Why Music Teachers Must Have A Cancellation Policy–And Why A Clear Cancellation Policy Is Essential For Long Term Student And Teacher Success
What is the most valuable commodity on the planet? The non-renewable, always diminishing stuff; which when used correctly yields every great thing, and when wasted is gone forever?
It is time.
This blog post is about YOUR TIME, and why as a music teacher, you must have a late cancellation policy if you value your time. I’ll discuss why student cancellations are a big issue, why having a late cancellation policy is morally and professionally right, and how to structure and explain your late cancellation policy; and I’ll even give you some great examples of late cancellation policies that work.
Has This Ever Happened To You?
You’re looking forward to a great day of teaching music. Your lesson plans are ready. Your instrument is tuned up. You’ve scheduled your day to be efficient, managing your energy to give your best to each student. You’re not just ready; you’re excited to share your love of music with students you care about—and grateful to earn your living doing so.
Just then, you get a text from the parent of one of your afternoon lessons. “Sara has the stomach flu. We have to cancel.” You immediately write back, “Oh no, so sorry…I hope she feels better. See you next week.” Then you notice an email from another parent. “I forgot that Bobby has science fair today. We will have to miss today’s lesson.”
Oh no! You’re missing two lessons, and you now have awkward gaps in your schedule. You’re also concerned because Bobby has a recital coming up and really needs his lesson time. And, to be honest, you’re also worried because Sara’s parents were going to pay you for a new set of lessons today.
So you’re a bit distracted before your first lesson–but you love to teach and you focus on the student and give a great lesson!
Unfortunately, your next student doesn’t show up–when you call to check on him, you just get a voicemail. Embarrassed, you hang up without leaving a message. And later that day, you get another cancellation from somebody who is just running too late to make the lesson.
You try to make the best of your devastated schedule–you teach your best, and practice between lessons. But you realize that the feelings of joy and love you felt at daybreak have been replaced with feeling hurt, disrespected, and worried. And when you realize that this day is kinda normal, you also feel shame and failure. Maybe this music teaching isn’t such a good idea after all!
Wow! What a terrible day!
You are not alone.
We have over 50 teachers at NYC Guitar School, and we’ve found that concerns and emotions around late cancellations are a major reason people choose to work for us instead of running an independent studio. And even in the environment of a large school, emotions and hurt feelings around late cancellations can be a big problem.
That’s why you need to have a clear and effective cancellation policy that works for you and your students.
Having an effective cancellation policy starts with being ABSOLUTELY CLEAR in your own mind about why having a policy is not only OK, but ESSENTIAL in order to be the best teacher you can be and to maximize student success.
STEP ONE: EXAMINE YOUR BELIEFS
Having a cancellation policy is morally right, because you and your time are important, because having a policy will help your students be successful–and because without a policy, your lesson business will struggle or fail!
In Order To Have A Cancellation Policy That Works, Accept These Truths
- You Are Responsible. Avoid the blame game. DO NOT BLAME THE STUDENT. Your student has their own complicated life full of challenges. Don’t expect them to follow an unwritten, unexplained code of ethics–understand it is YOUR JOB to make a clear understanding with the student that works for both of you! You must have a cancellation policy in order to take personal responsibility for your own situation!
- You Are Important And Your Time Is Valuable. Most of the music teachers I know are incredibly loving and service oriented, and they value other people. Remember–you matter too! Your precious time is the stuff of your life. Your students are paying to reserve your time, and if they don’t show up for a lesson and you can’t re-purpose the time, the time is gone forever. You must have a cancellation policy to demonstrate to yourself and to others that your time is valuable.
- Mutual Trust And Respect Are Vital To An Effective Student-Teacher Relationship.When a student is unfairly forced to pay for an unused lesson, they naturally feel resentment, which negatively impacts the teacher-student relationship and impedes learning. The reverse is also true–if a teacher “eats” a lesson when the student no-shows, they can feel resentment (despite their best intentions), which impedes their ability to be the best teacher they can be.You must have a cancellation policy to maintain mutual respect and goodwill in the student-teacher relationship.
- The Most Successful Teachers Have Clear Cancellation Policies. I’ve noticed that the teachers who are the most popular with students, with the fullest schedules and who are the most financially successful have cancellation policies that are firm and absolutely clear. You know that one of the secrets of success is to model what other successful people do, right? You must have a cancellation policy to be like elite teachers.
