An Open Letter to a Pushy Parent

An Open Letter to A Pushy Parent

A couple of months ago, Tim Topham posted an open letter to parents outlining the many joys and benefits of learning piano and why they should bother with their time, budget, and organisational skills. It is an inspiration to read, and I highly recommend sending it to all your piano parents.

But this got me thinking… what happens once the honeymoon period is over? How do we manage the extreme frustration of the same excuses week after week, from overscheduled children and all-too-competitive parents? And what do we do when pushy parents insist on an exam being undertaken when they don’t leave enough time in a child’s day for the practice to be done?

My friend and co-author of the sight reading books Michelle Madder recently had to manage such a situation. The mum promised week after week that practice would get done, but as the exam drew closer the family just seemed to get busier. The mum was saying things like ‘We just need to get through this exam – if they fail they can still sit the next grade can’t they?’ (Seriously???)

Here is the email Michelle wrote to her, which you are free to use/tweak for your pushy parent, if you are finding this necessary. I think it is a great balance of being forthright but at the same time maintaining a good relationship:

Hi __

I’d prefer to chat over the phone but I know you’re working today and then I’m teaching all afternoon…so a quick email and then we can chat!

I really feel that it’s a bad idea for either of the girls to sit the exam on June __ and I’d like to notify the exam board that they will be officially withdrawn.

As you know, I agreed to entering them in for this session only given that there were promises of much more time to put into practice and preparation. If you read back through the notebooks that I write in you can see that it has been a constant battle of me teaching and reteaching the same things with very little progress. Although both girls are musical, exam preparation only comes with a certain number of hours, which they have just not done.

I certainly understand how hectic life is and how thinly everyone is spread. I know you’ve absolutely tried your best and I don’t want you to feel bad. These exams take LOTS of consistent work and are tricky to factor in to busy lives.

The reality is that the work has not been done. The girls are not even close to ready and are very likely to fail the exam. This is not something I see as a useful experience in any way, shape or form. I am not comfortable with them doing it at all. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

If we had given more notice, the exam board would have refunded 50% of the exam fee. It is too late for that now, however, I am offering to refund you 50% of the exam fee as I feel so strongly that this should not happen.

Hope to get to speak to you soon.

Michelle and I had discussed the offer of the 50% refund at length before she made that offer. Although she was under no obligation to do such a thing, in the end this is what really drove home the point to the mother, who gave in with a response of ‘with great reluctance I will follow your advice’ (and, to her great credit, declined the offer of the 50%).

As teachers, we must ‘stand up’ to parents who insist on exams being undertaken despite a lack of practice. Scraping through grade after grade is not the stuff of great music education! We are professionals in our field and we are the ones who know what it takes to prepare for an exam; I believe it is our responsibility to communicate this clearly to parents and to only support exam entries when an appropriate amount of work is being done at home.

A strategy I have taken to lately is to make the due date of the exam entry the deadline for being able to play certain elements of the exam e.g. all required technical work at a slow speed, at least 4 of the 6 pieces, that sort of thing. If that deadline is not met, there is little hope for a positive exam experience three months down the track!

What are your thoughts? Please leave comments below.

Samantha Coates

Samantha Coates is a professional pianist and teacher with over 25 years experience in both private and group tuition. She is the author and publisher of BlitzBooks, the music education series that has captured the imagination of students across Australia and transformed the teaching of music theory, sight reading and general knowledge.

16 thoughts on “An Open Letter to a Pushy Parent

  1. Jo Kotchie says:

    Yes! Very clear and brooks no argument but diplomatic as well. We are lucky in WA that AMEB exams can be booked with just a month’s notice so it’s much easier to have the student ready before booking the exam. When you have to plan for months ahead it must be extremely difficult and the parents and students really have to do their part if they want a successful outcome. Otherwise, as you’ve shown them, there are consequences.

    • Samantha Coates says:

      Jo it seems to me that the WA branch of the AMEB has it so much more together than the rest of the country!!!

  2. Sharon Ellam says:

    Perfectly agree! I also don’t enter students for exams unless they reach my requirements at the date of entry. It’s completely changed my experience of teaching and has also placed the responsibility for the goal in the correct place ie the student and parents.

