The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Music Teachers: Habit Four: Think Win-Win

It’s the end of the year, and I’ve been thinking about report cards.

Years ago, as a fairly new teacher, I decided that my students would benefit from more parent-teacher communication. I was sure each parent wondered if his or her child was making the kind of progress of which he was capable. Was Rebecca practicing technique effectively? Was Thomas doing his theory consistently? How much time should Annie really be spending reviewing repertoire vs. learning new music?

I decided that report cards were the answer! I made a Piano Lesson Report Card with all the various topics I wanted to cover and a place for a personal note, had them copied, and decided I’d introduce my brilliant idea at our next recital.

In the days before the recital, I thoughtfully prepared each report card, adding words of praise and encouragement to the necessary “Rob could spend more time counting out loud” comments. At intermission at the recital, I explained my thinking and handed out the report cards along with the awards each student had received.

As the recital continued, I noticed that one student looked close to tears and her mother looked close to rage. My student performed, then she and her mother left, well before the end of the recital. That night I received an angry phone call from the mother, berating me for my insensitive report card and letting me know how terrible it was that I had shamed her daughter by giving her a C in theory, and in public, no less. She let me know she had expected more of me. She had expected me to be a light in her daughter’s world, and instead, I had made music become another way to be judged and found wanting.

I was horrified. My intentions had been noble, even if not well thought through. The public nature of the judgment was too much for a girl who had been going through a hard time anyway, and I hadn’t even considered that my report card (with its very generous C…she never ever did her theory assignments) could create so much turmoil. I sent a letter of apology to both the mother and the daughter, but the damage had been done and I never taught that student another lesson.

That was not an example of win-win.

This year, almost 20 years later, I still wonder how best to accomplish my goal: to have each of the members of the Student-Teacher-Parent triangle feel that their needs are being met, their expectations and goals recognized, and that each of us are members of a team. Emails and phone calls are helpful, of course. My written lesson assignment sheets are necessary to make my weekly expectations evident. But I want to move it to another level. I’m looking for ways to make lessons a win-win-win for each of the sides of the triangle.

So share with me:

How do you help improve communication and goal-setting with parents and students? Parent-teacher conferences? Lesson notes through MTH? Even (gasp) report cards? And how do you share your less-than-stellar reports with parents or students in a respectful, encouraging way? Tell all!

About the Author

Kerri Green
Kerri Youngberg Green grew up in Southern California. She received her Bachelors and Masters degrees in Piano Performance and Pedagogy from Brigham Young University. Her students have won competitions, performed with orchestras, gone on to music degrees, and grown to love music making. Kerri is active as a performer, teacher, and collaborative pianist in the Salt Lake City, Utah area and stays bu... [Read more]


  1. nazia shirin

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  2. Jerry

    Hi Kerri,

    Great topic. Most parents can’t come to every lesson and I don’t have time to chat with them when they do. So I do these two things.

    First, I have the parents sign the assignment sheet each week, right where the students are to have their daily practice minutes recorded. I have printed there, “Parents: Please sign to verify the minutes of practice and the quality of practice.” This way the parents are encouraged to be aware of their child’s practice habits because that is most basic element in student progress (assuming a good quality of practice.)

    Second, I mark each element on last week’s assignment sheet with a smiley face (for good progress), or a straight face (for small progress), or a slash through (for no progress, regardless of the reason). If we did not get to it during the lesson time, I it leave it unmarked.

    Any time the parent wants to know how well the student is progressing, they can glance through the assignment sheets and figure it out real quick.

    Well, having written it down, I see that this still does not directly tell the parents what changes I would like to see in their child’s practicing. They would have to read the assignment sheet each week and see what comments I have written to the student and that is not likely to happen on a regular basis. So I look forward to seeing what your other readers suggest.

    Jerry Cornish
    Mesquite, TX

  3. Lori

    I use “progress reports” on a quarterly basis with categories like, “excellent, very good, good, acceptable,” etc.. The words, “progress report” seem to go over better with patents and students than “report card”. Each time I present progress reports I explain that the reason for the report is so I can see what areas I, as the teacher, need to focus on with the student to ensure he/she is a well-rounded student. We use the beginning of the lesson time to review the report and for discussion. This allows for a confidential conversation to take place. I also use this time to review if new books will need ordering in the near future.
    I have found using progress reports to be extremely beneficial for all parties involved! The progress reports and the discussion should be encouraging and challenging.

  4. Jennifer

    This year I’m using Key to Imagination’s Walk on the Wild Side program. In the student assignment books Michelle created a section asking the students how there practicing went this week and then a section for me to evaluate the lesson. Most of the time, I will write a positive comment, “great job!”, “I could tell you practiced really hard this week, it shows in your playing”, and so on. But occasionally I will need to write in something that’s not so positive. For example, a few months ago I had a student that was getting a little too comfortable to me as far as his attitude went. So I wrote that his attitude needed improvement. Because the mother saw the evaluation of the lesson on his assignment page, his added quickly changed the following week. So I really like the idea of having this evaluation section. I try to be positive but when there is a problem, I write it down in a way to encourage a positive change.

  5. Brenda

    These are great suggestions, and I too use the notebook as my main means of communication with students’ parents. I also use email a lot.
    I tried report cards also in my first year of teaching, but I did not use grade levels. I had sections of comments on the topics of Technique, Theory, Repertoire, Sight, Ear, General … I rec’d no feedback on my efforts, and found many of the report cards crumpled in the bottoms of music cases several weeks later. I offered optional Parent-Teacher interviews, but no parent took me up on it. It was a lot of work! I decided to re-try in a few years and re-evaluate its merit.
    Could Jennifer and Lori post a link on where to get the student assignment books and progress reports that they use? I would be interested to research what other teachers use.
    Thanks for this topic!

  6. Edna Bloom

    I have also experienced polarized reactions to formal progress reports, but more commonly complete apathy. This sometimes baffles me as music lessons represent a substantial financial investment. Each student’s family has its own commitments and “operating personality”, and sometimes this means that music is completely delegated to the instructor. This is when I make it a special point to touch bases verbally on occasion, still referring the parents to our written notes. Very specific praise or occasionally very specific steps to improve seems to work best.

    I would guess that any form you use will have potential. You cannot ensure that the students and families to utilize it, but having it in place will lend structure to your lessons whether or not it reaches the intended target. The e-mailed lesson notes on Music Teacher’s Helper have been extremely helpful for my set-up where I meet with some students at their school; parents no longer have to haul out the school bag to fish out studio announcements.

    So I would recommend a relaxed but consistent means of communicating expectations and feedback.

    Best wishes.

  7. Ms Jean

    I only use MTH lesson notes and write a few comments on top of the lesson books at each lesson. I have a note at the bottom of the lesson notes stating that notes are written quickly and not intended to sound rude or uncaring.

    It is amazing how quickly things get done if posted in the lesson notes (most of the time). I feel the parents are much more likely to scan the weekly email, that to pick up a lesson book and I can type much quicker than write.

    I always try to compliment the students on any one thing I can find, even if it is the new haircut that week.

    I am always surprised at how many people read the notes, evident by “I did not get lesson notes for ___ today” notes if I delay the process. Amazing!

    Love MTH!

  8. Krystyna

    This is NOT my idea, but comes from a bright colleague.
    She gives her students ratings each lesson:
    A team (did all assigned practicing/ work)
    B team – needs improvement
    Water boy/ Water girl – had to reteach something in the lesson
    There are positive reinforcements for receiving A team of a certain number, I believe.
    A team names are posted on her board.