How to fire students?


Connie Sunday said: Apr 21, 2006
Connie SundayViolin, Piano, Viola
659 posts

Good morning, everyone. I love this forum.

I need to gain some insight about how to handle students that you fire. I just tend to take and take and then blow up (gently but firmly) and this is not the way to go about it, I am sure.

Is there a series of letters, or private chats, or something you go through, like warning people a couple of times first, or something?

Your input appreciated—

,,the reason I was asking this question, I wonder if the most professional and caring way of handling this situation is to have a formal policy in place, something like:

  1. Mentioning the issue to the parents (with me it’s always the parent) once, or perhaps, twice;

  2. Writing an email, outlining the issue and possible options and/or consequences;

  3. Handing the parent a letter, reiterating the issue(s)/consequences, and listing that you did (a) and (b); and finally

  4. Telling them in a kindly but forthright manner that it’s not a good match and they will need to find another teacher.

This—or something like it—has got to be better than just assuming people have common sense and should know whatever it is they’re doing or not doing is inappropriate, and then finally, just slamming them with, “find another teacher.”

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Gloria said: Apr 22, 2006
58 posts

It is a painful situation to be in, that is for sure.
I would say, once you have decided someone needs to go, for whatever reasons, it is time to tell them. Have you as a teacher ever been fired by someone in the studio? Even if people are able to use gentle enough words, they just go! Sometimes over the phone and very reluctantly paying the 1 month “warning”fee they owe. as stated in my policies.
This thing about warning them, I don’t know. Don’t they know things are not right already? Maybe having a conversation about what it is that you expect, without talking about finishing your professional relationship; this should be a red flag for them.
Most of us tend to take so much we weren’t looking for in the first place; I think clarity is VERY importnt, and can save us all a lot of sleepless night.
Just tell them you need to talk to them about the lessons, make a phone appointment and tell them that things aren’t working for you (and them) and wish them lots of luck and success with the music some place else.
You can be caring and still get rid off them.

Connie Sunday said: Apr 22, 2006
Connie SundayViolin, Piano, Viola
659 posts

What I did was add this at the bottom of our “New Student Handout”:

MY FORMAL POLICY FOR DISMISSAL: If it looks like the student/teacher combination is not a good mix, or if parents and/or students are not comfortable with the policies, we can always part on good terms. [Reasons for questioning the validity of the relationship include but are not limited to: excessive absences, excessive lateness, no calls/no shows, not returning borrowed materials, consistently not paying fees on time, overstaying the alloted time (and leaving child in studio past lesson time), taking things home which do not belong to student, rudeness, not practicing over extensive periods, etc.] My policy will be to:

  1. Verbally mention any difficulties once or twice;

  2. Follow up with an email concerning any ongoing problems;

  3. Follow-up with a letter given in person to parent or student; and finally

  4. If indications are that this is not the right situation for the student, the main thing is that the child is not upset; if a change needs to be made, teacher would like the opportunity to say goodbye on a pleasant note, wish the child well, and tell them how happy I was to have the opportunity to work with them.

This document is at

I think now, in the morning light, it’s pretty severe. By trying to cover all exigencies, I may have gone too far. I just don’t know…

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Mariam said: Apr 22, 2006
Mariam GregorianViolin
Ashburn, VA
34 posts

Is this the family you discussed in an earlier post? I think you mentioned that you have already sent them a letter. I would think that would be enough to give them fair warning that you are considering firing them.

I think that as teachers, we have the right to terminate lessons for any reason, just as students have the right to do the same. When you put out your policy sheet for next year, you might consider taking a lot of the specifics out. I actually don’t have anything in my official policy regarding termination of lessons.

When you speak to them, I would keep things short and sweet. If you start going into the specific reasons that you are firing them, things could turn very ugly. I agree with guayi- tell them it’s not working out for you and wish them the best of luck. They’ll probably know why, anyway.

A tricky dilemma I have run into is referring a nightmare family to other teachers. I have a good relationship with other local teachers, and I couldn’t in good consciense “dump” this family on a colleague. I would be pretty annoyed if someone did that to me! But I also really cared about the child, and wanted them to continue lessons. The way I handled it was by referring them to the SAA website. This way, they would be able to find another teacher without my having directly referred them.

Good luck…I bet you’ll feel a lot better when this is all over!

