Piano Parents

Working Positively with Parents

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

Pushy Parent Syndrome

Is this something you are experiencing in your studio?

I recently attended a teacher meeting where a teacher was relaying her recent experiences with a very difficult parent of a young 6-year-old student. As I pondered the topic I realised that ‘pushy parent syndrome’, luckily, has not been something that I’ve recently encountered as regularly as in my young teaching years.

I felt it may be helpful to share some practices I’ve developed which have certainly made my teaching life far easier.

My approach is partly a conflict resolution one.  I would add its a “work in progress” – I would never claim to have all the answers and I’m still learning constantly after over 25 years of piano teaching!

I say conflict resolution because a relationship between a teacher and parent has potential for conflict, simply because the parent purchases the lessons and the child receives them. The relationship is a triangle – if anyone has ever had a dotted line with two managers you will know first-hand the problems that can cause.

  • The parent’s needs may be different to the child’s – conflict.
  • The parent’s expectations may be different to the abilities of the child – conflict.

Before you know it, you are jam-sandwiched between the child and the parent. So, what are the practical things I try to employ to make things easier and – most importantly – best for the student whilst maintaining good professional practices?

Understand the parent’s perspective

I gained a different perspective as a music teacher after the arrival of our first child.

I had never known what it truly meant to become a lioness – but when it came to my son I certainly roared to protect him if required!

A child is a parent’s most precious thing. As music teachers, we are privileged to spend time with them, the parent is putting us in a position of trust.

They are handing over some of their control and a considerable amount of money – usually the same amount as their monthly electricity bill.

I try to celebrate the child, with the parent, as much as possible. Building a relationship where they can see I am genuinely interested in what is best for their child.

This goes a long way in the future when difficult decisions need to be made. A parent is more likely to listen. If something goes well I will send an ad-hoc e-mail about it and thank the parent for their support at home for the child.

Start as you mean to go on

Set boundaries and dont expect the parent to be telepathic!

You may well be the first experience the parent has of their child having music lessons. They may not know how you expect them to behave unless you tell them.

My views on examinations, scholarships and parents sitting in on lessons are all discussed from the start. When it comes to payment arrangements, holidays and sickness I make parents fully aware of the policy in a contract before lessons begin.

I know many teachers reading this will already do this too. Many times, I will hear colleagues say, “Wouldn’t you expect them to know they had to pay for a missed lesson they just cancelled minutes before?”

Yes, I would, but then I’ve had years of music lessons, training to know how to behave in that situation. Everyone is different and has various expectations. I try to state what mine are to avoid unnecessary frustrating and even worse, RESENTMENT.

It’s not what people do…

Its why they do it try to gain understanding

I was very privileged for a few years to have a particularly wonderful teacher. Not only was she a marvellous teacher she was very intuitive and I’d add, wise.

She recounted this story to me. A parent had insisted that all her child’s piano lessons were recorded so she could listen to them at home. The teacher’s instincts stopped her from questioning it. She went with the flow.

As the months followed, the teacher became aware that the mother was dying of cancer. The recordings were her way of gaining every moment she could of her child’s life before her death shortly after.

I hope I would have my teacher’s humility and insight to make such a decision. Understanding why parents behave in a particular way has given me a helpful insight into managing any situation.

The roles of the parent and teacher

One supports, the other teaches. 

Some of my students in the past have really struggled if parents have constantly corrected their practice at home. This is something I talk to parents about in the very beginning. I explain that in my opinion, children just want to please their parents and being their greatest fan is the role that works best for them. (The psychology supports this – critical parent theories are something you could research and explain to parents).

When it comes to correction, I can do this in the lesson – usually in a way that the student corrects themselves.

Mrs Curwen, in her ‘maxims for teaching’, states “Never teach a child something they can discover for themselves.”

When parents become their child’s musical supporter cheering and praising – working in partnership with my teaching – greater things can be achieved by students.

Know when to cut your losses and move on

A colleague of mine once developed health issues because of a particularly difficult pupil and – guess what – their pushy parent.

After having to have an emergency appointment with a consultant, the teacher very wisely explained that they were unable to teach the student anymore, and found them another teacher. A less sensitive character that quickly licked the student and parent into touch. They never behaved in the same way for the new teacher.

We as teachers need to know when enough is enough, take responsibility and move on.

Many teachers say they can’t do this because of the student. We first and foremost have responsibility to ourselves and our family. Life is too short to be made miserable, or even worse, ill because you are trying to rescue the student. It is not your responsibility.

When unrealistic goals are suggested

State clearly in context the full implications, in terms of time and pressure. Make sure you listen first! 

Having to get a student a scholarship, or achieving an examination grade by a particular time, are typical demands asked of many teachers by parents.

I once had a situation where a student wanted to take an additional music examination at the same time as their practical exam – which we had already made an ambitious goal of achieving just one term after the previous grade. Instead of immediately saying no, which I had done in the past, I had a full discussion about the implications of it. I stated the exact amount of time required for instrumental practice and study time for the other. I also mentioned all of this in context of the student’s school work, other instruments and hobbies.

The parent was very grateful for the perspective, and we came to a mutual agreement to persuade the child it wasn’t a good idea. They just didn’t have the time.

I think that listening to the parent first really helped. The scholarship is something I discuss now from the beginning. I talk about the natural talent and practice hours required to achieve it, and continually update the parent on whether it still remains a realistic goal. This avoids last-minute demands that neither I nor the student can achieve.

Remember…

A parent can be a huge asset in a childs musical education

I can honestly say that I see the parents of my students as a huge asset now.

The truth is that they are there seven days a week – I am not! Their support has made a tremendous difference to the progress of my students, and I totally recognise it.

I thank them for their commitment, diligence and perseverance. I no longer think – that’s their job, it’s their child after all.

We all like to feel appreciated and I have learnt that a little bit of praise and encouragement goes a long way.

We are all winners if, most importantly, the student has a teacher and parent working together in the best possible way for them. Keep talking together and be clear, the most important person in all of this is the student.

And finally, a word of caution

All teachers have different styles – these ideas may need to be considerably adapted to suit yours.

Or, you simply might not have time or opportunity to do them – that’s understandable.

Do try to find a formula that works best for you. It would be great if my experiences are at least a little help in doing this. My hope is you can have harmony in your relationships with parents to maximise your enjoyment and success in the job.

On a personal note, I have in the past (and I’m sure I will in the future) made mistakes in this complex relationship. I will however continue to try!

Karen Marshall

Karen Marshall is co-author of ‘Get Set! Piano’ and  ‘The Intermediate Pianist’ with Heather Hammond. She has also compiled the ABRSM ‘Encore’ series, and co-authored ’How to Teach Instrumental and singing lessons: 100 Inspiring Ideas with Penny Sterling.

Karen teaches students of all ages and abilities as a peripatetic, private and classroom music teacher (primary) in York. She is a specialist in Music and Special needs.

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

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