How to become an indispensable piano teacher
In a world where parents are constantly reevaluatiing the cost of a recurring service, job security may depend in part upon how indispensable we are to our piano students. How do we become indispensable? How do we keep parents from jumping from teacher to teacher or experience to experience? How do we cut past the busyness of parents, who might have their children involved in too many activities, and be the service to which they always commit and prioritize?
Over the past few years, I've learned a valuable lesson about what makes a teacher indispensable by watching my own children in their general education. When my oldest son started elementary school, he had a fabulous Kindergarten teacher. I thought it was because she was energetic, dynamic, kind, caring, creative, and all of those typical (but wonderful) things. But then he started first grade, and I again thought he had a wonderful teacher, although she was completely different in her personality and teaching style.
Second grade was a head-scratcher, though. My son was perfectly fine with his teacher, he was learning, and I knew that his teacher was creative and certainly effective based on how he was doing. But for some reason, I didn't think she was a wonderful teacher.
I began to ask, "What makes a wonderful teacher?" But the answers I found were all things that the current teacher was doing, so there was a strange disconnect between my answers and my experience. However, as I have explored this over the years with him and my other children, I've begun to realize that, "What makes a wonderful teacher?" is not the best question. The more interesting and revealing question is, "What makes me think she's a wonderful teacher?"
As I was analyzing this, I also began to wonder if there might be a lot of truly great piano teachers out there who are caring, skilled, and effective, but that parents might think of as just a so-so or even a subpar teacher. Unfortunately, we usually never know how close a parent is to quitting lessons until it is too late. So, how can we not only be great teachers, but also be indispensable so that parents remain committed and put more effort into the learning process?
As I thought more about what made me think that my children's teachers were or weren't great teachers, I noticed the usual suspects. The wonderful teachers had to care about my child, be kind, help my child succeed, connect with my child, and be skilled at what they did. But as I said, all of my child's teachers had been doing all of those things. So, what was the difference in those teachers who I thought were decent—and those that I thought were wonderful and indispensable?
The answer was simply communication.
I discovered this because, in the case of my child's second-grade teacher (and a few other teachers we have experienced since), I began to notice that I was asking questions like, "Why didn't they have time to do this?" "Why isn't my child learning x?" And ultimately, "What in the world is she doing with the kids during the day?" The teachers that I thought were wonderful and indispensable were the ones who regularly communicated with me about my child and my child's progress. They were the ones that regularly told me what they were doing, what they were thinking, and how I could support them and help my child. The teachers who never sent me emails (except email blasts that went to the whole class), and those who didn't send an appropriate length response to inquiries I sent them, were the ones I thought were not very good teachers. So even though I knew that they were teaching my child, and that their teaching must be effective because of the results, I still subconsciously thought they were not very good teachers. I still questioned whether the "other class" had a better teacher. I still second guessed what they were doing with their time. But when a teacher told me what they were doing, even if it was just once every few months, I felt like they were working harder than the other teachers who didn't tell me! So, while the facts told me that both were fine teachers, the amount of communication was the key to getting me to think that they were fabulous, indispensable, and one of my child's best teachers. The application to piano teaching is clear, but it might be helpful to extract the most important features:
1. The indispensable piano teacher communicates directly to parents about the individual child, not just in prescribed email blasts to everyone. This not only helps parents know what to expect when a child is practicing and how they can help, but it also demonstrates to them that you care about their child.
2. The indispensable piano teacher communicates regularly. Regularly does not mean at prescribed intervals, but rather, it just means that it shouldn't be an extended period of time between each communication. Some of the best times to communicate are
a. at the beginning of the semester so parents know what is expected and how they can help;
b. after a particularly great lesson so that the parents know what they are doing right;
c. after a particularly bad streak of lessons so that the parents can help you devise a plan of action that can help; and
d. at random times just to say thank you or to encourage parents in their difficult task of getting their child to practice.
3. The indispensable piano teacher communicates regularly but doesn't need to write a novel to do so! It can even be a short text or email that says, "Amelia had a wonderful lesson today! I can tell she really worked hard. Thanks for all your support!
4. The indispensable piano teacher communicates about what she, herself, is learning and doing to help the child succeed. This can definitely be a one-to-many broadcast email (though you should make sure you only blind carbon copy and not carbon copy your families), but parents need to know if you are going to a conference and want to know how you see this benefitting their child. They love to hear that you are learning new things. An example of this might be that you have learned better ways to teach music reading as the result of attending a local piano teaching workshop. This tells them that you are working to be the best teacher that you can be for their child. You don't have to brag, and it's important to take extra time to make sure that your verbiage does not seem boastful. But parents want to know how you are seeking ways to become a better teacher for the benefit of their child. Here's an example:
"This week, I was able to attend the Columbia Music Teachers local piano teaching workshop, where I learned about the most effective ways to teach music reading to students. It's interesting how the world of piano pedagogy research is evolving with new discoveries through research on the brain. I just wanted to share that as you see some new ideas, pieces, or games that I'm doing with your child, it's because of these new things that I have learned. Thank you so much for giving me the privilege of teaching your child in this exciting century of piano teaching!"
In short, the indispensable piano teacher communicates. You can do this in more ways than are suggested above, of course. But the important thing is that you do it. Make yourself indispensable. It's the best job security you can have.