  3. Susan says:

    Excellent letter. And yes everything at the ready for the exam when the entries go in has been the no negotiation condition I’ve set for years. Works a treat – except when parents take the reins and enter the child themselves…..

    • Samantha Coates says:

      So what do you do when that happens Susan? Do you make it clear to the parent that you do not support the entry?

  4. Ros Thrift says:

    Ditto. No entries unless all components have been mastered to a decent level. The remainder of the weeks until the exam are for refining the performances, memorizing the repertoire and dealing with pieces outside the exam curriculum including duets etc. in addition my enrollment form clearly outlines that the decision to submit for an exam is totally mine. Alleviates parental pressure like this experience.

  5. Mary Ashenden says:

    A month ahead would be so much better. I think exams are not the great priority they used to be for my students.
    Love this letter. Some people are unrealistic.

  6. Margaret Greig says:

    As a teacher I too set prerequisites before an exam entry can be made and importantly, as Michelle indicates, write these in a notebook which needs to be brought to each lesson. It is a shame when life has become so busy for young people with so much crammed in – too much of it being hours of extra coaching to prepare for what seems an increasing pressure to do exams associated with school. That’s a whole other topic! As an examiner it is a truly unpleasant experience to fail a student. We don’t know what’s led to this lack of readiness but it never feels good and we know it’s not going to feel good for them either. It’s not a way to inspire and motivate to keep going with lessons. And let’s face it learning music has never been such an important balance for stressed out kids.

    • Samantha Coates says:

      So well said Margaret! It’s true that coaching has created an entirely new drain on students’ time, quite apart from all the extra-curricular activities.

    • Samantha Coates says:

      Well, if the child has been given ample time to practice and has simply been lazy about it, then I suppose yes it could be a matter of learning a lesson, although I’d be very hesitant to take that risk! However in this case the students were at the mercy of their ridiculously busy timetable. If it’s not the student’s fault that the work hasn’t been done, failing an exam would most likely turn them off music for life – which would be such a shame.

  7. Wendy says:

    Yes this is a great balance of honesty,reality,professional accountability and relating to parenting. It puts the blame where it needs to be in several different ways and displays the caring humanity of the teacher. Well done

  8. Sue Thompson says:

    I am surprised that nobody has mentioned that a poor or failed result can reflect on ones own reputation as a teacher and I see no reason why this shouldn’t be pointed out to the parents. When I was a senior examiner I was aware of this and even now that I am a retired from examining but still teaching, I expect my students to perform up to their best standards. However I have noticed in recent years, students lives are so busy with increasing amounts of homework as well as outside interests, it can be difficult for them to find the time, However I certainly don’t believe that teachers should offer to bare the cost of a cancelled or rearranged exam.
    I would be interested in any comments about this.

    • Samantha Coates says:

      Sue you are so right. Our reputations ARE at stake. But just to clarify, Michelle only offered the refund as a way of making a point. She knew she was under no obligation to do so.

    • Siyao says:

      I agree with you Sue. I don’t think many parents think or consider things from our perspectives at all. I don’t want low marks to reflect me when the students didn’t practice enough and I have done my best writing out different practice techniques, brainstorming every practice tip and attempting everything I know.

  9. Michelle Madder says:

    I should probably point out that I do have a strict ‘rule’ as far as all work being done prior to the exam entry (which is why they didn’t sit the exam at the end of last year!) In this particular case, there was a good burst of productivity prior to the entry date for this session and we were ‘all but over the line’. If that had continued, there would have been no problem. However, it was shortly followed by a period of no work which of course means everything goes backwards fast. Also, re our reputation – Yes, I couldn’t agree more. We recently won the AMEB award for Most Outstanding Music School for Preliminary to grade 6 in NSW and I didn’t want that affected by crummy results from these two students. But to be honest, that was a secondary consideration – I was more struggling with the concept of sending students to do something that they were clearly unprepared to do.
    Anyway – thanks for the comments and glad that it has been useful to some!

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