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December 6, 2016

How (and why) I Run a Teacher-Focused Company

by Abraham Levitan

In my former life, I was an aspiring rock star who taught piano on the side. Driving house to house on Chicago’s North Shore, I happily delivered lessons until my client waiting list grew so long I considered hiring another teacher.

In 2007 I did just that, and Piano Power was born. Now some ten years later, we are 25 teachers, four admins (including me), and 400 students strong.

As I hired teachers over the years, I assumed all music studios used my strategy: carefully match student and teacher, and focus intently on streamlining the teacher’s schedule. We provide in-home lessons to mostly children–a great way to appeal to parents seeking convenience– so I’m careful to minimize driving time while maximizing teaching time.

But the more I interviewed candidates, the more I realized they were also interviewing at places that held a very different philosophy: what I call the “client-focused approach.”

Beware the Client Approach, Even if You’re the Client

Take this scenario. A client calls a music education provider and requests guitar lessons on Tuesdays at 4pm. The client-focused business may respond with, “No problem! Read the bios of the plentiful teachers we have available at that exact time, decide who you want, and they’ll show up at your door.”

To have teachers “at the ready” like this, the business must overhire– or as I like to put it, they must grow a teacher farm. The abundance of the farm allows them to serve new clients immediately, which might seem great for the client…

But it’s not so great for teachers. As one of dozens or even hundreds of contractors, a teacher in this situation is typically sitting on their talented hands, waiting for their schedule to fill.

It’s easy to to see where this leads: low job satisfaction for teachers and high turnover.

Music students want to work with happy, motivated teachers who will be there for them– not jaded “jobbers”. Which is why a client-focused approach is ultimately bad for the client. The relationship between teacher and student is so symbiotic that if a teacher is unhappy, chances are the student is, too.

Focus on Teachers to Keep Everyone Happy

Conversely, a teacher-focused business prioritizes overall job satisfaction and happiness for the teacher. This is the only way I know how to take care of not only teachers, but clients.

How do I do this?

As I said earlier, accommodating my teachers’ desired schedules is top priority. Melding those schedules with clients’ desired lesson time is no easy feat. If you’re interested in starting a small, in-home lessons studio, a passion for logistics and spreadsheets certainly helps–it may even be a requirement. I happen to be just that kind of nerd, so mapping efficient driving routes and matching schedules was always fun for me.

However, the volume of teachers and students eventually grew too high for me to do it on my own. A few years ago I hired a logistics manager who carefully matches times and locations. She sends a list of proposed schedules to me, and ultimately I decide what works.

This way, rather than worrying about logistics, a teacher is handed a well-planned schedule, a roster of eager students, and a minimized amount of driving in their future.

Many of our teachers are young, working musicians who string together teaching, gigging, and other side jobs, so working with a company that grabs the scheduling reins is a huge relief.

Creating a Positive, Connected Culture

Since our teachers work remotely, we have no centralized location for them to meet between lessons, share experiences and advice, and build rapport.

Consequently, I strive to create an espirit de corps among the teachers. Face time has always been important; I observe and give feedback on lessons regularly. But my wife and I also throw parties for the gang. Twice a year we eat pizza, drink beer, listen to records, and nerd out on music talk.

Teachers Emily Volz, Matt Gold, and Peter Groch at our backyard BBQ
Teachers Emily Volz, Matt Gold, and Peter Groch at our backyard BBQ

We recently started performing for each other at “Piano Power Hour”, a live, monthly showcase that is open to the public at a local venue. It’s one thing to witness your teacher nailing it during a lesson, and a whole other to applaud them performing beautifully on stage.

I really do see the teachers as our team. I’m a big baseball fan, so I really like that we have roughly as many instructors as players on a major league baseball roster. I enjoy the feeling that this is my crew and i’m looking out for them, deploying their talents as skillfully as I can.

Be a Musical Matchmaker

On the client side, I get to know the student before they begin lessons. Most of our students are children, so I speak to their parents on the phone about experience levels, how they engage with music, personality characteristics, and learning styles.

From there, I hand-pick each student-teacher pair. If I can’t come back to the family and specifically explain why I think a teacher is a good fit based on our conversation, then I don’t do it.

When matching, I’m also considering the teacher’s preferences, like instrument, age range, and student experience level.

Granted, there are limits to how much you can learn about a student by simply taking with their parents. I do my best based on the initial consultation, but sometimes after a few lessons the parents decide it’s not a good fit. I always defer to parental instinct in cases like that, never trying to “hard sell” a teacher.

If the parents think it doesn’t work, we make another match.

The Pros Outweighs the Cons

If you’re interested in running a small, boutique operation, I see only one drawback to the teacher-focused approach.

Namely, when a new client calls to request those guitar lessons on Tuesdays at 4pm, I’m much less likely to have an immediate solution for them. Typically, they spend a small amount of time on a waiting list before we find a match, and that can be initially frustrating.

But I’ve always felt it was an indicator of health that our teachers are working full schedules, our families are happy and sticking around, and our teachers are doing the same. It makes us feel confident that because our reputation is strong, a new client is willing to wait a bit up-front to get matched with a great teacher.

At 400 students, Piano Power is bigger than I ever thought it would be, but that’s happened over ten years. Our growth does not mimic the “hockey stick model”, shooting up from the base at a steep incline.

Rather, our emphasis on quality over quantity has helped us achieve a slow, steady growth. And at the heart of that growth is a happy, satisfied group of teachers who know they’re my top priority.

This article originally appeared on Tim Topham’s piano teaching blog.

Read more about Abraham’s hiring process in The Priceless Quality I Look For in a Music Teacher.

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