Connie Sunday said: Apr 22, 2006
Connie SundayViolin, Piano, Viola
659 posts

They had their lesson just now, and the dad showed up. (PhD dad) and they were perfect. The kids had practiced, he was not late, they cleaned up the toys, and they left right at the right time.

Score one for the lesson policy.

Oh, and I recorded the kids and they sounded great.

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said: Apr 22, 2006
 Violin, Guitar, Flute, Cello, Viola
120 posts

mshibiku, I think that while being very specific in your policy should help prevent problems innumerating ALL the various reasons might be too much.

This is an issue I am grappling with as well. For me it is extremely difficult to tell a family they must find another teacher, even if there is just cause. Right now I have some families that did not adhere to the studio policy of participating in the spring recital. The date for the recital is given to them in August. I am planning on letting each family know that from now on they must commit to being at both recitals next year or they will need to find another teacher—essentially they are on probation. Another student has been very inconsistent with practicing and commitment, and I just let her and her mom know that they have until the beginning of June to show me improvement or they will have to find another teacher. I have one family where the children’s behavior is unacceptable. They touch everything in sight, fight with each other, hardly ever follow instructions, etc, etc. I have already made it clear to the mother that she needs to instruct them NOT to touch anything unless I give them permission. I simply do not want them back next year, but am waiting to tell them until the end of the school year. I am finding it hard to figure out exactly what I want to tell them. Sometimes I am direct with this mom—”please accompany your child to the bathroom so he can get help reaching the faucet”. Sometimes I just sit in the studio and marvel at how she comes into the studio while leaving her two children out in the living room to fend for themselves (4 1/2 and 6 years old) to get their violins out, rosined, etc. Since she does not make sure they enter the studio I often have to do that myself. I have to ask her weekly to make sure that they do not jump on the furniture. How do I tell them they need to find another teacher? Do I simply say that they are too disruptive and their behavior is unacceptable? (I guess this seems like a no-brainer, but I find it hard to say!) I could also say that their learning style/pace does not mesh with my teaching style—something to that effect. What is the best way in this situation?

Rebecca said: Apr 22, 2006
23 posts


I think Mshikibu’s giudelines are right on track. I think I know what you are saying, that sometimes (as Suzuki teachers—we are trained and rightly so, to be patient -) it’s NOT appropriate to whittle down difficulties to “items” like lateness or lack of practicing… We all know that the human being is a lot more complicated than that.

BUT!!! Some things must simply be done quantitatively—or at least partly so—and all the things I heard you saying in your frustration list, seem to me to be things that would be dealt with professionally in M’s list of guidelines.

I have a family or two, that I wish I could just tell them, “Hey! after four years, you STILL DONT PRACTICE ENOUGH!!!! AT ALL!!!!!!” Or, “WHY are you ALWAYS late??” I would like to have a clearly outlined policy that would let me and the family know that “we can part on good terms.” That is admirable. (I just have a hard time because I am younger than all my parents…)

Let us know how you fare. This is a good topic.

“Life without music would be a mistake.” -Nietsche

Melissa said: Apr 24, 2006
 Piano, Flute
151 posts

mshibiku’s post has spurred on an issue that I am currently having, which relates to parent ed classes (see other thread).

I have been teaching Suzuki piano now for almost 10 years. It’s true that our method of teaching approach “every child can” sometime wains on the fact that us teachers have to be ever so patient and take on any child/family that comes into our studio. When I first started teaching I took on whoever wanted to enroll. I am now NOT at this point.

mshibiku is wondering how to fire a student. But I am wondering, how do you say, sorry, you cannot enroll into my program. Nip it in the bud, so to speak.

What do you do when you interview a family and you can obviously see the road signs. Child is inconsiderate of the things in the studio, parent does not respond appropriately to their child’s behavioural actions. You as a seasoned teacher can tell, this family is going to be high maintenance.
What is the ethical thing to do? I like the group I have. I have an almost full studio. If I was younger and/or beginning teacher I may tackle this, but I feel I am beyond trying to educate parents how to raise their children. Is this the beginnings of being burned-out or just getting old! Yikes!

Any comments?

Connie Sunday said: Apr 24, 2006
Connie SundayViolin, Piano, Viola
659 posts

I know what you mean: you can sense ahead of time it’s going to be a problem.

