Music Teacher's Helper Blog

The Emotional Investment of Teaching & Difficult Parents – A Request for Advice and Discussion

It amazes me how much people don’t understand the weighty emotional investment a teacher makes.  Heck, I didn’t even get it for quite awhile.

When the time comes that certain students have to leave lessons, there are times I am bit low for a week (maybe even longer) about it. My significant other used to think it was largely about paying the bills; “Oh, it will be okay. You’ll find a new student soon enough.”

One of my peers is a compassionate, empathic, deeply caring teacher. He is much like myself.  I was talking to him after he lost one of his students and we found that we have the same experience. He expressed it quite well; “That happens to me too. People don’t realize how much you’ve invested in that student. You grieve. There is a loss.” That helped me find words for what I was feeling, and then explain those feelings to my significant other.

So it is very hard, when you realize people don’t understand that emotional investment. And it gets worse when a parent or student chooses to disrespect it on various levels. You may have a rapid disconnect from your investment of energy. Depending on how the situation occurs, there may not be a good emotional resolution.

A recent situation has cropped up for me, forcing me to look at this issue again.  Perhaps the community here at MTH can offer advice. I have a special needs student enrolled in my studio. The student has a condition (like MS or CP) that makes playing a stringed instrument an extreme challenge. The student’s father called me after finding my business card. This student had taken lessons with another teacher, and had made no progress. It was uncertain whether this was the teacher’s fault, or a result of the student’s condition.  The parents concluded it was the fault of the previous teacher.

The father called, “I have the feeling, I just KNOW that you’re the one to help my child.”

Nothing like a little pressure, eh?

I met their child, we did a test lesson, and the student enrolled. I taught their child from my home studio, meaning the student had a slightly reduced rate over the local stores. So the parents opted to enroll for hour lessons. I realized that it was possible for this student to play music. Getting to that goal would be a long uphill fight, but if this student wanted to play music as badly as I believed the student needed to, it was possible.

The process was draining at times. The student’s confidence was low. The student would constantly feed themselves internal chatter that they would always be “bad” because they had not started their instrument sooner. We changed instruments several times just to deal with physical limitations. The student learned about my life, and I learned about the student’s world. It was a miracle that this person was alive at all. This student had to practice twice as hard as my other students, just to do the same things. I wished I could somehow enlighten the rest of my students on how much they take for granted. This student was challenged, but there a massive practice effort between lessons out of sheer love for music.

Eventually after many hours of hard work we performed one song together at this student’s place of worship. It was amazing for both of us. We performed again at two different open mics.

By now, I am sure you are getting an idea of how much of myself I have invested. I really do care that this person is going to be a musician on some level.

Unfortunately, last month, due to other obligations (class work), this student got into the habit of calling or emailing me at the last minute to cancel the lesson. When I sent the monthly invoices, the student’s mother took it upon herself to not pay me a month’s tuition since the student had canceled so much. I re-sent her a copy of the lesson policy, and reminded her that the lesson policy doesn’t work like that. She needed to pay for all the missed lessons the previous month.

This student has been with me for two years. We’ve had absences before, and the mother knows that tuition is paid even when people miss. I had to let her know that opting for “non-payment” of an entire month’s tuition was not an option. I balanced that fact by offering makeup lessons would be scheduled. I’ve had no reply, and the student canceled their lesson with me this week.

I was shocked. And heartbroken that my overall investment has been treated so lightly. I have found that once people start acting in this way, it is my experience that they are not far from simply ditching me along with whatever bill they have racked up at my studio. (Perhaps I am wrong about this particular situation.) However, that behavior makes the outcome even more difficult. I have to wonder what the parents think this teaches their kids about responsibility? Especially when their child gets stuck in the middle and I am forced to drop the child from enrollment due to non payment, which appears to be happening here.

A balancing point is that I find that a higher power is usually clearing space for me to work with someone else, and perhaps the situation is resolving itself for a reason. And sometimes, I am offered another reward in place of the money lost.  However, I still find myself experiencing a grieving process.  And there is often initial financial hardship when these parents simply refuse to pay.  I find myself scrambling to honor financial commitments I have made.

So I find myself needing to ask this community….how would you handle this situation?  Do you find yourself feeling a loss when certain students leave?   How do you handle a student who is dealing with a parent who refuses to pay?  Comments and advice on this post are most welcome.

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  1. Leila Viss

    I know that feeling well–like a bee sting that keeps stinging with more intensity first and then it begins to wear off. I also notice that discussing the memory of a situation such as yours can be just as painful as the initial “sting”. Thank you for your openness with your feelings.
    I too, had a situation where the student and I connected very well and she thoroughly enjoyed lessons with me. However, the parents refused to sign-up for one of my required summer options–camps, small amount of lessons…and decided to find a new teacher.
    As in your situation, it sounds as if the parents are placing themselves first, before the child’s best interest. Unfortunately, you are without pay, which shows very little respect for you on the parents part. However, they will know the loss eventually and will also, in the end, respect you more for sticking with your policies.
    In addition, you will be happier with yourself by protecting your own interests and taking charge of the situation by stopping lessons. You are not “forced” to drop the student, it is clearly termination due to policies not being followed by the parents. (Unfortunately, there will still be the pain of the lost student.)
    No much help, but perhaps commiserating is OK sometimes?

