Years ago, I had a long-standing parent/teacher relationship nearly end after a series of puzzlingly nasty emails. I finally realized it was the medium, not the message. I picked up the phone and called the mother. We had it solved in less than five minutes. She’d misunderstood something in my tone and I’d misinterpreted something in hers. It had spiraled more out-of-control with each email.
Tone doesn’t matter much if you’re emailing or texting your best friend. But when you’re using email for business, tone is almost all that matters.
I think of sending email as holding a megaphone. I want to be understood, so I have to remember that the medium sometimes can distort the message.
I go out of my way to be warm, because in email it’s all-too-easy to come across as icy.
If it’s financial matter, particularly one where the parent needs patience making payment on time, the parent may be embarrassed and would appreciate my understanding. I’m looking for a resolution where both of us are happy. If we part ways, I still want them to feel good about the way I’ve handled a difficult situation. And I want to feel good about how I handled it for myself.
In any thorny email I send, I try to make sure there’s room for the other person to save face. I keep the tone of my message warm and professional no matter what the other person is saying.
I like to start every email by reminding the parent “we’re on the same side.” Here are some examples:
- I loved watching Suzy tackle that Czerny piece last week. (I’m really paying attention to your daughter.)
- I’m looking forward to working with John again this year. (The year hasn’t started and your child is on my mind.)
- It’s been great having some weather under 95 degrees, hasn’t it?(We’re all in this together.)
HERE ARE SOME EMAIL TEMPLATES FOR COMMON SITUATIONS.
1. A PARENT UNDERSTANDS MY POLICY BUT WOULD LIKE ME TO MAKE AN EXCEPTION.
- “Hi Anne, I totally understand your austerity plan, but Master Classes aren’t optional. They’re part of being a student in my studio. (I’m going to schedule them on Saturday afternoons this year, hoping for a few less conflicts with soccer games.) I’m happy to help you find another teacher who doesn’t have as many requirements, if it’s feeling like it’s not a good fit. I love teaching the girls, so I hope that isn’t your decision but will totally understand if you need to make a change.”
Be understanding, but restate your policy in a warm voice. Never confuse a simple parent issue with how you feel about teaching their child. Constantly remind yourself that the parent is trying to do the best for their family as a whole. There are almost always issues affecting their decisions that you know nothing about.
2. A PARENT WOULD LIKE A SPECIAL ACCOMMODATION IN MY SCHEDULE.
She didn’t get a convenient time, and noticed an “open spot in my schedule. She wanted to be able to use this spot on an “as needed” basis.
- “Thanks so much for your email, Josie. I understand your scheduling concerns, but I don’t feel comfortable about committing to putting Johnny into that Tuesday time on an “as needed” basis. I need Johnny to pick one time and stick with it. Otherwise I’m effectively committing two slots to him by agreeing to keep the Tuesday slot open. If you want that Tuesday time permanently I’m happy to have him there, but I need to have a solid schedule. Let me know which time you’d like. Thanks for understanding.”
There’s nothing wrong with someone asking for something special, but there is also nothing wrong with restating your policy politely but firmly.
Take this opportunity to remind the parent how much you truly enjoy your work and teaching their child in particular.
3. A PARENT CAN’T DECIDE WHETHER TO SWITCH FROM ANOTHER TEACHER TO ME.
- “No worries, Dave. I really do understand. I’m not going anywhere, so I’ll be here in the future if you decide to leave Andrea where she is for a while. The only problem is that I may not have time in my schedule immediately if you decide to do it later. We could work that out then. Take your time and do what you think is best for you and your family.”
Let the parent know that you truly understand how hard it is to make decisions. If your studio is very full and you may not have room in the future, there is nothing wrong with letting them know that. Convey your patience with their process and willingness to empathize with any decision they make. Don’t try to make their decision for them.
4. AFTER A FEW LESSONS, IT BECOMES CLEAR TO ME THAT A CHILD ISN’T READY FOR THE STYLE OF LESSONS I TEACH.
- “Hi Samantha, I don’t think we should proceed with lessons right now for Nathan. I think we should wait a little while. The main reason is because he finds it so challenging to sit still. His feet are moving a mile a minute and I haven’t yet found the right solution to keep him supported and stable. I also have some concerns about his physical strength and wonder if he would do better if he waited a year and was a little stronger all the way around. Sometimes kids make better progress if they wait a little longer and are more ready. He’s really so bright and interesting. I just don’t want to get started for real and then wish we’d waited a year. So in answer to your question, I think he will do better if we wait. We could even revisit this in the middle of the year for the second semester if you’d like to bring him over sometime in January. Sometimes even a few months can make a great difference in a child’s readiness to start lessons.”
Let the parent have the benefit of your experience and still leave an opening for the child to start lessons fairly soon.
5. REMEMBER TO SEND POSITIVE EMAILS.
- Follow up a particularly great lesson with an email solidifying the experience.
“I had an amazing lesson yesterday with Betsy! It was one of those perfect lessons where everything combines to make things possible that just shouldn’t be possible. (The props, the development, the curiosity.) Sure is fun.”
- Send progress reports or updates at least once a year.
- Thank parents who go the extra mile: the ones who are willing to swap lessons or give someone a ride. Having a thriving music business is all about karma.