Preparing an Effective Studio Policy
John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
thoughtfully prepared studio policy is one of the most important and far-reaching documents that a piano teacher can have. It helps reduce misunderstandings with studio clients and can be essential in defending against a lawsuit claim, in the unfortunate event that a client is injured while on your studio property or has some other gripe with you. A good studio policy can also be valuable if you have to take action against a client for non-payment. Even if you are fortunate enough to avoid these problems, your studio policy can help you tremendously when clients want special treatment or don't honor commitments for lesson times. This article discusses, in general terms, the content, format and use of a good studio policy. While it can't be all-inclusive for all piano teachers, most teachers should find the general information and tips that follow of value in devising or updating their own studio policies.
There is no more important document describing "the professional you" than your studio policy.
Although most teachers have a studio policy, not everyone has the same concept of its purpose and content. In my view, a good studio policy provides several things:
There is no easier and more effective way of handling many thorny issues than to have them defined in your studio policy. Think of it as a "shield" which you can use to both deflect arguments with clients and help settle those that may arise. The policy can't (and shouldn't) try to cover every issue that you may face in the studio, but should be sufficiently specific to handle the most common ones clearly. It must also be sufficiently general that uncommon ones can be covered under the general policy provisions.
Every individual teacher's situation is a little different from every other teacher's, so a teacher can't usually just copy another teacher's policy directly for use in his or her studio. However, there are a number of areas that are relevant to virtually all teaching studios. I think that most studio policies should include one or more provisions in the following areas (in no particular order):
Although this list may seem long, it is, by no means, complete for all teachers. Once the teacher covers these basic areas he or she must also consider any other requirements specific to the studio, area or client base. These should then be included as the teacher deems necessary.
The studio policy should be made as specific as possible, while keeping in mind that it must be general enough to apply for all clients of the studio. Thus, the policy should not say "Lessons can be scheduled per the clients needs," nor should it say "Lessons are scheduled 8-5 Monday-Friday." A better formulation would be "Lesson times are scheduled at the mutual agreement of teacher and client, subject to the availability of open lesson times." This latter wording gives the teacher flexibility to schedule lessons at times that work for him or her, but still gives the client a sense of flexibility on the part of the teacher. If the teacher changes the studio hours, the policy need not be re-written to cover the changed hours, when a provision like the latter is used.
If you've gotten this far in this article, you have probably realized that the studio policy is, in many ways, a "contract" between you and the client or the client's parents. Because it has many elements of a contract and may be the only document you can cite in a legal dispute, in some cases (particularly large, multi-teacher studios), it might be wise to have an attorney review the policy with an eye toward contract law in your state. In particular, he may want to include a "severability clause" (or something like it) in the policy. Without wishing to imply that I have any legal credentials, I will explain that a severability clause basically states that, if any provision of the policy is found invalid legally, the remainder of the policy remains in full force. Severability clauses are standard parts of contracts in most settings and jurisdictions. An attorney may identify other aspects that should be included from a legal standpoint, as well.
Keep in mind when writing the policy that it is a professional and business document whose provisions you may have to defend someday. Because of its importance and special nature, the text of the policy must be kept as concise, clear and focused as you can make it. For example, you may wish to give your students useful informational documents that give advice on learning the piano, practice, competition participation and many other areas. Since these matters don't concern policy, per se, they should not be included in the studio policy. The policy is not the place for "touchy-feely" language or broad statements of your life goals and love of music. Sergeant Friday's maxim, "Just the facts, ma'am," is good advice in a studio policy.
There is no more important document describing "the professional you" than your studio policy. In principle, you could simply type the provisions on a sheet of white paper, distribute it to clients and be done. I strongly advise that you not do it that way. The appearance of the policy is every bit as important as its provisions. If it looks professional, your clients will see you as a professional. If it looks like a collection of words printed on scrap paper, your clients will treat it that way. I strongly recommend that studio policies be formatted as brochures and distributed on paper that is distinctive (i.e. in a light (not white) color of good quality). The paper need not be resume quality, but shouldn't be cheap white copy paper, either. If you have a studio logo, use it on the front page of the policy to identify it. The policy provisions should be organized in topical areas (e.g. Fees and Payment, Lesson Scheduling, Conduct at the Studio, etc.) with each provision marked either with a number, bullet or small graphic to set them apart from one another. Individual provisions should be comprised of one or two short sentences. Long paragraphs with great detail should not be present in the policy. The end of the policy must include a signature line for the client to indicate that they have been shown the policy and agree to its provisions.
From this short discussion, it's easy to see that formatting and printing the policy can take as long or longer than writing its provisions. You can buy preformatted and pre-written studio documents (including a studio policy). These can save you many hours, although, as with all template documents, they will require some "tweaking" of the text to adapt to the specific situation of any individual studio. These templates can be a tremendous time-saver in that they provide all the formatting and most of the content for you. Most word processors also have various templates ("projects") for brochures, etc. included with the program. They won't be as directly useful as a specially prepared studio policy template, but can be a helpful starting point for formatting your own policy, so long as you're prepared to do some extra work to get them converted to a form appropriate for a policy. Whether you write and format your own policy or use a template document, it's a good idea to write it, then put it aside for a day or two and come back to it. This will help you to remember those provisions you have forgotten in the first draft and give you time to think about the exact wording you want.
