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Avoiding Parental Espionage

Submitted by Mary Tickner

 

Accepting a student for lessons is a package deal - we also get the parents. Like your students who
have individual styles, parents also have individual parenting styles. Coping with their styles is often a
greater challenge than the actual job of teaching their child. The ideal parents are those who show a
positive interest in their child's work and progress without interfering in the teaching process or being
overzealous or meddlesome about it. It is important to develop a good relationship and trust with each
parent because they should be an ally in ensuring success in the lessons. How to develop this requires
considerable professional competence and a great deal of tact and diplomacy should the parental
involvement becomes obstructive and disruptive.


In his book "Making Money Teaching Music", David Nauman described 2 types of parents: "The
Gushers" who are initially enthusiastic but, in reality, consider music lessons more of a hobby and can be
totally indifferent which creates a poor environment for student progress. The second parent-type is the
"Pushy Parent" who has an extensive list of activities that involve the student every day and have
expectations that they will excel in all of them. These parents often ask about "talent" and success and
concerns about marks which places much stress on the student. Denis Agay also discusses the "Zealous
Parent", particularly ones that have had some musical knowledge, since "a little knowledge is a dangerous
thing". All of the above require tact and diplomacy but in the case of the Zealous Parent, some delicacy is
in order to convince the parent that help is always appreciated but there can be only ONE teacher.


Probably the best solution to any difficult situation is to use common-sense - head off trouble
before it starts. Most problems can be avoided by taking certain steps before the lessons begin such as
having a very clear policy sheet that must be read and signed by the parents indicating that they
understand and agree to what is in the policy sheet. However, of even greater importance is that you
have developed a first-meeting concept such as an interview that will give you insight into not only the
student's personality and musical interest and abilities, but also information about the parents and their
attitudes. For example, asking a student a question about their school, only to find the parents answering
the question for the student may only be parental nervousness but it could also indicate a possible future
problem when discussing the student's progress. It is most important that if the parents are in the room
during the student-teacher phase that they not interfere and you, the teacher, must make this clear.
Observing parents' body language and reactions are very important in deciding whether to accept the
student.

The second component of the interview is the follow-up discussion with the parents and
experienced teachers always have some very specific questions to ask that may seem irrelevant to the
parents but are important in establishing the real interest and attitudes in the family. What is also very
important is taking note of the interaction between the parents and the child. If there is some doubt in
the teacher's mind about accepting the student, it is best to suggest that they take time to make a
decision about the lessons. This also gives the teacher time to reflect on the situation. For example: in
the initial interview with one of my students, I sensed some real tension throughout the hour. Afterwards,
one parent called and explained that there was some tension in the household when the student
practiced because of the frequent comments and corrections being given. Since one parent was always in
the lesson, I took advantage of the one day when the student came alone, and called the family and
informed them that the lesson was exceptionally good and recommended that we continue without any
parents. Also, since the student was 11, I suggested that she should now be responsible for her practicing
and I would be the one to make the corrections and alleviate the household tension it worked!

 

Unfortunately, this does not always turn out as positive. Some years ago, I had a student whose
father sat in on every lesson (and her practice session when possible). However, when her mother came
with her, the lessons were much more productive. The father was not at all pleased when I pointed this
out to him and suggested we try a month of unsupervised lessons and practice. He informed me that he
had a legal right and responsibility for his daughter's education and would continue to stay. That was
quite an unexpected response. I knew immediately that the situation was hopeless and calmly suggested
that we discontinue her training with me and find another teacher.

There will always be some complication, but they are usually very small and easily settled with a
minimum of discussion or friction. I have found that most parents are more than willing to compromise or
adjust to accommodate any difficulty or problem that arises. Discharging a student is a very drastic and
disturbing event and is most rare. So, going the extra mile, in slight adjustments and being flexible as a
teacher goes a long way to maintaining good parental relationships.

Final words from Denis Agay:

"Be cool and calm; do not under ANY circumstances, lose your temper"

"Examine, as carefully and as objectively as you can, the child's entire curriculum and review the
progress made"

"If you feel that there is no objective reason for any complaint or dissatisfaction, bring this (as tactfully
as you can) to the parent's attention"

"Music lessons are a three-way effort by teacher, student and parents. If the parents are made aware
that their attitude and cooperation play an essential part in this joint efforts, their involvement will
rarely be the kind which could lead to serious complications."