Dealing with Missed Lessons
John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
issed lessons rank with payment problems and failure to practice as among the most frustrating issues affecting many piano teachers. Students, or their parents, may give no notice at all or, in a few cases, may even call on the way to the lesson to say they have decided to do something else. Many will want refunds (not make-up lessons) for the missed lessons. Meanwhile, you have prepared for and are left committed to teach in a lesson time slot for a student who isn't going to show up.
Chances are that, no matter how you handle missed lessons, you'll not be completely pleased with it, since situations differ and change a lot. However, you can take some reasonable steps to minimize students missing lessons and the time and financial loss that accompany it. This article will discuss what you can do to help reduce your level of frustration with missed lessons and make-up lessons, by putting yourself in full control of them.
Put the onus and responsibility on your clients for resolving the conflicts they have created that cause them to miss lessons.
Allow me to start by pointing out that you may have unintentionally "institutionalized" missed lessons by your billing and payment policies. If you accept payment for individual lessons at the time of the lesson, you are setting yourself up for students missing lessons. Any time money is a little short, or whenever the parents want to do something else with the time, the lesson will be missed and you will be left holding the time slot. In that situation, the parent and student have no motivation whatsoever to follow through on lesson commitments or even to give you notice! Perhaps the single best thing you can do to reduce a problem with clients of the studio missing lessons is to require payment in advance. You'll likely find a near-immediate reduction in missed lessons, if you give the student and his parents a financial incentive to honor lesson commitments by demanding full payment in advance for a significant block (3, 6, 12, etc.) of lessons. For example, you can have clients pay in advance by semester (12 lesson, 13 week time block), rather than yearly. This is sometimes referred to as "levelized" billing to differentiate it from payment by the lesson or payment in full in advance for a year's lessons, which some of your clients may find to be a financial burden.
If circumstances are such in your studio that you feel you must accept payment at the time of each lesson from some of your clients, then I suggest you require such lesson-by-lesson payment in cash before the start of the lesson, while allowing check payments for advance payments. This may be sufficiently inconvenient for those who would like to pay by the lesson that they will decide to pay in advance.
If you're willing to have a "no refunds, no make-ups, ever" policy for dealing with missed lessons, you can also solve the problem easily, since both the financial impact and the uncompensated waste of a time slot don't arise in that scenario. However, how do you handle the situation where students, particularly kids, are ill on the day of the lesson? Presumably, you don't want the student to spread the illness to you or others. If you don't allow make-ups in that circumstance, many students will come to the lesson when they really shouldn't.
The more precautions one takes against transmission of germs and viruses, the better, but it is difficult to disinfect with certainty every surface a sick student touches or might touch during the course of his time at the studio. If, along with the coughs and sniffles, the student is running a fever of any sort, another major indicator of contagiousness, he probably should stay home from both school and piano lessons. It is generally thought that sick workers cost companies more money due to transmission of illness than their productivity during their illness generates. For this reason, it is the policy of every large corporation and governmental entity that sick workers stay home, at least for the first couple days when they are most contagious. Thus, the best solution for most studios is to request that sick students not come to lessons. A strict "no make-ups" policy, may be, inadvertently, contributing to compromising your health and that of your students.
While basic professionalism demands that you be prompt and prepared at lessons, keep in mind that you may get sick or need to miss a lesson occasionally for some other good reason yourself. If you have a "no-make-ups" policy, you have little moral or legal justification for missing a lesson. Unless you're willing, under all circumstances, to live by a "no missed lessons" policy yourself, you should be cautious in taking that position with respect to your clients missing lessons.
Of course, you could also adopt the polar opposite policy of giving make-ups all the time for lessons missed for just about any reason. I strongly suggest that you not adopt such a policy. If you do, before long, you'll find that clients will be missing make-ups and demanding make-ups for the missed make-ups, wanting refunds for multiple missed lessons, expecting that you will teach make-up lessons at just about any time they like and, generally speaking, pretty much running your life for you! Offering unlimited make-up lessons takes the responsibility for missing lessons off the shoulders of your clients and, in effect, makes you liable for their irresponsibility and over-packed schedules.
