June 10

1 comments

The Music Teacher Factory

There is a fundamental problem with how most music schools are run. But it's so widespread, it's hard to convince people otherwise.

Many schools have become what I think of as "music teacher factories."

It works something like this.

Students and families pay tuition.

The teacher sees, at most, 50% of that. Oftentimes less. The rest goes into overhead and the owner/administrators' salaries. Raises are far and few between, and rarely keep up with inflation.

When asked about increases in pay, the answer is typically, "We can't afford it."

And the teachers have been required to sign a non-compete agreement, saying that if they quit, they won't take a job or open shop within X miles of the location. 

Plus, if they take any students who want to follow, there will be a hefty fee.

(Side note: These are scare tactics. They're not legal, and unenforceable for a variety of reasons. They come from a place of fear on the employer's part.)

All-in-all, there's an attitude of "administrators and owners on the top, and teachers on the bottom." And teachers should understand their place.

There are even people who will teach you to start a business like this. Two big ones are Sam Beckford and Marty Fort.

If you check out their websites, you'll see. There's nothing about changing lives or bringing the arts to your community. It's mainly about working less and making more profit...by having the teachers do all the work and retaining students by any means possible.

And so, it's no surprise that teachers quit. Frequently.

We've all taken that first job out of college where we're thankful to have any kind of employment. But eventually people want to have families. A home. An income to be proud of.

And that can't happen at most community music schools and studios following the traditional model.

When teachers quit, the students suffer. They're left to build a whole new relationship with the replacement teacher, which can come with any number of unknowns. And it's only a matter of time before that teacher quits.

And often, students will follow the teacher they've grown to trust. It doesn't matter what the teacher signed, because students and families are protected by consumer rights - the right to choose who they do business with.

For example, if your therapist left the practice you were going to, you're allowed to follow. And neither you nor the therapist can get in trouble.

And so, the business is put in a precarious position. Simultaneously underpaying teachers, not giving them something to look forward to, while at the same time relying on them for so much of the monthly budget.

Owners and administrators typically live with it by saying, "This is how music schools are fun. This is industry standard." When you challenge them on it, they get heated pretty quickly.

And so, the average community music school becomes a revolving door of teachers and students. The only "winner" in the situation is the owner or administrator.

Which, the only way it works out for that person is to constantly keep finding new teachers and new students to replace the ones leaving out the back door. And that's stressful.

The principles for real success aren't a secret. If you pick up any popular business book, it's all there.

The best organizations stand for something. A greater purpose. A mission.

The best organizations put people first.

The best organizations see employees as people.

And the best organizations give their employees something to look forward to. As the business grows, they don't just get a pat on the back. They actually see it in their paycheck.

Time after time, I begged my administrators in previous jobs to consider paying teachers more for the greater good. So their organization could succeed. Unflinchingly, they said, "No."

Students were falling by the wayside, and every time a powerhouse teacher left, it cost the organization tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue from the students who left. But giving more than a 2% raise every two years was not an option. Laughable.

After hearing "no" so many times, I came to a realization. The only way I was going to see if another way could succeed in my lifetime would be to build it from scratch myself. No more asking for permission.

And so, South Shore Piano School was founded on the ideal of doing things different.

To make music a meaningful part of students' lives for the long term, through skill-based teaching and community.

To measure our success not in terms of spreadsheets and the bottom line, but whether students are actually progressing and the teaching is actually good.

To structure our business model so we can pay our teachers the best in the region, with considerable raises every year.

Yes, we've had to keep our overhead as low as possible to make this feasible. But that tradeoff has been worth it to have teachers who are excited about our organization and our mission.

And that comes across in the teaching.

I mean, think about it. You've had at least one crappy job in your life. Can you honestly say you were passionate about the job while being underpaid and overworked?

As we approach summer and head towards the end of our third year in business, we've topped 230 students. We're super excited.

While the reasons for our growth can't be proven with metrics and spreadsheets that board members typically prefer, I like to think it's because we've chosen to do things differently.

To put people first. Teachers and students. And to work with a mission to change the world for the better.

And that's much more exciting than doing it the way it's always been done.

Thanks for being a part of that with us here on the blog, dear reader. You rock.

  • I’m sooooo happy you broke from the crappy mold of the usual community music school. I am excited every week going to my lesson and dare I say, even excited to practice and show u what I’ve accomplished over the week even if it’s a tiny improvement!! Whenever I see another teacher or student it’s always a pleasant, happy exchange making me even more excited about my lesson. You all are to be commended for breaking the mold and for surviving the shutdowns of the pandemic and still thriving. All anyone who is curious about SSPS has to do is attend a live recital!! The excitement is palpable in the air, people are smiling and are building a community and despite Jonathan’s funny jokes, we’re all happy and enjoying ourselves, looking forward to the performances!! It’s time well spent in my humble opinion!!! So, again, thank you for building a better piano school!!! And if you’re considering employment, think no further!! This is a place you want to be!!

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    For parents, students, and anyone else who believes that music can and should be a meaningful part of everyone's life.

    About Jonathan Roberts

    I am the founder and director of the South Shore Piano School, and I have been teaching the piano for nearly 20 years. My work centers around bringing music to the lives of kids, parents, and adults in an enriching, meaningful way. At the South Shore Piano School, my incredible colleagues and I accomplish this through skill-based teaching, community, and an innovative, people-first business model. You can read more about me here.


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  • I’m sooooo happy you broke from the crappy mold of the usual community music school. I am excited every week going to my lesson and dare I say, even excited to practice and show u what I’ve accomplished over the week even if it’s a tiny improvement!! Whenever I see another teacher or student it’s always a pleasant, happy exchange making me even more excited about my lesson. You all are to be commended for breaking the mold and for surviving the shutdowns of the pandemic and still thriving. All anyone who is curious about SSPS has to do is attend a live recital!! The excitement is palpable in the air, people are smiling and are building a community and despite Jonathan’s funny jokes, we’re all happy and enjoying ourselves, looking forward to the performances!! It’s time well spent in my humble opinion!!! So, again, thank you for building a better piano school!!! And if you’re considering employment, think no further!! This is a place you want to be!!

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