Reflecting on Nearly 3 Decades of Teaching: What Has Worked

As I approach another one of those birthdays that starts with the number 5, I’m shocked to realize just how long I’ve been teaching piano. I opened my piano studio in 1987, almost 3 decades ago. I took about 3 years off during graduate school and when my daughter was a baby, but still, it’s been a long run! I’m happy that I can still say that I love it, and I don’t plan to quit any time soon.

Fall always feels like a new beginning to me. School starts fresh, a new crop of students usually appears, and Advent begins the church year. It’s a good time to reflect about what has worked and what hasn’t. In another post, I’ll consider what I might have done differently in all of these years of teaching, but today, I’ll start with the positives. Here are some things (in no particular order) that I consider to have been successes. 
1.  Not using only one method book. Students come in all shapes, sizes, and learning styles. I’ve considered it an essential part of my job to stay abreast of new method series and carefully match one to a student. Sometimes, I choose not to use a method at all. In all of these years, I think I’d have gone bat-crazy if I had taught from the same books with every student!
2.  Attending conferences and symposia. Whether it was a state or national MTNA conference, a symposia at a nearby college, or workshops at a local store, attending these gatherings sparks my creativity and helps me stay current on literature and teaching ideas. 
3.  Writing and enforcing a solid studio policy that protects my time and income. It’s not overly strict, but I do enforce it. It took several years of teaching before I became comfortable asserting myself in a friendly way, but the journey to that point is well worth it. I’m grateful for a good piano pedagogy teacher in college who taught me to present and think of myself as a professional and to establish professional policies. 
4.  Being willing to dismiss students from the studio. I’ve done it rarely, but I’ve done it. Families who don’t pay, constantly bounce checks, are frequently absent without notice, and of course, students who never practice are all subject to dismissal. I write a short letter, hold a parent conference, and institute a probation period during which I expect things to change for the better. If they don’t, I politely show them the door. Again, it took a long time to work up the courage to do this, but the relief is huge once you’ve done it a few times and you know you can do it again if needed. Friends, don’t suffer through bad situations. 
5.  Always having an interview with prospective students and their parents. I don’t make a big deal out of the fact that I’m deciding whether or not to accept them, but I am. During the interview, if I sense that we aren’t going to be a good fit, I don’t hesitate to broach my concerns candidly and to lay down some boundaries. For instance, if I’m interviewing a student heavily involved in sports, I make it a point to say, “I won’t be willing (or able, due to my busy teaching schedule) to make up lessons missed for sports practices or games. You’ll need to decide if you can really make a commitment to lessons.” 
6. Giving myself raises from time to time. I keep the increase per lesson small, but I do this pretty regularly. Again, the first couple of times, I worried about the response, but it’s never been an issue.
7. Having a dedicated room in my house that is my home office/studio or else teaching outside of the house. For about 4 years of my teaching career so far, I’ve had to teach in our family’s living room, but I’ve been fortunate to be able to have dedicated space most of the time. It’s definitely the way to go.
8. Putting the interests and well-being of individual students above the temptation to chase after achievements. Competitions, exams, and festivals have their purposes, but just as test scores are not the measure of school teachers and students, those musical events are not the measure of piano teachers or students. The older I get, the more I believe it. I’m not a Suzuki teacher, but I love these words of Shinichi Suzuki: “Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.”

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