How to Better Work With Busy Students and Their Families

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Fellow teachers, we’ve all been through this before: a last-minute cancellation (like a couple of hours before), because Suzie has a special after-school program that her parents forgot to tell you about at last week’s lesson. Or a whole string of cancellations because little Johnny has a super jam-packed schedule of baseball, or soccer, or basketball, or all three! Or a family decided they would like to take their annual summer getaway…for 2-3 months!! We’ve all been frustrated/disappointed to some degree because of these inconsistencies with lessons. It’s almost as if the students have lost interest, or the parents don’t think that music lessons are important enough to give them top scheduling priority. And that’s not even mentioning what happens, or doesn’t happen, during lessons! One student forgot to complete their theory homework, or maybe they did it, but rushed through and didn’t bother to review the directions. Another only got in about 3 days’ worth of practice time—totaling only 40 minutes!
I want to attempt to bring some insight from my own personal experiences, friendly common reminders, as well as some stories that I’ve heard from other teachers, to help all of us get through these rough patches, so that we don’t have to pull our hair out.
First, we need to address the lesson conflicts head-on, but diplomatically. If the family gives you advance notice (at least 48 hours), immediately work with them on getting a makeup lesson(s) scheduled. Try to be flexible with them! Give them several open slots that you know you have, or even ask them for their availability and go from there. I know that some of us want to stream-line our travelling schedules so that we’re not running all over creation, but sometimes we need to sacrifice a little to meet the needs of families. Otherwise busy students may go without lessons for weeks! Maybe even setting a completely different day and time temporarily for lessons will work. Again, compare schedules and meet half-way.
If a certain family is cancelling multiple times in a short time span, try talking with them and discussing if they are truly serious about doing music lessons. Ask them if they honestly think sports or social events are more important in their lives. Ask them to reassess their goals for lessons and what is their worth for them personally. This is where we have to be diplomatic! Try not to be confrontational, but still be open and honest. It could be that they simply took on too much than they can handle, and they need to let go of a few things (hopefully not music—and this is where we would remind them of a strong, grounded philosophy for music education!)
Second, it may be that lessons themselves are becoming stagnant and no longer stimulate the student’s interests and intellect. Sit down with the student(s) and parent(s) and discuss what we as teachers could do differently. Sometimes the student wants to learn popular music of their choosing, or a parent wants them to be able to play hymns/religious songs in their local church, or even explore their ethnic heritage through their families’ original countries of origin. It could be that we need to try different method books that are a better fit for that particular student’s learning style. Or we need to devise a better rewards system, with an emphasis on student’s self-motivation. In other words, don’t automatically place all the blame on the students and their families. Sometimes we need to reflect on ourselves as teachers, throw away practices that don’t work effectively, strengthen good teaching strategies, and try new innovative ways to reach students.
I hope these ideas help! If anyone has anything to add or anecdotes from their teaching experiences, feel free to comment!

Joseph Mook
Teacher Liaison – Columbus Ohio School

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