Dealing With "Impossible" Students


by Nancy Ostromencki
Tucson, AZ USA


hew!!!! What a topic and one that all teachers must eventually face. Sometimes, flagging interest on the part of the child is the only real problem. I will try a number of things to increase the child's interest or improve their behavior or attitude. When that fails, the best course of action is usually to meet with the parents and discuss the problems. In the ideal situations, the parents will then take the necessary steps to improve the child's attitudes and behavior. Unfortunately, the ideal situation is not always obtained and then I have to consider dismissing the student from the studio.



Most commonly, I have had to let go of students due to total lack of respect from the student and/or parents. Control games and power trips from the student and/or parent are never conducive to effective teaching. In one case, I've even been threatened with a lawsuit by a pre-teen girl for insisting she practice! In the most egregious examples, the parents are usually the ones that become angry when I mention dismissal, but it helps to have phone machines. My inner barometer is that if I dread seeing a student or am always psychologically on the defensive, it is time to let that student go. Ultimately, I have to look forward to seeing each student, and if I can't do so, it is time to seek an answer to my lack of enthusiasm for the student. If letting them go is the answer, I follow through on my gut feeling.

I usually write a letter to the parents, or do it via a phone call, stating the nature of the continuing problem and what I propose to deal with it. I usually suggest the study of another instrument or study with another teacher because of lack of progress, saying perhaps "a different instrument " or "a different teaching approach might work out better for the student." This is not only diplomatic, but true, as students can react differently to different teaching styles. In keeping with WMMTA policy and practice, I always make an effort to suggest three other teachers that I think might be appropriate for the parents to talk with about continuing the student's training. Out of respect for the teachers, I usually call and tell them I've made the recommendation and discuss in a general way the types of problems that led me to suggest to the parents the student study with someone else. This way the new teacher is alerted and better able to make an informed judgement and to deal with the issue(s) if they arise again.

Anyway you handle a dismissal, it is sure to be a powder keg. I do have a stipulation in my studio policy, which all parents or adult students sign, giving me, the teacher, the option of ceasing lessons with a refund for all lessons not given. Even with this stipulation in my studio policy and the obvious reasons for letting go of a student, verbal fireworks may still erupt. All parents want their kids to be perfect and most cannot accept the fact that their kid isn't anywhere near it. In that event, the best thing to do is stick to your guns and be as professional as possible. If the conversation gets too intense, I simply suggest that I have another commitment and that I'll be happy to talk with the parents further on another day. In any event, I always try to be as helpful as the parents will allow me to be in finding a new teacher or instrument for the student.

Dismissing a student is one of the most difficult matters most teachers face, yet, it is sometimes the only solution for an ongoing problem. The important thing is to show as much empathy for the student and parents as possible and to provide as much help in identifying acceptable alternatives as the situation will allow. Hard as it may be, it is critical that you as a teacher remember that you are a professional. The best approach is to remain such in all your interactions with the parents no matter how angry and abusive they become.

Page created: 8/29/96
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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