Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I am not your cleaning lady

No matter what I do, it seems there will always be people out there who see their piano teacher as someone who simply performs a service. Most of my students' parents are pretty good and understanding: they know that in the absence of me, they themselves could not teach their kids how to play piano. But some just see me as the cleaning lady, someone who will do their dirty work for them and to whom they can issue instructions and expect things to be done their own way. I had an encounter this week, similar to one I've had in the past, which made me feel so disrespected that I just couldn't stand for it.

Unfortunately, this puts me on dangerous ground. As of last April, I had 18 students. I started this school year with 15. Two dropped out for volleyball season and haven't returned. Two more just dropped last week because of distance and schedule restraints. One dropped a few weeks ago inexplicably, though I suspect that she is overwhelmed by middle school, as many of my students seem to be. One stopped early in the school year because I wouldn't come to their house any more and the mom just couldn't handle driving ten minutes to my house. I picked up one new student. And I have another who is taking this month off because she made the cheerleading squad. Her mom, the best and most understanding of them all (and a school teacher to boot), promises she'll be back, and I believe her.

If you're keeping track, that leaves nine students at the moment, exactly half of the number from last Spring. So from a monetary perspective, I don't want to be in a tiff with the mom of two more students, one of whom is now in sixth grade and losing interest fast. My maternity leave could very well sound the death knell, and then I'll be down even more students.

But I have my integrity! And this mom, while very friendly, has consistently treated me like the hired help. Her daughter originally took piano lessons with my former roommate, who taught at a commercial music school during college. When this friend decided to stop teaching, I took on this girl as well as her younger brother as a beginner. A lot of time has passed, and I am clearly not a college student, but I think this mom still sees me as a student-type or brand new teacher. I question why she finds it worthwhile to pay me so much to have her kids in piano lessons when it doesn't seem valued at all. To this mom, things aren't worth doing if they're not SUPER FUN! or at least not too hard for the kids. I think "healthy challenge" isn't in her vocabulary. She's the type who seems to be to her kids a friend first and a life coach/mom second. Basically, she's a good example of who I don't want to be as a mom.

Each week with these kids is like a black hole of chaos in my teaching schedule. Even though the kids are 11 and 9, they never bring their own books to their lesson or make any effort to know what they have to practice. They are both so energetic and unfocused, it takes me forever just to get them to sit down and play their songs. And mom just goes ahead and does everything for them. And if they have a day off school, it's an automatic break from lessons. Because it's a day off! It's a time to go have FUN!

Enough background. Yesterday, these kids came for their first lessons back after two weeks off (because there's sooo much going on and it's just soooo hard to reschedule!), and the mom brought only a collection of Christmas books for them to work on. They each have a lesson book and a theory book as well as a third book from the same curriculum, which gives their lessons structure. At this time of year, Christmas songs are extra. But this mom unilaterally decided that what's fun about piano is playing Christmas songs and "with everything going on," she just wanted me to teach them how to play the Christmas songs they like. No discussion, just railroading, all while acting sickly sweet and friendly. She talked down to me and never let me finish a sentence. I was a bit surprised and highly insulted. She may have been able to tell, but I don't think she believed it mattered.

I could tell that no matter what I tried to say, she was going to refuse to even bring their lesson books to their next lesson. I fumed over this for the rest of the evening, and when I got home, I wrote this email:

Hi [Rude Lady],

I felt like we weren't communicating very well this evening, so I hope you don't mind if I clarify a few things over email. I'd like your thoughts as well, as I'm not sure if we're seeing eye-to-eye just yet.

I did feel a bit railroaded by your announcement that you would like [girl] and [boy] to work on Christmas songs only. With you leaving their other books at home, I felt I had no say in the matter, which makes me feel disregarded and disrespected as their teacher. I am all for them playing songs they enjoy, but I always prefer to start from a foundational approach. Their lesson books serve the purpose of teaching them to read music and play with more skill, which in turn makes the "fun" songs easier and more enjoyable.

One great thing about piano lessons is how flexible they can be compared to classes in school because of the one-on-one nature. I think you'll agree I've always been very flexible! But I really would have preferred discussing this matter ahead of time rather than having it thrust upon me at their first lesson in three weeks.

[Paragraph with details of each kid, conceding the girl's waning interest and my willingness to focus on one song at a time with her, and respectfully asking her to send the boy's books with him since he practices a lot and has a lot of interest.]

Bottom line: the structure of their lesson book curriculum make the fun songs more rewarding. I appreciate your efforts in working with me to make sure [girl] and [boy] get everything they can out of piano lessons. Let me know what you think or if there's something missing here that I hadn't considered.



Unfortunately, I've never actually exchanged emails with this woman, so I'm not sure if she'll get it. But talking on the phone just wasn't an option. The more I think about this, the more I realize that I don't care whether they quit or not. If not, I keep getting their money. If they do quit, my weekly headache is gone. I've never advertised, so if it comes to that, I can do it. I've bent as far backwards as I'm willing to go, so I'll just see where it goes from here.


jessica @pianomomsicle said...

Yuck. NOT fun. Dealing with parents like that (and it seems like more and more parents are like that now) is part of the reason i don't teach. That is just crap.
Do you get paid when they're "too busy" to take lessons?
Do you think she'll have a "holy crap" moment sometime when they're in their 30's and unsuccessful, thinking "why didn't i teach them a better work ethic"?
She really is treating you like you're doing the chore of teaching music to her kids and basically denying the fact that she and her kids both have responsibility if they want to get better. And if they don't get better, they're wasting your time and disrespecting you.
This turned into an unexpected thesis, sorry. This comment mostly was supposed to read: "i hear ya. so sorry, Big."

Erin said...

There are so many parents that don't realize that you can't tell your child's teachers what the curriculum should be. That being said, many parents don't see someone they bring their children to in a home environment as a teacher. I got that a lot (as did my mom) when I did daycare where the moms would make comments like, "So, after this is all over what's going to be your real job?" Um, excuse me? I've never thought for a second to go to Mrs. Bolt with suggestions on how she should conduct her interaction with my kid. I feel for you, Susan and I hope this lady gets the hint soon.