I’d just tell them you’re taking names right now and the waiting list is not letting your take anyone new quite yet. And then offer other teachers’ names or, probably better, other resources where they can look up other teachers.

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said: Apr 24, 2006
 Violin, Guitar, Flute, Cello, Viola
120 posts

This is an interesting question as well, and it would be great to hear from teachers who have handled this sort of thing. I don’t think there is anything ethically wrong with deciding that a family might not be a good match. This actually seems easier, though, than letting a family go that has already been with you. One family, even with a lot of parent education and weekly reminders about child behavior (since the parent does nothing to address poor behavior I have to do it, such as jumping on furniture) is not going to change. I am having a hard time formulating what to tell them—does the lack of practicing outweigh the poor behavior or vice versa?

said: Apr 24, 2006
 104 posts

There might be a problem in telling a family that you are full and not accepting new students if in fact this is not true— regardless of the size of the area where you teach, the music world is pretty small and people do talk. The parent you turn away may very well know the parent you later accept—and then you have a potentially thorny issue.

Personally, I don’t think there is anything unethical in choosing to accept some students and not others — of course you can see the road signs pointing to trouble! But in that case, it would be better, I believe, to take the time to construct some kind of a “entrance exam” which you require before taking on a new family. Perhaps you have a list of questions that you present to the prospective student (for example, asking them to perform some simple tasks, etc) or asking them if they WANT violin lessons, etc. You can then take your cue from there. Surely these children who come into your studio disrespecting the environment are NOT going to do what you ask them to! You could also have a list of maybe three or four commands that you ask the PARENT to read to the child (simple things like “sit down and clap your hands four times”). Again, I think the problem families won’t get very far here—because the parents aren’t in the habit of giving commands and the children aren’t in the habit of following them. You can gently suggest to the family that the child isn’t “quite ready” for lessons. Come back next year for another evaluation.

Or, if your studio is nearly full and you’re happy with your current group, you could switch to taking new families “on referral only” which means that you are only going to consider new students who come recommended by current families. I think current families who know your rules and expectations are not going to refer friends or acquaintances who would not fit in.

Good luck!

Melissa said: Apr 25, 2006
 Piano, Flute
151 posts

Don’t have much time.
This family was reffered to me form another one of my families.
That’s why it is a little sticky.
Thanks all of the replies.
Will post later.

Mariam said: Apr 25, 2006
Mariam GregorianViolin
Ashburn, VA
34 posts

Honeybee, what I tell families like that is that they are not yet ready to begin lessons. I tell parents (and kids!) that the observation process is a two way street: they are evaluating me as a teacher, and I am looking to see if they are ready. If a child is being disrespectful of things in the studio, they are not ready. If the parent is unable to control their child, the parent isn’t ready either. I’ve had to do this with several interested families this year, and they eventually just went away…to find another potential teacher, no doubt!

Melissa said: Apr 26, 2006
 Piano, Flute
151 posts

Thank you. Sounds like a good and simple way to deal with it. I will try to be more particular when it comes to enrolling students from now on.

I am kind of stuck with this situation, but I am definately using this situation as an experiment in teaching Parent Ed.

Yesterday was the mom’s first class/lesson and it went well, I think.
I layed down what my expectations are when it comes to students respecting the pianos and personal things of mine in the studio.
I told her I will gently but firmly tell the student what my rules are if need be, and I do expect the parents to back me up and continue with the teaching of this type of respect and behaviour.

I like the mom. And like it has always been for me in the past, I’ve mangaged to help children learn respect and the majority have done well.

It is just so nice when respect and apropriate behaviour is already instilled from the parents.

I think I need to monitor how her child does and if the situation requires too much on my part, where I am doing more disciplining than teaching then I will let the mom know that I feel her child is not ready for lessons.

Still it is hard when the child has a friend that takes lessons from me. Hopefully everything will be fine and this won’t have to happen.

Thanks to all and good luck mshikibu!

Lynn said: Apr 27, 2006
 Violin, Viola
173 posts

mshibiku is wondering how to fire a student. But I am wondering, how do you say, sorry, you cannot enroll into my program. Nip it in the bud, so to speak.