  2. Valerie

    Thanks for this article- I agree that you are brave to be so honest, and I found it helpful to know that I’m not alone in this kind of situation.

    I think you have handled the situation professionally, and there’s not much more you can do. I do understand how hurtful it can be though- it’s happened to me also, and I’m sorry you had to experience that.

    I’ve had situations with students dropping me for charging them for lessons missed. I also recently had a regular student’s mother tell me at the end of the lesson that they were moving away the following week and wouldn’t be back- so, no notice, and also (which upset me much more) no chance at all for closure with the student, who was only six and quite attached to me. Some parents just don’t seem to understand and honor the depth of relationship that can develop, and then their kid suffers too.

  3. Valerie

    P.S. On a practical level, have you considered billing in advance? I always bill and require payment at the beginning of the month, so if they then miss, they forfeit the lesson fee (except in mitigating circumstances, of course).

  4. Brittany Frompovich

    I do bill in advance, and charge a late fee when people miss the deadline. I was asked by this family two months ago to work with them as finances were tight. I guess that’s what I get for “working with them.”

  5. Brittany Frompovich

    Thanks everyone for commiserating. At the very least it has been great to understand that I am not alone in this situation and that other teachers go through this too!

  6. Cindy Nelson

    Hi Brittany

    I just had 2 students quit this past Saturday in just the same way. One is 6 years old and attached to me AND quite talented. The case involves Mom having breast cancer however so it is a bit different than usual. Mom will call this week to set up 1 makeup that they have coming…she wants to play in the Halloween recital. I will offer free lessons for the time being for this student. Just because I don’t want to lose her and I have taught a student or 2 free of charge if they can’t afford lessons to do a bit of community service. I’m not sure if they can’t afford it anymore or if they feel they will be too busy. I will offer to go to her home as well. The other case is Joel who wants to play guitar and not piano. That is fine, but I have had Joel for 2 years! He’s a nice kid who listens well and smiles when you talk with him. I found this out after Joel had walked out of my studio (I teach in a music store) and I never saw him again. His Mom talked to me just after the Dad who informed me that Patricia’s Mom just had surgery the week before so by that time Joel was out in the car! And I got a double wammy! What a day. Yes…we do get emotionally attached and so do the kids. A few weeks ago a parent informed me that her son is too busy with football to continue. The student was fairly new (3 months). They were a no show for 2 weeks…I do have students pay in advance, but payment was due the 1st week they no showed. I billed her and of course have seen no payment for the 2 weeks. I wrote on the bill that I was expecting him so that is why they are getting a bill!!! The nerve of people! Last year I had a student of 2 years walk off without paying for 2 months!! Now that was my error for continuing to teach and not keeping up on if lessons were paid in advance! These people seem so responsible to me…that is what I fail to understand. I am new to studio management with Music Teachers Helper and am confident it will make me much more aware of who has paid and who hasn’t. I will add a 2 week notice to terminations and hope for the best. Kids are my favorite people and all of my students (I have an average of 40) are like nieces and nephews to me…so yeah it hurts terribly when people just walk away…and it is a grieving process. Hoping the shared experience helps.

  7. Kate

    Thanks so much or your article! I think we are all in agreement that you have handled the situation professionally and there’s not much more that can be done. We do have an emotional investment in these students and it’s very hard have to let them go (often suddenly). I have comfort in knowing now that I’m not the only one that experiences this. Thanks again for your openness!

  8. Craig Cortello

    As one who has never taught music, I can only speak from the student’s perspective. I had a guitar teacher whose encouragement and support turned music into a life-defining experience for me. I can still remember his hearty laugh and smile when I improvised a lick on the guitar as he played the chords to some jazz standard and said, “That’s cool, man.”

    I didn’t even consider his emotions when I called it quits, but I can say that that experience stays with me always.

    Take comfort in the fact that regardless of the term of the teaching engagement, you have changed lives.

  9. Kids Music

    Your blog is like an encyclopedia for those who want to know more about this. Thanks for the interesting information.

  10. Beth

    Brittany, I really appreciated your thoughts on this subject. I too lost a student recently and felt that grief – glad to know that it’s not just me. It truly is an emotional investment with the students …considering that sometimes ( a lot of times ) it’s a lot more than the music – we become a counselor that listens to what is happening in a child’s life and there is no one else to hear what they need to say.. I have a little one whose parents are divorced and she is shuttled back and forth between her mother and father and grandmother..her mom just moved in with her new boyfriend and so there is yet another new house..leaving pets behind, more children in the household, etc… and there is this sadness that she carries around. We have a relationship with our students and breaking up is hard to do. I like your blog a lot. Thanks for sharing.

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