- Your Students Benefit From Regular Attendance. Your job as a teacher is to give your students a clear pathway for learning–not just one lesson at a time, but over weeks and months. You must have a cancellation policy to encourage commitment by your students, which will result in their success.
- Cancellation Policies Are The Norm. As the parent of three kids, I’ve put my kids into gymnastics lessons, summer camps, swimming courses, math tutoring, language lessons, etc. If my kid misses gymnastics, or a day of summer camp, or a swim lesson with the stomach flu, it isn’t my fault–but I do NOT get a refund for that lesson. Cancellation policies are normal and pervasive.
- If You Own A Studio Business, You Won’t Get Great Teachers Without A Cancellation Policy. Most people reading this article will be independent teachers, but if you are running a school or studio, remember that you are only as good as the teachers working with you, and they will only work with you if you value and protect their time. You must have a cancellation policy in order to attract and retain great teachers.
STEP TWO: MAKE YOUR POLICY A MOUNTAIN, NOT A GUARD DOG
At NYC Guitar School, we talk about the concept of “the mountain.” This means that our policies and procedures are simply part of the landscape, like a mountain. When we interact with students, we can’t move a mountain–but we can eagerly help our students navigate the mountain. Now, every time we interact with a student, we are helping them, like a friendly and handy trail guide!
This is very different from treating your policies as a point of contention. Don’t try to control your students–don’t guard them! Keep these points in mind to make sure that your policy is workable.
- Proactive Communication. You need a written policy reinforced with a verbal explanation and consistent reminders. At NYC Guitar School, when we onboard a new student we:
- Verbally go over the policy when the student signs up for lessons, as part of our “onboarding groove.”
- Email them an onboarding form including the policy, which they must sign off on in order to register for lessons.
- Include the policy in automated emails.
- Post the policy on our website.
- Include the policy in the first pages of our private lesson book (The Ultimate Guitar Workbook).
- And…we ask the teacher to point to that policy during the first lesson and mention that “the school has a strict late cancellation policy.”
Overkill? No! We focus our energies and time on connecting with the student. These repeated touches help make sure that the cancellation policy is just the landscape that the lessons take place in.
- Appropriate And Clear. Set a policy that you have conviction in, and then make sure that the students know exactly what it is, and what to do in order to follow it. Do they call you? Write an email? Many schools in the US have a 24 hour cancellation policy, but because most of our students are busy NYC adults, we’ve decided that a 48 hour cancellation policy is the right balance of allowing them flexibility for work emergencies. If their cancellation email to their teacher is 48 hours ahead of the lesson, we don’t charge them (even if the teacher didn’t look at their email until right before the lesson!). If it is 47 hours, we do.
- Your Cancellation Policy Must Be A Two Way Street. Every once in a while we get a call from a student complaining about our cancellation policy. We explain the policy and they say something like “yeah, but the teacher cancelled on me at the last minute three weeks in a row.” Well, now we have a problem–we asked the student to be responsible but the teacher flaked out on them repeatedly. The student correctly feels that the situation is unfair.
As a teacher, use the “20% flakier rule” which NYCGS teacher Tia Vincent-Clark made up. This rule states that students follow the tone YOU set–but will tend to be at least 20% flakier than you are. If you are late, they’ll be later. If you call out and cancel, they’ll do it, too–a bit more than you do. That’s OK; after all, you are the professional. But understand that YOU set the norm. You must give as much respect to the student as you ask from them.
- You Must Be Ready To Lose A Student.When I began teaching, I worried that if I had a cancellation policy, students might get upset and not take lessons with me. I asked my own guitar teacher, the great Walter Parks, about this: “Walter, what if they get mad and stop taking lessons if I charge them for a missed lesson?” His next words were profound and impacted me deeply. He said, “Oh, that just means they aren’t your student.” If somebody doesn’t want to follow the late cancellation policy, that doesn’t mean they are a bad person. It just means they aren’t a good match for you. Say you are sorry to lose them, let them go, and concentrate your energies on your other students! (Hmmmm, do you think you could apply this approach to other parts of your life?!)
- Want An Example? Here’s our policy from our website. Check out other policies from other business, and feel free to use ours.
Private Lessons: With fewer than 48 hours notice of a cancellation, students will be charged for the missed lesson so that their teacher can be paid for the reserved time. If you do need to cancel or reschedule a lesson, please contact your teacher directly. Need help? Have questions? Contact the NYC Guitar School office at 646-485-7244 or email email@example.com.
