Child Protection Policy and Plan for music schools, conservatories and independent private piano teachers. There are certain sentences that would apply only to larger institutions and may be adapted, changed or omitted by individual teachers. Use it as a starting point to help you design lessons and your studio space with protection in mind — protecting the safety of your students and protecting your own reputation through transparency in regards to student safety. I recommend adapting it to your own studio’s needs and displaying it in your waiting area, or informing parents that a copy is available upon request.
[Disclaimer: This editable Child Protection Policy and Plan document in no way replaces legal advice, and I (Rebekah Maxner) make no claim that its use will protect the students in your studio or you from legal recourse. Your use of it is voluntary and with the understanding that I shall not be held responsible for any situation that may arise, or any errors or omissions in the document before or after you edit it.]
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Video of the week
The Hanging Tree from Madge’s Notebook, A Piano Tribute to The Hunger Games, Early Intermediate to Early Advanced piano solos (and one duet), music that is a bright light in a dark world. The Hanging Tree has a haunting quality of a lost father’s voice and bird echoes in a forest.