What do you do when you interview a family and you can obviously see the road signs. Child is inconsiderate of the things in the studio, parent does not respond appropriately to their child’s behavioural actions. You as a seasoned teacher can tell, this family is going to be high maintenance.
What is the ethical thing to do? I like the group I have. I have an almost full studio. If I was younger and/or beginning teacher I may tackle this, but I feel I am beyond trying to educate parents how to raise their children. Is this the beginnings of being burned-out or just getting old! Yikes!
Any comments?

Tell it like it is. If you don’t think a family is a good match for your studio, say so. You de boss! As profcornelia points out, polite fictions can come back and bite you. What if the family you put off as “not ready yet” returns in 6 months—but what you really wanted was for them to find a teacher elsewhere?!

As seasoned teachers, we know the kinds of families that we work with effectively, and that meld well into our existing program. “Every child can learn” does not obligate us to take on families that we can see at the outset will not fit into our studios, and will cost disproprotionate amounts of time and energy and effort. When I take on a student, I am in effect saying that I have every reason to believe that this child can be successful in my studio in the way that I define success. I know that if the parent and I are not on the same wave-length—whether it be in terms of discipline, expecations, commitment, participation, whatever—the outcome will be unsatisfactory, and an unsatisfactory outcome is not acceptable. After all, it is not the child’s fault that _________ fill in the blank. So because I have represented possible success by accepting the child in the first place, I end up working extra hard to try and compensate for what I could see at the outset was a mis-fit. Now that I know that that rarely works out, how ethical is it really for me to even make the attempt? Wouldn’t I be mis-representing?

There is nothing wrong with saying in plain language as part of your conversation about the intial observation period that this is when you can get to know the family to determine if they are a good match for you and your program. “I know what kinds of families I work best with, and I know what happens when I try and work with a family that is not a good match: it becomes a costly exercise in frustration for both of us. If I can see that this may not work, I would rather say so at the beginning so that you can continue to look for a place where you can be successful” is honest, and it doesn’t put you in the position of having to go head to head with parents about their priorities or their child-rearing practices.

Marni Hamilton said: Aug 31, 2013
4 posts

I recently handled this problem in a way that I am not happy with. I had a parent who told me that the relationship I had with her child was more important than anything else. I was the second teacher. The previous teacher suddenly got ill and couldn’t teach this student anymore. Both parents thought their daughter was amazing based on the fact that she could read music. However, she played loud and fast and did not sound very good to me. Since her parents told her she was amazing, she believed that she was amazing and would never do much of what I asked her to do. When I mentioned this to the dad, he seemed to take the attitude that as long as she was happy, that was all that mattered. He and his wife assured me that their daughter LOVED me. However, I was feeling like they were looking for the qualities one would find in a nursery school teacher and didn’t really care much about piano. The daughter was 12.

I knew this student was not going to work out and my attempts to address the issue seem to be unheard and so I decided to do what I believed the former piano teacher had done and lie. At the end of the school year, I announced my ‘retirement’. Despite my ‘retirement’ the parents wanted the daughter to take lessons over the summer to say good bye to me. I replied that the summer should be spent looking for the next piano teacher. I then got an angry email from the mother who was angry that I am retiring. I have been teaching piano for 15 years and this is the third time that I feel that the student has some attachment to me that has nothing to do with piano and it makes me want to run for the hills. Any thoughts?

Gretchen said: Sep 22, 2013
Gretchen LeeViolin, Viola
State College, PA
28 posts

Marni, I have had cases in which I have taught students long term (5+ years), and they get so used to me that they don’t really follow directions at home anymore. Obviously, this is not the case for every long term student, but some kids stop seeing you as a teacher/authority figure if they’ve been studying with you too long.

I just tell them, “We’ve been working together for so long that you’ve gotten too comfortable with me, and your progress is slowing down because of that. You are ready for someone to really push you and challenge you, and at this point, you need a new perspective, a new teacher.”

Even if it isn’t a long term teaching situation, I think a variation of the above explanation could still work.

Gretchen said: Sep 22, 2013
Gretchen LeeViolin, Viola
State College, PA
28 posts

Also, I do not take new students without a three-lesson trial period. I have learned the hard way that 1 trial lesson is not enough to be able to gauge what it will be like working with the family. At the end of the three weeks, I offer them a permanent slot (or not).

I have a policy sheet that explains how I expect students and parents to behave during lessons, info. such as payment, parking, etc., as well as the reasons for which I drop students.

