Should you keep every student, regardless of little practicing?

Rochelle Pearson said: Feb 15, 2012
Rochelle Pearson
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
1 posts

A few years ago I wrote an article in the SAA journal arguing that no matter if a child doesn’t practice, or practices very little, you should still keep him/her as a student because at least they’re still playing music. I’ve been told by Teacher Trainers that you should never “fire” students because they don’t practice—that Suzuki would not have done that. I know of some teachers that have their students sign a contract that they will practice a certain amount every day or they won’t take them. I used to think that was more about the teacher’s reputation than the good of the students. And I have to admit I used to have all the patience in the world for those students who rarely practiced, despite my pleadings. But as I get older I feel less patient and more tempted to get rid of the bad and replace with the good, so to speak. Please let me know your opinions. I need inspiration to keep going with all my very mediocre students! Thanks.

Paula Bird said: Feb 15, 2012
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Viola
Wimberley, TX
386 posts

I have let a few students “go” but it has been a long process. At first I work with the parents to find out what is going on in the child’s life. Children have ups and downs in terms of interest, motivation, and time. I’m not so hard a teacher as to insist that my students practice a certain amount or else I won’t take them. I really do spend a great deal of time coaching and counseling my studio families about practicing and I create many incentive programs to help everyone stay on the same page.

However, there was one case in the past few years with two children, same family, and I finally had to let them go. I was spending time with these students and they never practiced. I spent almost two years trying to turn the situation around, because the family had started with a great deal of enthusiasm ten years earlier. I got absolutely no answer to my emails over the summer, where I asked for their help and feedback in figuring out how we could next address the problem. Finally, I realized that I was spending a great deal of time because I did not want to quit, but that I was the only one invested in this. The family did not respond in any way, phone, email, or letter.

There were possible new students who wanted to take lessons, who wanted to learn, who wanted to engage with the studio. I was denying these other students the opportunity because I was standing on my head trying to re-engage the other students, and I was holding spots for these two. This isn’t right. I will stick with a family through tough times, of course I will. But I cannot permit myself to be treated as nothing much more than a weekly babysitter. I expect, and rightfully so, that my families and students come to me for the expertise and knowledge that I will impart to them.

I do let students go, but only after we have worked long and hard to see if we can avoid it. If I find that I work alone on this problem, I give myself a deadline, and then I move on. I am more than fair and generous, as my studio families will tell you.

Paula E. Bird
TX State University
Wildflower Suzuki Studio (blog) (podcast)

Barb said: Feb 15, 2012
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
678 posts

I look forward to hearing others weigh in here! [edit—I wrote this before seeing Paula’s reply. Thank you, Paula!]

I am torn, too. I would like to still be a positive influence in the child’s life, but at the same time, when there is little to no progress, is that helping the child or only making him feel miserable? If I “fire” a student, will he take that as rejection, or failure? In reality, I know the parent and other factors are truly the issue (with younger children at least), not the child.

If the child is clearly not enjoying the lessons, are they really still making music at those lessons the one day they get their violin (or whatever) out? Is going through the motions enough?

And by keeping this child in the studio, it may be keeping another student (family) who would really engage, out—is that fair?

In Helping Parents Practice, Edmund Sprunger talks of asking parents to find a different teacher if they are not going to make violin a priority, if I recall correctly.

I have a friend who let a teen student go. I’m not sure how long the student had studied the instrument, but the friend told me that he suggested that maybe it just wasn’t for him right now, or something to that effect, and he could almost see the weight lifted from this student’s shoulders. He didn’t really want to play, but needed permission to quit. He THANKED the teacher.

So, the second part of the question is, if you do “fire” students, how do you go about it?

I had a teen student who was not practicing and not progressing and I did tell her that it wasn’t fair of her to be spending her mom’s money on the same lesson over and over, and it was quite frustrating to me, as well. I asked her to consider that, and let her know that even though I liked her and enjoyed her company at lessons, I wouldn’t be taking her as a student the following year unless she would start to practice before the end of the current year. At that time she did say she wanted to continue lessons, but some weeks later after a mother-daughter talk (or something) following yet another lesson for which she had not practiced, the mother let me know she wouldn’t be returning as she just wasn’t practicing.

I do have minimum days of practice (5) in my policy (not amount of time), and do keep records of practice. I also write term evaluations (main points being regular attendance, meeting practice requirements, respect and cooperation) so that if needed I have something to back up any decision to let a student go. I have come very close with a younger student, too, but then by the end of last year he seemed to pull up his socks (without any threat from me). I did ask for more commitment and support from parents before starting this year, and was getting it until just recently, so I am wondering again if this will be his last year with me.

I’d like to be able to have a gentle way of ending lessons or allowing the student to move on rather than “fire” them. I think the same way that it’s not good for a parent to not give advance notice to a teacher, it would not be good to not give advance notice to the student to let them know which will be their last lesson so that friendly good-byes can be shared and hopefully some positive closure.

Look forward to hearing from others on this.

Music Teachers Helper—for individual teachers
Studio Helper—for entire music studios or schools

Alissa said: Feb 15, 2012
Alissa Rieb
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Suzuki in the Schools, Viola
61 posts

This goes very well with another post today about a 6 year old who doesn’t practice. Paula put it very well. There is a big picture. Are there tiny achievable goals you can set for the more challenging students? Is this a student/family who you can have a heart to heart with?
Recently, I had a middle schooler who wanted to play so badly in the next book and I was holding her back. She was so frustrated! However, when I explained (with some emotion actually) that I felt morally wrong repeating the same lesson over and over again while her mom sat there and took the same notes and the student stood there hating life playing the same song while there was a waiting list for my studio. It just wasn’t fair to anyone. However, I still saw desire in her and I went and picked a song that was below where she was, but it was something new. She was so much happier the next lesson after some fresh air and some honesty. I think she felt guilty like she was getting away with it a little bit and not being frankly called on the carpet. I felt crummy because I was holding back my real opinions. Mom felt uncomfortable for taking up my time week after week. There is something to be said for clearing the air.
THIS IS DIFFERENT FOR EVERY FAMILY! That’s the hardest part. Sometimes we’re the wrong teacher for that family. Sometimes they are hiding a family issue like a divorce or tight finances and just need some time to regroup. I’ve had undisclosed learning disabilities or medication changes. I’ve had violinists who really were cellists at heart or pianists and they were not particularly fond of the violin, but loved music.
99% of the time, the situation can be turned around to keep the playing. Don’t take it all on your shoulders. There’s a Suzuki triangle for a reason. We’re a team. Ask lots of questions. Include the parent and the child. Have conversations when things are good so you have a reference point when things are bad.
Keep your chin up :-)


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