STEP THREE: NOW, STICK WITH IT–POLICY F.A.Q.’S
Q: How Consistently Should I Apply The Policy? I love that this question often comes up! The answer is: you are training your students every day. Make a policy and stick to it. If you are having trouble doing that, go back and get clear on the truth that a policy is morally and practically right.
Q: What If I Have A Student With An Erratic Schedule? Sometimes an adult student simply can’t keep a regular weekly time. Don’t turn them away–instead, allow them to book into an open time on short notice. We call these students “flex” students. This is a GREAT option for students with erratic schedules–and it is great for the teacher, who can fill last minute open slots. Yes, you can send out an email to your “flex” students to let them know if you have open times!
Q: Should I Make An Exception? We don’t make an exception for any “normal” unexpected events: the flu, broken cars, train delays, marriage proposals, visiting family, being forced to stay late at work, etc. However, when a student is called away for a death in the family, often their teacher will ask to waive the cancellation policy as a courtesy and sign of support. In this case, we respect the teacher request and do not charge the student.
Q: What Should I Do If A Student Argues About Being Charged? Never argue with a student. Always assume good intent, and then simply point away from the two of you to the “mountain.” What is the policy? What happened? Follow Abraham Lincoln’s rule: “If the other person is more in the right, I give way. If we are equally in the right, I still give way.” If there is any confusion, use this as an opportunity to clarify the policy and build a stronger relationship with the student.
Q: Yeah, but what if they are really angry?! The more you are proactive and clear, the less likely it is that there will be issues. But also remember that we are human, our students are human, we may make mistakes, students may make mistakes–and any of us can have a terrible day. Major conflict is really unusual for us, but since we have thousands of students sometimes it does come up. Here’s how we handle it:
- We know that if our protocols were correctly followed, the student has been notified of our cancellation policy. And if our protocols weren’t followed–then it is our fault and this is a chance to make it right and get clear going forward!
- First, we ask supportive questions and make a friendly inquiry into the situation.
- Sometimes the student just wants to understand the reasoning behind the policy. We explain it. At other times, our teacher didn’t follow our protocols…in this case we refund the lesson and don’t pay the teacher, and follow up internally to correct.
- At other times, there is a good opportunity to build a long term relationship with the student. We apologize for any lack of clarity about the cancellation policy (again, following Lincoln’s guideline to give the other person every benefit of the doubt), restate the policy, and give the student a credit for an additional lesson with the understanding that the policy will be followed in the future. We pay the teacher, and document the student conversation in an email. (In our experience, if we do give one of these “okay this time, but now we are clear going forward” excused absences, the issue never comes back.)
- At other times, the student is not a good fit for our school–in this case we typically refund the late cancelled lesson, pay the teacher and warmly wish the student good luck and release them into the world. We don’t feel bad about “eating” this lesson, because getting rid of a student who is a bad match is always a bargain!
Q: What Should I Do If A Student Late Cancels Multiple Times? If your student late cancels, don’t assume that everything is OK for the next lesson. Instead, reconfirm the next lesson! In one case, a student had been transferred to work in India for several months, and hadn’t notified their teacher before they left. Imagine their surprise when they found out we’d charged them for ten missed lessons! The first lesson was clearly their issue and the first lesson they missed was a late cancellation–but it is our policy to always reconfirm the next lesson after a late cancellation. (If a student reconfirms a lesson and then doesn’t show up, of course that is still a late cancellation.) If a student late cancels more than a few times, we suggest that they move to a “flex” schedule.
Q: What Should I Do When A Student No Shows? Wait five to ten minutes, and then text or call to check on them. “Hi, this is Joe Strummer–I have you down for a 3pm lesson and don’t see you, I’m checking to make sure everything is OK.” This also proactively makes it clear that there WAS a lesson scheduled–and helps encourage them to be on time so they don’t get the call. If they miss the entire lesson, call again, say you’re sorry you missed them, and you want to reconfirm next week.
You are an important person! Your time is important, and you deserve to be treated with respect.
Your students are important people! They deserve clarity and respect, too.
A clear policy helps you both get on the same page with scheduling, so that you can both not worry about it. Instead, you can focus on the music–which is what you both want to do, anyway!
Good playing, good teaching, and please let me know if you have comments or questions, I always love to hear them!
On To Greatness,
Founder, NYC Guitar School
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