If you have a studio web site, you will probably also want to put your policy on the site. Although you can simply reproduce the text there, I think the best way of offering it to clients and prospective clients is in the form of an Adobe Acrobat Reader file (.PDF format). This preserves the formatting and professional appearance that you have worked so hard to get. Since the overwhelming majority of "netizens" now have a copy of the free Acrobat Reader, this is the best way to make the policy generally available. Most word processors now can save files directly in .PDF format (you may have to install the necessary "export converter" from your word processor's disk). For those few people who don't have or won't get the Acrobat Reader, have the ASCII text version on the site too, either on its own separate page or as a downloadable file. Having the policy available on the web is a good way to cut short the "I lost my copy of the policy" defense from clients. If you put the policy on your web site, be sure to write in the policy a provision that points out that the policy and other studio documents for clients are present on the web for review. Include the URL of the home page of the site.
Once written, every studio policy should be reviewed at least once a year for any additions or changes that may need to be made. If you're careful in writing the original version of the policy, the number of additions or changes will be small, though not zero, in number. In considering whether to add items to the policy, keep the "Sergeant Friday maxim" in mind. Also consider whether you really want to spell out in great detail every kind of unacceptable behavior you want to ban or every kind of behavior you want to encourage. If you do that, you may end up giving ideas to clients, while making your policy overly long. Remember, too, that you have to abide by the policy terms, just as much as the clients of the studio. Don't add provisions to your policy unless you're prepared to live with them and all their consequences.
Ideally, amending your policy would mean sending every client a printed copy of the amended policy well in advance of the effective date of the amendments and having the client (or parent) sign and return a copy for you to keep in your records. In practice, this gets time-consuming, expensive and cumbersome if you have to amend the policy more than once a year or so. However, if you write into the policy a stipulation something like "This policy may be amended occasionally as needed. Studio clients may be notified of such amendments by letter, e-mail, in the studio newsletter or on the studio web site at least 4 weeks prior to the effective date of the amendments. All these forms of notification shall be considered valid and binding on both parties." This approach allows you to update the policy quickly for existing clients. New clients can simply be given the amended version to sign.
Once your policy is written and printed, it is time to begin using it. One of the most important things you can do with your policy is to give all prospective clients a copy to review before they sign up for lessons. If they decide to take lessons with you, arrange a meeting to cover all the pre-lesson information the client needs to have. At this meeting, go over the studio policy in detail, provision by provision, with the client, explaining anything they may not understand. Once you have gone through the policy have the client sign the policy on the signature line you have provided at its end, acknowledging that they have had the policy explained and agree to its provisions. Keep the original signed copy yourself and give the client a copy (or have him or her sign two copies). If the student is a minor, have the parent sign for the minor student. This step of a personal, provision by provision, review of the policy is important, both operationally and legally. Most people will simply say they never bothered to read the policy when they signed it, if a problem comes up that is covered by the policy. If they sue you regarding a matter covered in the policy, they will almost certainly say that they didn't read the policy.
At various times, clients will ask you to make exceptions to your policy or to do things for them which violate the policy in one or more ways. Although the teacher needs to have some flexibility in dealing with clients, I strongly suggest that you grant few or no exceptions to your policy provisions. Once you grant an exception, the fact that you have done so will eventually find its way to other clients and you'll get requests for exceptions or special treatment for them, too. Before long, exceptions to the policy will not only destroy your ability to use it to deflect such requests, but may also limit the legal enforceability of the policy. Without wishing to constrain the teacher's freedom of action too severely, I suggest that your "mantra" for most special requests should be something like "I have a studio policy which defines how I handle these requests. I can't grant your request for special treatment any more than I can grant them for anybody else."
Your policy is only as good and as valuable as your willingness to implement it in your dealings with studio clients. If, after careful consideration, you decide that you will be making lots of exceptions to your policy terms, consider carefully whether you want the provisions in the policy to which you will be making exceptions. If you can't or won't enforce your policy terms, you're probably better off not having it, though you'll pay an emotional and, very probably, financial price for not having it.
The studio policy is, by far, the most important document that a piano teacher can have for his or her students and parents. However, depending on the number the students you have, how many have behavioral problems, whether or not you have a studio computer learning lab and whether you have a multi-teacher studio, the studio policy may be only a good start on the documents you might need or want. Because the studio policy is the most general and all-encompassing document your studio will have, you may not be able to include in it a comprehensive list covering every conceivable matter that might arise. For example, you may find that you will need a separate computer lab policy laying out the rules governing use of the lab. You might want to have a separate document detailing acceptable and unacceptable student behavior. Many others could be imagined. If you use separate documents like these which cover policy matters, make sure you "incorporate by reference" (to use the legal term) all those documents in your policy. In practice, what this means is having a provision in your studio policy something like, "Other rules and regulations governing lessons at the studio are provided in the studio computer lab policy, which you have received. The provisions of that policy are considered a part of this studio policy, to which all clients must agree prior to the start of lessons." Most teachers will have a studio policy first and then supplement it, as needed, with additional documents.
Preparing a studio policy is a lot of work. With lessons to teach and clients to deal with, who has the time? Unquestionably, the answer is that you should make the time. A studio policy will start saving you time, trouble and headache the moment you implement it. The time it takes to prepare a good studio policy will be rapidly repaid, with dividends. Before long you'll be asking yourself how you got along without one!