Scott is 24 and has more ink than Office Max.
He could strain pasta with all the holes he’s pierced into his body. He also wears make-up, and black clothes with chains attached.
To see him, you might not imagine that Scott is as sweet as the day is long. Or that he’s also generous, responsible, and respectful. Or that everyone who knows him, likes him.
Right now, Scott is young and determined to be a musician. He may be successful. I hope he is, because he’s passionate and has cultivated the perfect image for that job. But he may find, sooner or later, that he needs another way to generate some income. And that may be a problem. If you didn’t know Scott, you might not get into his Lyft car, or let him inspect your chimney, or hire him at your office.
The fact that you wouldn’t trust Scott based on his looks alone makes perfect sense to you. It makes sense to me, too, and to most people. It does not make sense to Scott. He assumes that what really matters is the man he is. He assumes that, being as nice as he is, people will talk with him and want to get to know him. After all, that’s been his experience in the music scene, where he spends all his time.
What Scott hasn’t wrapped his brain around is the reality that people respond to other people, and to their environments, instantly and viscerally. Right this second, from the gut.
Most people perceive men who are tattooed, pierced, and wearing black to be threatening, and even dangerous. (Read about perception biases here.) So, were Scott to try to function normally in the non-musical world, that’s what he’d have to deal with.
Now I’m gonna bring it on home. Scott’s issue is your issue.
Your students are affected by simple things. They may or may not know that they’re affected, but they are affected. The things that affect them will strongly influence both the way they treat you, and the way they treat their lessons. These things might not be noticeable to you, because, well…they’re just normal to you.
That normal stuff might be costing you thousands of dollars a year. You have, within your grasp, five unlikely things that will help your studio prosper, and help keep you from having to deal with uncomfortable issues with your students.
Those things are:
You may be right at home with a bit of clutter, but you need to be aware: your clutter is communicating. If your studio is messy, cluttered, and disorganized, you are responsible for whatever that clutter means to your students.
Same room, before and after.
For example: If students perceive your space as disorganized, they may perceive you as disorganized. Why do you care? Because, if they don’t respect disorganized people, they won’t respect you. Lack of respect translates – whether intentional or not - to late cancellations, late payments, and quitting lessons.
Crazy, right? A student’s opinion that your studio is too messy is unconsciously translating to blown off lessons, which translates to you losing money?
It can sound far-fetched, but ask any mental health professional. They’ll tell you it’s true. We make decisions based on our beliefs, and our beliefs arise from our perceptions, which are intertwined with our personal biases. We can’t help it!
This is the personal version of the previous tip. Many of us feel that, because we’re self-employed (especially if we work at home) and because our students know and love us, we can dress any ol’ way. After all, they’re hiring us for our expertise, not our looks.
Sweatshirt + I-don't-care hair Vs. Cute cut + snappy jewelry
But, like the way you might respond to my student Scott, your students will respond to you in a way that you might not intend, and certainly wouldn’t want. You communicate your professionalism by looking and acting professional.
Obviously, you don’t need to wear a power suit and full make-up. But you do need to look as though you care. You want your students to respect you as a professional, because it costs you money and referrals if they don’t. You need to make yourself look like the professional you are.
If you teach from your home, you have both challenges and freedoms that you wouldn’t have in a school or conservatory. This item applies to you.
After all your years of training, you're probably not at all self-conscious in a voice lesson. Not so with your students. With few exceptions, they’re self-conscious and nervous. They feel vulnerable. They need to trust both you and their environment. Your studio should be a place where they feel safe.
A teaching space that’s situated in a space that your teenager has to walk through to get to the kitchen is costing you students. A waiting area that affords a view into the teaching area is causing your students anxiety that they will not be willing to tolerate for long.
But you have to live where you live, so what’s a teacher to do? You know your situation, and you can get creative. Generally, though, you should keep in mind 1) options, 2) sight lines, and 3) schedules.
When my friend Sharon was teaching from her one-bedroom apartment, she made it work. She made the living room into her bedroom, the dining room into the all-purpose room (where students and parents could wait) and the adjacent bedroom into her studio. It wasn’t an obvious solution, but it was creative. And it gave Sharon and her students the privacy they needed.
Those “privacy” curtains that go around hospital beds do not keep your hospital roommate from hearing your conversations. The fence separating your yard from your neighbors doesn’t keep you from hearing their barking dog. Keeping someone from seeing the person who is listening to them can offer a sense of security and privacy. It’s not a sure thing, but it can help.
If a private studio is impossible, you may have to bite the bullet and schedule for privacy. For example, give 45-minute lessons, but schedule students on the hour.
We’ve all been the teacher who assumes her students will respect her policies, and then the student doesn’t. We’re left wrestling with how to get paid without damaging the relationship. That position feels really uncomfortable to many of us, and sometimes we’ll just eat that lesson rather than assert ourselves.
If you hand your new student a sheet of paper which states your policies, or pull up your Policies (the fewer the better) web page and go over those policies verbally with them, they’ll be more likely to remember those policies. If you do that, then the policies - or the student’s choices - become the bad guy. Not you.
It’s the “I wish I could but I can’t” excuse.
And never say you’re sorry.
“Shoot! I wish you’d called me to reschedule earlier in the week! I might have been able to find you a make-up time. But I know we went over that policy together; when I have less than 24 hours’ notice, I have to charge you”.
“It’s exciting that Emily got cast, and I’d be happy to hold her space for her. As you remember from my studio polices, I can hold her space for the month if I can charge you for 3 of the 4 lessons she’ll miss (attach web page link). If you’re unable to save her space, please feel free to call me next month to see if I still have anything available. If I can, I’ll try to accommodate you”.
If these are new ideas to you, then you may be uncomfortable with them. And rationally defending yourself against any, or all, of these ideas is easy. Especially if you’re the warm, fuzzy person that we voice teachers tend to be.
Being more professional may feel uncomfortable at first, but it will also protect you against those financial and interpersonal parts of teaching that you hate. That, along with making a few thousand more every year, might be worth a little change. And much easier than tattoo removal!