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Welcoming Students to Lessons

Kathy Melago | January 2010

    Private lessons are a wonderful opportunity for students to get the undivided attention of a teacher. This can be exciting and motivating for students. Sometimes, however, teachers can inadvertently create an atmosphere that makes students feel disliked or as if they were a burden. There are some simple steps that teachers can take to make their studios welcoming places.

Set a Happy Mood 
    Avoid talking about things unrelated to the lesson. This seems fairly obvious, but it is so easy to let a comment slip out. Work or personal concerns should not be said in front of students. That is not what they are paying for. They also do not need to hear about the aspects of teaching that you find less than enjoyable. Try to avoid answering their innocent question of “How are you?” with “Busy!” They might get the idea that you wished they had not come. 
    No job is perfect, but there is a time and place for healthy venting. Venting to students or parents, however, is not acceptable. A careful exception to this rule might involve a professional discussion with students about a career as a private teacher.

Getting Started 
    While students are setting up, resist the urge to jump on the computer and check your email or perform other small tasks. That creates an awkward silence that can make students feel uncomfortable, as if they had arrived too soon. They might be unsure about when their  lesson begins or what to do until you are ready. Instead, use those few minutes to make small talk about school or the weather. If you teach all day and need a break between students to perform other tasks, schedule one.

Turn the Phone Off
    Unless absolutely necessary, refrain from taking phone calls during lessons.  Students can feel extremely uncomfortable when their teacher is speaking on the phone and it disrupts the flow of the lesson. In the rare case when you are expecting an important phone call, explain that to the student ahead of time and indicate what they should do when the call comes through. “William Bennett will be calling me sometime during your lesson. It is the only time he could call, and I must talk to him briefly about his travel plans for our upcoming festival.  When he calls, please have a seat on the couch and enjoy the Flute Talk magazines I left out for you.”  In an emergency, you may have to ask the caller to hold for a moment while you direct the student. Do not leave a student in the awkward position of trying not to hear a conversation that is taking place three feet away.

Listen Carefully

     Some students love private lessons because it is the one chance they have to get someone’s undivided attention. With that in mind, pay attention to your students when they speak. They remember when they have told you something four times, yet you ask about it again. They also know when you are not really interested in what they are saying. If a student is talkative to a fault, preventing the lesson from progressing, address the matter directly and get back to the flute. For example: “You know, I love dogs, too, but what we also both love is flute, so let’s get back to the lesson and you can tell me more about your dog while you are packing up.”
     Some students may like to spend time talking about non-musical matters before their lesson. Give them a few minutes to tell you what is on their minds while they unpack and then direct the focus to the lesson.

Get to Know Your Students 
     Learn more about your students than just how well they play. While you do not need to know their life history, you should know what part of the country they come from if they are college students, and what grade or high school they attend if they are younger.  Building even a tiny connection can make students feel special because you showed an interest in them. Ask simple and fairly non-intrusive questions about their family and life.


     Be ready for your students when it is time for their lessons and end lessons on time. Students should not have to knock to tell you they are ready for a lesson. You should be ready for them.  Having a policy for the rare occasion when you lose track of time in the previous lesson is fine, but try to avoid putting students in that position. 
     Ending lessons on time is another way to show respect for your students’ time. They may have other commitments but are afraid to speak up. If you have extra time and want to offer to extend the lesson, simply ask. Refrain from assuming that the student can stay later.

Set-Up Place
     Have a place for students to comfortably assemble a flute and put down their coat, case, etc. A coffee table will do. Most of us have had the experience of trying to stand like a flamingo and use one thigh to try to balance the flute case while assembling the flute. Having adequate space for students makes them more comfortable as they prepare for their lessons.

Give Praise

     Find reasons to point out the good things your students do. Sometimes, we focus so much on fixing things that we forget to give praise. When students only hear criticism, they can leave lessons feeling that they are no good and that you probably do not like them. Younger students have an especially strong need for acceptance and approval. Do be realistic in your comments, but find good things to point out as well.
     One good method is to sandwich a criticism between compliments. For example, find something positive to say when the student finishes playing. Then move into an area that needs some improvement. After he has worked on that for a few minutes, you might remark on the progress.

     Creating a welcoming atmosphere will make your teaching feel more rewarding. When students feel welcome, they are happier, and happier students are usually more fun to teach and more driven to learn.  Lessons might be the only place all week where the student really feels welcome.  Private teachers are in the position to make a real difference in the lives of their students.  Accept that challenge with zeal!