Sooner or later, every teacher is faced with the need to dismiss a student. Deal with this in a straight-forward, unemotional, and business-like manner. This minimizes the trauma for everyone.
Rather than spring dismissal on the student one fine day, use a probationary system. Tell the student why you are considering a dismissal. Tell him exactly what it is that you perceive is wrong and exactly what he would have to do to meet your standards. Example: "Your pieces are not as prepared as I expect from someone of your age/talent/maturity. Here's what I expected to hear this week on your Mozart...." Make sure you differentiate between -him- and his -performance-. Comment only on his output at the piano, not his integrity, work ethic, or personality.
Ask the student if he wishes to continue piano study. Then ask if he thinks he is able do what you are asking. Ask him if he -wants- to. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe he'd be happier playing another instrument. Or dropping music study in favor of dance. Also consider the possibility that this student is tired of your teaching: your personality, approach, or curriculum. Not an ego-pleasing thought, I know, but this happens! This may be the problem; ask. If so, call the parent that evening and explain that the student would prefer a new teacher. Offer names of colleagues who are accepting new students.
If the student is willing to try to improve so he may continue in your studio, set up a month's probation. Tell him that if he doesn't come up to snuff that you will dismiss him. Tell him exactly what "up to snuff" entails. I suggest that with an older student (10 or older) that you ask whether he'd like this to be a private pact between you. Perhaps this will be the first time the child has had an opportunity to solve a serious problem on his own; if he is successful, this will be a major reinforcement of his self-esteem.
After each lesson, tell him whether he's doing "just fine--keep it up" or "more effort needed on ____" or "I don't see much difference at all." Ask if the student if he still wants to change his habits. If so, continue the probationary period. Also ask if he would like you to tell his parents about the probation. If the student is not interested in continuing the probation, drop him after that lesson. Call the parent that very evening. (Make sure that lesson and all prior ones are paid for--but that's another topic!)
With a younger student, contact the parent immediately about the probation. Tell him what's going on and why, what the consequences will be, and what the plan is to improve the situation. Be specific. Then be specific in what you'd like the parent to do to help at home.
At the month point, give the student your decision. Whatever it is should come as no surprise, given the weekly evaluations.
During the probationary period, always indicate by word and non-verbal communication that you are certain the student can meet the terms of the probation, not that you doubt his ability or determination if he decides this is what he wants to do. Be positive and encouraging. When you sit down with the student at the beginning of each lesson, act as though you -expect- that this week's lesson will show the student's change of ways so you'll be able to praise him. None of "here we go again [heavy sigh]."
If he does not meet the terms of his probation, dismiss the student. *Do it!!*
There is no reason why you have to put up with a student who will not cooperate. By the end of the 3rd week, you will have reached your decision, most likely. If it is for dismissal, use the last lesson as an exit interview; invite the parent if it is a younger student--optional with an older one. Explain that the terms of probation were not met and that you "cannot continue to teach the student" (not: "I don't want to teach the student"). Give the parent the transfer papers and colleague list (see below). If you are dismissing an older student and the parent is not there, give the student the paperwork and call the parent that evening to explain. It is likely that the student said something upon arrival home.
If you feel you cannot face such a confrontation, write a letter. Make it concise, but cordial. Thank the parent for his assistance and support. A calm and professional approach helps dilute anger the parent may feel at you:
Dear Mr. And Mrs. Smith, Jill may have told you that she was on probation in my piano studio for the last month because I was not convinced she was giving piano study a decent effort. It is now the end of the probation, and I am sorry to write that I am unable to teach Jill any longer. It appears that her interests do not include piano study. I thank you especially for your support and cooperation during the time Jill was my student. Cordially, name.
Transfer papers are necessary when -you- terminate the teaching relationship (or the student moves away from the community). When the student makes the decision to quit, you have no obligation to prepare these.
In preparing transfer papers, include a summary of music and technique under study, any major plans you had for changing the curriculum (example: beginning a sight-reading program, beginning diatonic scales). I break my curriculum down into separate points (note- reading, counting, technique, etc.) and comment on each specific; the receiving teacher finds this helpful in hitting the ground running, so to speak. You might consider doing this, too, but it does entail time.
It is helpful to offer a list of colleagues who are accepting students. (Note: the problem might be chemistry between you and the student; another teacher might be just the ticket!) If possible, list only colleagues you think would be a potential good match. If there is not an abundance of teachers in your area, list everyone.
Dismiss a student without rancor.
Also do it without guilt. Your time is valuable. Use it on students who wish to learn, no matter what their actual learning rate is.
Let me also add that dismissing a student should be done humanely: allow the student and his family to save face. Although it may give you personal satisfaction to sound off and tell the student and his parents exactly how you feel about this lazy or uncooperative child, avoid this. Momentary satisfaction is nothing compared to the embarrassment and regret you'll feel later when you think about it: what did such petty behavior accomplish? are you a better person for having done this? did it aid the student's transition to another teacher? make him feel better about piano study in general? better about himself as a competent person?
Dismissing a student without rancor has another benefit. It is possible to dismiss a student and -still- receive referrals from this same family!
Dismissing students is never easy and nearly always a painful experience for the student, the family, and you. It must be done, however, if you value yourself, your time, your efforts, and what you have to offer your students. Make room for dedicated pupils by dismissing those who are not meeting your standards.
copyright 1996, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.