By John Gardner
For a short while during my earliest teen years, without concern about walking to and into his home, I studied piano with a single guy who lived a few blocks away. During high school freshman year, I took clarinet lessons with a college girl who came to our school and went with me into a sound-proofed practice room. Later in high school I would travel weekly to an area band director’s home for clarinet instruction. Concerns about safety, transparency and reputation never came up.
But times are different now. Priests, coaches and teachers are convicted of having inappropriate relationships with children and students, creating a sensitive and suspicious society that dissuades good teachers and students from participating in the time-tested tradition of individualized instruction.
The concept of innocent until proven guilty does not apply. No one can afford even an accusation. A School of Performing Arts that provides private lessons for area children put windows in the all the classroom doors, instituted a parental sign in/out procedure and has a staff member walk in on every lesson every time. Band directors schedule lessons in busy offices or in large ensemble rooms full of distractions. College students video lessons with middle/high school students they are teaching, not only for critique, but also for security.
One band director told me that
…you don’t have to be guilty….an accusation can destroy a reputation and/or cost your job. And unfortunately, even after proven innocent, the doubts, questions and hesitations can continue to damage a reputation that took decades to build. Teachers have to be soooo careful.
The very nature of individualized music instruction almost mandates that student and teacher be alone in a room with a closed door. How do we take the legitimate safety concerns that student, parent and teacher share along with the teacher’s concern for reputation (and employment) and and still provide specialized, accelerated training?
SAFETY is everyone’s concern even if from different perspectives. Be aware and be careful.
- invite parents to sit in or be nearby during lessons.
- My experience: When I taught lessons in my home (not any more), parents could relax in my living room while I worked with the student in the dining room. A 6th grader’s mother would bring a book and sit in the room at the high school or college.
- leave a door open or at least ensure it is unlocked and/or has a window. Enable anyone to walk in on you. That delay while you get up to open the door from the inside can cause undue suspicion or concern (and increase interruption time).
- schedule lessons when others are around. Avoid evenings or non-school days when teaching at school or make sure someone else is home if the student is coming to your home studio. Do everything reasonable to remove any question andensure both student and parent are comfortable. Keep in mind that teens are increasingly cautioned to beware of one-on-one situations with adults. Respect that.
- My experience: When a mother requested I work with her student over holiday break, I scheduled it at school along with an appointment for another teacher to drop something off to me during the lesson time. I left the band room door opened and set up the chairs in clear view from the hallway so passing janitors could see and hear.
- video or audio record the session. CAUTION: If using video, place the camera so both teacher and student are visible, but NOT in a way that makes student uncomfortableor or could set you up for a different kind of complaint.
- My experience: When I teach lessons via Skype, I ask that the camera be pointed so that I can see either fingers, embouchure or both, so I am usually looking at a profile view of the student’s top front. When girls start adjusting their clothes because you are pointing a camera at them, there is some discomfort. Be aware, and be careful.
- if you have a regular coaching schedule, post the schedule. If you have a website with a calendar, parents (and students) are better reminded and informed.
- check references. In addition to safety, you want to make sure you’re getting a good product (teacher). If the teacher is an outsider coming to the school, the school should have conducted a background check. Ask.
- sit in or be in the area, at least periodically. Sitting in an adjacent room can provide reasonable privacy while often enabling you to hear your child play. They won’t do that for you at home, right? Bring a book.
- for virtual lessons (via Skype, for example), be in the area. You don’t have to stand over the child’s shoulder, but listen in and even walk in a couple times….say hi to the teacher.
- meet a new teacher for the first time with a parent and in public.
- go with your gut.
- if anything makes you uncomfortable, speak up or get out. Nearly 100% of the time, you are either mis-interpreting or the teacher is completely unaware and will respond and adjust. Don’t destroy an opportunity based on your misunderstanding a teacher’s oversight.
- if a parent is dropping you off, have a cell phone to call if the teacher is not there, you finish early (or going over), or you otherwise need parental pick up.
- My experience: It was during a storm and I was mid-lesson after school when the power went out. Emergency lighting came on, but not enough to continue.
- if you are going to a lesson, tell your parents (or someone) when, where and for how long.
- My experience: I’ve had an unnecessarily disgruntled parent when I scheduled some after school coaching with a student who never got around to communicating and mom didn’t know what was going on ’til the student didn’t get off the bus. My mistake was assuming the parent knew.
TRANSPARENCY helps everyone.
Sometimes there is a drop off in parental involvement and in student/parent communication during high school. Teens want more responsibility and independence and both parent and teacher should strive to help them in those areas. Assumptions often cause problems, however, and most issues I’ve ever experienced in the triangular relationship with parent and student elevate because somebody “assumed”. Several years ago, I gave each of my business office employees a personalized, engraved magnet that said, simply:
TEACHERS…provide a list of expectations and policies. Read mine here…
- Payment. How much, how often and what happens when they don’t. Are materials (music) included?
- Cancellations when you cancel, when student cancels, how much notice and what if there isn’t any?
- Minimum requirements; lessons per month, practice time, materials such as tuners or metronome, functioning instrument with adequate supplies (reeds, etc)…
- Privacy. Don’t share student/parent contact info or details about what happens during lessons. That is why they are called “private” lessons.
- Communication. Be easy to contact. Determine whether your communication is to be with student or parent. Any written communication with student should be copied to a parent, when possible, including texts, emails or other types of media messages.
REPUTATIONS are slow to build and quick to crumble.
Students and parents need to realize how important that is to the teacher, especially when their very livelihood depends on it. Younger or single teachers need to be hyper-aware, but no one is too old, fat, bald or ugly for legitimate concern and caution.
Without an element of TRUST, this simply cannot work. Hopefully the teacher has ‘earned’ some trust from both the student and the parentl. It is unfortunate that we hear via national news when trust has been abused. That is horrible. But it is also a very, VERY small percentage of people. My advice to all…. in a nutshell:
Be Aware & Take Care!
Thanks for reading.