If I can tell a student/family is not a good fit, I tell them. If I don’t feel comfortable with a child’s behavior/parent allowing child to run around, grab things, jump on furniture etc., I tell them that it’s not acceptable lesson behavior, and they have one more chance to show me that they can behave appropriately, or that’s it. I cannot worry about the safety of instruments/materials/other people and teach at the same time.

I have had several experiences where parents take offense to my commenting on behavioral expectations and choose not to come back. The first time a parent claimed I was strict and unreasonable for not tolerating running around/climbing/grabbing in the studio, I felt like a mean old schoolmarm, but I got over it. It gets easier, and it really is for the best.

MaryLou Roberts said: Sep 23, 2013
MaryLou RobertsTeacher Trainer
Institute Director
Ann Arbor, MI
233 posts

No matter how bad it gets, I will never “fire” a student and parent. I have found that listening to my own frustration is valuable, like a barometer to success.

Instead, I clearly state the goal, and make a note to myself to follow up in the next lesson. If it’s measure 21, then that is what I ask for, and also ask “how did practicing on measure 21 go this week?” Some teachers are afraid to ask this, but it is the assignment, and we need to know if it was ok, too hard, not clear enough….etc. There is no question whether to do it or not, if I need to re-introduce, repeat, describe, etc. then that is what that student and parent need to hear. Very important for them to know why it is important….many times parents think “the teacher is just being picky”. If it is clear, you will grow with your students, and their connection to you will become a great asset. I could write more….let me know if you have questions.

Marni Hamilton said: Sep 23, 2013
4 posts

I guess my question might be of a different sort. Every now and then I run into a student who is very well behaved and a parent who never misses a payment and who never cancels without giving me advance notification. And the student has potential. However, piano is treated like an expensive after school enrichment program. I write the assignment very clearly in an assignment notebook but no one ever reads it. My response to this has been to repeat last week’s lesson. This is effective some of the time but often times this doesn’t work. I could never enjoy going to a lesson and getting the same lesson week after week and so I am amazed when some students actually seem to enjoy coming to a lesson that is not only a repeat of last week’s lesson but a repeat of the last three lessons. I do say something to the parent who tells me that his or her child’s happiness is all that matters. What is usually, but not always, left unsaid is that as long as I am getting paid I should be whatever the customer wants me to be. I sometimes feel that although I advertise piano services I am inadvertently fulfilling some king of therapist function for which I am not qualified. I find it difficult to continue with these students and when I give notice honestly, the parent just about always gets into a huff.

I feel like I am getting more and more students like this and it is the reason that I will probably stop teaching soon.

Barbara Stafford said: Sep 23, 2013
 Violin, Viola
Lewisville, TX
43 posts

To me, it sounds like you are looking to limit your teaching for a specific type of student whose motivations and ambition level is more like your own. Maybe, you can explain this to parents who are inquiring about lessons. I suppose you would need some way of explaining it clearly. I am slowly reading a book that was brought up in my teacher training class, Please Understand Me II Maybe if you take the personality test and read the first 20 pages of that book you will be able to clearly define your personality and the kind of student you can be happy teaching.

Sue Hunt said: Sep 24, 2013
Sue HuntViola, Violin
371 posts

Life follows thought.

Talk about the positive goals you want from working together.
Focus on the best that is happening and nurture it.
Praising for hard work and focus wins hands down over praising results.

You may find that there will be less need to fire families.

The mind is like an auto pilot and when programmed with a good outcome, will take you there.

Lenni Jabour said: Sep 25, 2013
Lenni JabourPiano, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Toronto, ON
8 posts

I just wanted to thank Sue Hunt for the beautiful sentiment that inspires great teaching no matter what the issue. Wonderful advice and words. Thanks.

Music is a language of the heart without words. 
- Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, 1898- 1998

Farobag Homi Cooper said: Sep 25, 2013
Farobag Homi CooperPiano, Voice, Violin
3 posts

Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy underscores the import of good thoughts, words and deeds. Our pedagogical aim, then, should be to embrace and disseminate love and wisdom to all. The misguided notion of “tough love” can often add fuel to our ego’s simmering fire and I, too, am grateful to Sue for conveying this message of true understanding and the dynamic of circulating positive energy.

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