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How to Become an Indispensable Piano Teacher

In a world where parents are constantly re-evaluating the cost of a recurring service, job security may depend in part on how indispensable we are to our piano students. How do we become an indispensable piano teacher? 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.

How to become an indispensable piano teacher by Wendy StevensWhen 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.

What make a wonderful teacher is not the right question!

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 an indispensable piano teacher 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?

What was the difference in decent and “wonderfully 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?”

How to become an indispensable piano teacher by Wendy StevensThe teachers that I thought were wonderful and indispensable were the ones that 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.

How can you as a piano teacher become indispensable?

The application to piano teaching is clear (and this assumes that you are giving your students great teaching, technique, and music), 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 “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. Email blasts or group texting doesn’t count though. The individual communication is what makes a difference.
  2. How to become an indispensable piano teacher by Wendy StevensThe 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!

This article was first published in Clavier Companion.

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9 Comments

  1. Sarah September 24, 2018 at 2:58 pm

    Wow! Think I needed to hear this. Since I’m not a parent, I often wish I knew how my students’ parents think. 🙂 Thank you so much!

  2. Susan September 25, 2018 at 6:07 am

    I often record an MP3 on my phone or iPad me playing a duet with my students, particularly the beginners and early intermediates and then sending them to their parents that day immediately at the end of the lesson. They love getting that perk in the middle of their day and usually send me a note of thanks. It’s also a great keepsake so they can mark their child’s progress.

  3. Wendy Stevens September 25, 2018 at 6:49 am

    I’m so glad it was helpful, Sarah! Thank you for commenting.

  4. Wendy Stevens September 25, 2018 at 6:50 am

    Yes, that’s a great way to keep the point of contact going and it definitely fills parents in about what you are doing! I’m sure it makes what you do even more valuable to them! Great job at being indispensable!

  5. Teresa Unkefer September 25, 2018 at 7:28 am

    Yes, I agree totally, Wendy. As a teacher who has many students who have remained with me over the years, I agree that communication has been the glue to keeping us together. Communication has helped parents/child/me be a team working toward the same goal. Thank you for this reminder/reassurance that, yes, communication is important!

  6. Sonia September 25, 2018 at 10:28 am

    Thanks so much for this article! I email a “Music Report” to each family after the last lesson of each month to let parents know what we are working on and how they are doing. It also includes important upcoming events like group lessons and recitals, and at the bottom is a tuition statement with the amount due the following week at the first lesson of the new month. My parents have told me they love the communication!

  7. Terri Ramsey September 26, 2018 at 12:31 am

    Excellent article Wendy! It’s so easy to get busy and overlook the simple things that can mean so much. Thank you for these great reminders and your kind encouragement!

  8. Dave September 27, 2018 at 12:49 pm

    This was one of your best articles. I stopped midway through the article to send a thank you text to one of the parents. I will make this a more regular thing too. Thank you for these insights.

  9. Anna September 28, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    Thank you for your great article. It’s nice to see things from a different perspective. Wouldn’t have even thought about this without you bringing it to light. This makes so much sense.

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