Following on from Chad’s excellent advice about fee structure, let’s talk about Terms and Conditions. Throughout my life I’ve had a wide variety of teaching jobs, as a visiting tutor through a music service as well as peripatetic teaching in private and state schools, and doing my own private teaching at home. Many workplaces have own their terms and conditions but in some cases they are very vague or non-existent. Wherever and whenever you are teaching, a good working relationship depends on managing students’ expectations when it comes to cancelled or missed lessons. Not to mention that without plans in place you could jeopardise your income and your sanity! You therefore need to be prepared to communicate your policy to any potential student or their family ahead of time. Terms and Conditions don’t have to be scary, though! Here are some points to consider when you’re coming up with your own policy.

 

Private teaching:

 

  1. Will you be able to keep your side of the bargain? This is the most important question that will guide the rest of your decisions. It’s no use having a really robust policy on cancellation if you are going to cancel or rearrange students’ lessons at short notice when a gig comes in. There is absolutely no shame in doing that: there have been periods in my life where arrangements I have had with private students have been very loose (hello PhD). The key is to be very up front about it: for every student who wants a lesson ‘4pm every Thursday in term time without fail’ there will be another who runs for the hills at the sight of a list of Ts and Cs. You will probably find that you end up with older students or adult learners, since the younger ones do thrive off routine, and any work in schools is a lot more difficult if you can’t commit to a regular time. However, private teaching can still be done around gigs, especially if you’re teaching some lessons online. Just don’t expect that they won’t try to rearrange their lesson as much as you do!
  2. Will lessons be paid for up front, or on a weekly basis? It’s up to you how you play this. If lessons have been paid for up front, even monthly, it’s easier to reschedule a lesson rather than cancel it, because it has already been paid for. Some teachers offer incentives for paying in blocks, such as a small discount. Up front payment might also mean that it’s easier for you to manage your money.
  3. Will you rearrange lessons, or do they just get cancelled? I would argue that, in order to maintain good relationships with your students and their families, you should attempt to rearrange lessons rather than cancelling them. It also gets you out of the sticky situation where you may be asked for refunds if they have paid up front. Much as you are not obliged to refund if your cancellation policy doesn’t allow for it, it avoids any awkwardness! In that case you need to decide…
  4. What is the cancellation period? It’s about how much notice you need to reschedule the student’s lesson. Remember, you have already allocated that time to the student, so if it’s a short notice cancellation, you can’t use that time for another student. You could say that any cancellation on the day means the full fee will be charged. However, if you’re going to try to rearrange this lesson, a sudden cancellation means that you’ve allocated two half hours to the student now, and therefore worked for half the pay. Fine for a one off, but not if this becomes a repeat problem…
  5. Can you offer an alternative to rescheduling or cancellation? This is one of the ways that I a) got off the endless treadmill of rescheduling lesson after lesson, and b) show kindness to overstretched students and families. Picture the scene: Jimmy usually has his lesson on Thursday at 4, but there’s a football tournament he has been asked to play in. Parent gets in touch on Monday to ask to reschedule. No problem, what about Wednesday at 4? Problem solved. Here’s another one: you get a message at 3:30 on Thursday. Jimmy can’t come to his lesson because it’s football, really sorry we forgot to tell you, but what about 4:30 when he finishes? You don’t have a student then, but you’ve been teaching since 8am in school and you’re tired, so you say no. You’re well within your right to say no, so no harm done, right? But parent is at home now, thinking, ‘I know she doesn’t have a student after Jimmy, that was pretty unreasonable.’ You’re beginning to put your feet up and starting to feel guilty: ‘Jimmy has two younger sisters and their parents have so much to remember. I feel super mean!’ This situation could have been entirely avoided if you have arrangements for substitute lessons. Instead of Jimmy losing the lesson, you could suggest that when he gets home he makes some recordings of his pieces, and that you will send feedback to him, for example. You could spend the half hour you would have been teaching making some short videos that you’d like him to follow. Often the students find it quite novel, and it’s good for their independence too.

 

Teaching in school or for a music service:

  1. If the school has its own policy, just follow it.
  2. But I think it’s a bit mean! Seriously, follow it. If you start being super lenient but the rest of the visiting staff are following it, then you’re making life more difficult for them. Parents talk to each other!
  3. But Jonesy has an exam coming up and she’s missed another lesson… more of a grey area: we all want our students to do well, and students miss lessons for all sorts of reasons. What do the other teachers at your school do in that scenario? Talk to your colleagues first, then Head of Music. Flagging up repeat non-attenders is really important because you may not have a direct line of communication with the student’s family, meaning that they may not even be aware that the student hasn’t been attending.
  4. The school doesn’t have a policy. Perhaps it’s time to get one. Unless you’re fully self-employed within school (if parents are paying you direct and you’re paying the school a room hire fee, chances are you are), you’ll need to come up with this in conjunction with Head of Music or Senior Leadership. Why not read the points above and suggest it? If you implement it, it’s something to talk about at your next job interview….

The bottom line with all of these suggestions, is that however you design your policy, it needs to be communicated up front. Students’ families could even sign and date it on Google Forms, or you could add the line ‘by bringing the student for lessons you are deemed to have agreed to the above Terms and Conditions.’

I’ll finish up with an example of what I currently use in one of my schools. Although I am a visiting tutor, I am self-employed there, meaning that terms and conditions are at my discretion. I and the other visiting tutors joined forces and came up with the following:

Terms and conditions regarding lesson rescheduling and cancellation:

  • In order to change a lesson time and guarantee that this lesson will be made up, 24 hours’ notice is required.
  • If a pupil is unwell or unable to attend on the day of the lesson with less than 24 hours’ notice given, the lesson will be rescheduled if possible. If this is not possible, the lesson will be charged.
  • If a pupil misses a lesson with no notification, the normal lesson fee will be charged. The teacher is not obliged to make up this lesson.

Lessons may only be terminated at the end of a term, and if this is the case, at least six weeks’ notice must be given in writing to the Visiting Music Tutor (VMT). Fees will be charged in lieu of notice.

It’s worth mentioning that I do offer substitute lessons like those discussed above, but this is an agreement made on an informal basis rather than being any part of the terms!

As you can see, Terms and Conditions don’t have to be complicated, long-winded or scary. It’s up to you in the end whether you implement any sort of policy at all, however some sort of policy can give you peace of mind that you are in control of your schedule.

For further information, Wendy Stevens’s blog about running a piano studio is fantastic, and has really shaped my understanding of Terms and Conditions and why they are useful. You can also access sample contracts on the ISM or MU websites, if you are a member.

Happy teaching!

Kate Blackstone