Handling it When Students Leave
Ginny W. AU
For various reasons, I have only been available to teach a fairly small number of students one-on-one (an average of about eight) since beginning teaching Simply Music just over a year ago. Fortunately it has been enough to become experienced which has been great. I have been open to expanding somewhat, however I find that I have ‘lost’ as many students as I have kept, over time. In a few instances, people have enthusiastically signed on and appeared to enjoy lessons and progress quickly, only to stop after a short period of time. The overt reasons given are always something to do with something happening at home or in the family, or feeling like they need a break. I have been written delightful cards and notes in a couple of instances, thanking me for being a wonderful teacher, but saying goodbye for a while. I have diplomatically pointed out how well they’re doing, the advantages and disadvantages to the student of taking breaks, etc., but ultimately accept their choice. Is there something more I could perhaps do to influence their decision? I find it a bit frustrating to have to order materials in advance, only to have students walk away with them after, and sometimes within, an initial cycle of lessons. I guess I do what I can to inform prospective students of the requirements of the program as per the conversation guidelines, and attempt to determine their enthusiasm and willingness to commit before they sign on the dotted line, but sometimes it doesn’t turn out that way. I guess my query is twofold: Firstly, how have you experienced the retention/attrition process? Secondly, is this countered by ongoing and active advertising (i.e. you lose one, you gain one) and good ‘conversations’? Anything else you may care to suggest?
Gordon Harvey, AU
I think your issue is one many teachers face, and can be a deep one, because it can get right down to the most personal questions about your own performance and your self-esteem. It took me years of teaching before I started to get over a feeling of failure each time a student left. Perhaps you’re better than me at getting over it, but I know a lot of teachers suffer that affliction. The first thing that helped me become more comfortable about losing students was having plenty in the first place. Of course, I never liked losing students (most of them, anyway), but the more students I attracted to my studio, the less I felt the need to hang on to them, and the more I looked at what sort of standard of commitment I was willing to accept. However, I have found that the best way to move on after the loss of a student is to look it squarely in the eye and see if there’s anything you can do better next time. Even if the student’s reason for leaving is totally legitimate, you can get some value from it by looking at what you could do differently.
Neil has said that when a student is less than happy with lessons, they will commonly not come forward with their concerns, and that they’ll often disguise their dissatisfaction with responses like “I’m just very busy”, etc. I’d recommend that you don’t assume this answer to be the whole truth.
If a student announces that they’re leaving, it would be quite reasonable for you to ask them a few questions, if only for you to get some feedback about your teaching and the method. Did the lessons unfold as they expected? Did they move faster or slower than the student was comfortable with? At the very least, you’ll be in a position to judge whether their expectations were reasonable. If they weren’t, there will be something in your initial enrollment and set-up conversation that could clarify things for students next time. If they were, then the student may have some issue of their own. A common one is that they have someone else in their ear who doesn’t have the same understanding of the program and who sews doubts. Or the student, despite their apparent commitment, really has preconceptions about music education that they weren’t willing to share. Or it could be something as simple as being shy or embarrassed about singing. Often it takes a little work to tease out the real issue, but you get better at listening for the grain of truth.
These days, I’m more willing to probe to try to get to the bottom of things. I’ll do so ongoing whenever I’m not 100% confident that they’re happy and willing to have me in charge. A student who doesn’t tell you their concerns and ends up leaving has done themselves and the teacher a disservice. It’s always a good policy to ask them now and again how they’re enjoying the lessons, although of course you would do so in a way that made it clear that you were the best person to decide how to handle any concerns. In other words, if it turns out they hate Blues, you wouldn’t automatically offer to stop teaching them blues pieces. The first thing that occurs to me from comments like “I need a break” or “I’m very busy” is that if music were a higher priority, they’d be more likely to sacrifice another of their commitments, so at the very least you get an idea of how important music is for them. This is not in any way a value judgment – there is no “correct” level of commitment, but there is a level of commitment that is required for lessons to be successful. You’ll glean a lot about this from the student’s practice. Limited practice is a self-replicating condition – the less you practice, the less benefit you get from lessons, the less good music you experience yourself making, and thus the less motivation you have. Establishing a good relationship with practice is preventive medicine against degenerative musical illness.
Again, many issues never get a chance to fester if underlying issues are addressed as a natural, ongoing part of the lesson experience. However, even if you do everything possible and you’re the best teacher in the world, there will always be attrition. Especially at the beginning, and usually ongoing, promoting your studio is likely to be a necessity. But you’ll discover as you build that word of mouth becomes a bigger part of your enrollment numbers, and you may well reach a critical mass where the number of students generates enough enrollments to compensate for your losses.