The "no make-ups" approach may be a little too "draconian" for your taste, since there are some legitimate reasons for missing lessons (e.g. medical emergencies). You may want to be understanding of and flexible in dealing with these and other special circumstances that may cause students to miss lessons. In principle, you could handle these as quiet "exceptions" to a published "no make-ups" policy. I think that course is less than optimal.
I have said in the article, Preparing an Effective Studio Policy, that making too many undocumented "exceptions" can wreck your studio policy, making it unenforceable morally and legally. It's one thing to make an exception to policy for an issue that comes up once a year; it's quite another to do it for missed lessons, which may occur weekly, or even daily when the flu is making its rounds.
Although every individual teacher's studio and client base are different to some degree, you can significantly reduce missed lessons, and the sometimes unfortunate confrontations that arise with people wanting refunds for missed lessons, if you build a missed lesson policy into your studio policy. If you define the rules in advance, it makes it easier for you and your clients to follow them. Following is a "middle-ground" missed lesson policy that allows for make-ups, but gives the client and student some incentive for coming to lessons or at least notifying you if they can't. You may not want to use every provision in this policy or may want to edit it to your taste, but it should give you a good start on a solid, defensible position.
Lessons will be paid by semester only, in advance. No payments for individual lessons are accepted. Make-up lessons will be given at no additional charge, provided that 24 hours advance notice is given that a lesson will be missed. If less notice than that is given, provision of a makeup lesson will only be done at the discretion of the teacher and only with an acceptable excuse from the client (e.g. medical emergency or illness). All make-ups are to be completed by the end of the semester in which the missed lessons occurred; i.e. there is no continuing obligation on the part of the teacher. Make-up lessons will be given only at times and dates within the teacher's normal teaching schedule or can be arranged at any mutually agreeable time. The lesson is considered to have been given if the student misses the scheduled make-up lesson for any reason. Make-up lessons are limited to two in any given semester; they may not be "carried over" from one semester to another. There are no refunds for missed lessons, ever.
The goal of this policy is to allow for real emergencies and, even, to allow for non-emergency rescheduling, but to give the teacher more control and make missed lessons an occasional thing rather than a constant issue, as it can be with some students. These missed lesson rules are structured to remove as much of the burden of missed lessons from the teacher's shoulders as possible and place it squarely where it belongs - on the parent or student. My view of make-ups is that they should be reserved either for extraordinary circumstances, or, if the teacher so chooses, as an occasional consideration for those with exceptionally conflicted schedules. In either case, if you are granting a student a make-up for anything more than about two of every ten or so lessons, you may need to re-examine your policies regarding make-up lessons, at least for that student. Medical emergencies (i.e. entailing an emergency room visit), sickness with contagious disease, unanticipated schedule disruptions (e.g. car breakdowns) and death in the family are some examples of things that might be deserving of a make-up lesson without 24 hours advance notice, should the teacher be willing to give make-ups at all.
If you are willing to provide make-up lessons under at least some conditions, start by deciding yourself what hours and days you are willing to teach them. If you don't want to teach on Sundays or late in the evenings in summer, don't do it! You're in control!!! Yes, you may lose a few students that way, but may gain a few from people who respect your willingness to set limits for yourself and others. One thing is certain: if you're doing things you don't want to do and can't justify to yourself, you surely can't defend them to others. Offer make-up lessons in any available time slots that you have decided to teach in. If your clients can't or won't fit piano lessons into a mutually agreeable time, then they either miss the lessons with no commitment on your part to give make-ups or stop taking lessons. The important point is to put the onus and responsibility on your clients for resolving the conflicts they have created.
You've probably already noted that I've said nothing about the educational impact of missed lessons on a student's progress with the piano. I think it is wise to let people know in your studio policy that missing lessons, even if they are made up later, can't help but have a negative impact on the student's playing. Your clients should understand that lessons are scheduled regularly for good reason and that missing them is to be avoided, if at all possible.
When it comes to make-up lessons, the teacher should control them, not the student or parent. If you allow make-ups, they should be scheduled at your convenience. Whenever somebody wants a make-up on a day or at a time that doesn't work for you, you don't have to explain it to them. Just say, "I don't do make-ups on that day (time)." Make-ups are a privilege, not a right. Make sure your clients understand that fact of life. If you can get that across to your clients, make-up lessons can be done without them becoming an irritation, intrusion or subject of abuse.