Saturday, October 27, 2012

Cancellation policies: making them suck less for students and teachers

I love posting about training and healthy eating and feminism and pedagogy and controversial issues. But in life, as in pole, as in blogging, we sometimes need to face some less fun stuff. I have been wanting to address cancellations for awhile, but I wanted to make sure it wasn't on the heels of any incidence of cancellation, since I didn't want any one person to think it was about them. Since I moved, I haven't started back up teaching yet, so I haven't had any cancellations to deal with, so no one can take it personally. Because this isn't about one person. It's about everyone who has ever cancelled on a teacher, both correctly and incorrectly.

I've been either teaching or taking private lessons in one thing or another nonstop since I was 14. My background is as a classical musician, which means at least one hour or private instruction a week (which I haven't taken in years, stupid economy, which is why I'm no longer performing at the level I once was). I've had private lessons in aerial acrobatics, and have also taught voice and ESL in addition to silks and pole.

In every industry I've taught or taken private lessons, the cancellation policy is exactly the same. A cancellation more than 24 hours in advance is either either cancellable or reschedulable at no cost. A cancellation less than 24 hours in advance, for any reason, your payment is due in full.

Classes usually have some sort of similar cancellation policy (although make-ups are often allowed on a limited basis), but as classes are usually paid for while booking, there is not the uncomfortable situation of a person being asked to give you money that they have for something that they did not get even though it was TOTALLY DEFINITELY NOT THEIR FAULT. Private lessons booked through a studio, college, or other institution usually have some level of administration to do the kneecap-busting for you. But when it comes down to the financial exchange (or lack thereof) between student and teacher, it's awkward.

I've been on both sides of this. I am notoriously healthy so I never cancel, but there was one time, one of those insanely busy, juggling-everything times of my life, where I misremembered the time of my voice lesson and showed up an hour late--as it was ending. I was in a tight place financially, and my lessons were the only large expenditure I allowed myself, because it was my career and it was necessary.

When I realized what had happened, I cried.  It was hard for me to part with the money in the first place, even when I was getting a hit-or-miss lesson for it. To give $65 away for almost no reason was--well, if you've ever been broke, you understand--heartbreaking.

So I understand how it is from the student's perspective. Now. Down to business.

If you cancel a lesson FOR ANY REASON, for (more or less) ANY TEACHER in ANY INDUSTRY, pay your teacher the money. Willingly, cheerfully, and (as long as the cancellation policy has been made clear) without having to be asked. Do not be a whiner, a moper, a bitch, or a victim.

Here are the reasons:
  • The space. Most of us pay for studio space. We don't get to cancel for free. Neither do you. (This is the most obvious reason, but if your teacher teaches from home, that's no excuse.)
  • Our schedules. Most of us are not sitting around watching TV all day. We have other students and other activities. You have reserved your time and we have spent the rest of the days or weeks up 'til then having to arrange our schedule around you. That often means saying no to other students or business.
  • Prep time. Most students would be surprised at how much time we spend preparing for their lessons. We need to figure out moves that are appropriate for your level, brush up on them, and sometimes even try out new moves that you've requested to see if we can master them and develop a pedagogy by the time your lesson comes. Directly before the lesson, if there's no one before you, we have to get dressed and warm up, and either commute to the location or clean our apartment.
  • Our financial stability. We're artists, not wall street tycoons. We're possibly broke and counting on the money you were supposed to pay us to get through the month.
  • Your discipline. Remember college? When there's no consequence for people not showing up to class, they don't show up. Sure, they have good intentions to begin with, but life intervenes as always, and coming to class is inconvenient. Guess what? It's always going to be inconvenient in some way. That's why you make a commitment.
I actually know teachers who request payment in advance (my high school voice teacher had us pay a month at once, with no cancellations possible whatsoever), but most of us try to make things easy for the student, which means you pay when you get there.

Look, this isn't fun for anyone. I probably feel more angst over possibly offending you than you do over losing the money. But if we choose to use this honor system, so we need to stay worthy of it. So here are my do's and don'ts, for both students and teachers.

  • Make sure you're clear on the cancellation policy before your first lesson. I know you don't think you're going to cancel, but anything can happen.
  • Don't be a no-show just because it costs the same as cancelling hours before. That's disrespectful to us. Plus, we get worried about you.
  • We're sorry you had an emergency/thing that wasn't your fault, and that's cool if you want to tell us about it, but shit happens and you do still owe us. Do not think (or imply that you think) that you're off the hook, no matter what happened.
  • When you call to cancel your lesson, do us an enormous favor and say right away, "I totally know that I still have to pay you, I am mailing the check/bringing double to my next lesson which I want to schedule right now." I feel so relieved when I don't have to bring it up.
  • If you are sharing a lesson, figure out the contingency plan in advance. If one person cancels or no-shows, who's responsible for the money? You don't want awkwardness with your classmate any more than we want it with you.
  • And my pet peeve, because I always fall for it: You don't get to "reschedule." You get to optionally schedule a new lesson, which you will need to pay for in addition to this one. I can't tell you how much money I've lost because I felt bad and agreed to let someone "reschedule" a lesson even though they didn't know yet when they wanted to reschedule for. That lesson has actually happened 0% of the time.
  • Actively draw attention to your cancellation policy for new students. Don't just put it in the studio rules or waiver. Write it in red and draw circles and stars and arrows around it. Mention it to the student out loud in words that you speak with your mouth. People don't read the documentation carefully.
  • While the standard policy seems like common sense to most of us, people who aren't acclimated to the student-teacher relationship might be surprised. Don't assume they "get it."
  • Getting deposits from students can be tricky (like if they don't come on a regular basis), but if you don't mind PayPal taking a cut, it might be worth having them pay in advance.
  • Set your policy and stick to it. If you waffle, it makes the rest of us look bad.
  • I know at least one teacher with a "first cancellation is free" policy. This is good for not making you look like an asshole, and bad for making students understand that the policy is for real, so it's your call. It's easier to pull off when you have regular students on a regular schedule than if you have sporadic drop-ins. The "first time" for someone who comes twice a week is a much lower percentage than the "first time" for someone who comes three times ever.
  • I know your students are your friends, which makes it awkward to demand money from them when they don't think it's fair. But being a bitch about the money is easier than being a bigger bitch and keeping them at arm's length. (This works well in some industries, but pole and circus are too intimate, and we tend to be in the same age range.)
  • You should know how to write invoices. It might seem passive-aggressive to send an invoice instead of asking for the money to their faces, but it's also more professional and legally recognizable. Your call on if you go that route, but either way, all teachers should have a template for invoices at the ready. Sometimes you need them when you teach workshops.
  • If you can't deal with the dirty money, you need a middle man (like a studio). Yeah, then they take their cut. To many sensitive artistic souls, it's worth it. That's why we have middle men.
A few final points for everyone:
  • "The teacher doesn't have to pay me if they cancel! That's not fair!" It's not, on paper. But in reality, teachers almost never cancel. I mean, they are relying on you for their livelihood! That said, some teachers do offer something in return to placate everyone's sense of justice. A free lesson, or a discount, or whatever. I don't think I've ever actually cancelled, so I don't know what I do.
  • Think twice before sloughing through your lesson when you are sick. Check with your teacher/student to see if they're ok with that. A germophobic teacher might even be willing to give you a free reschedule if you'll just keep your diseases away from her.
  • If you work for a studio that does not follow a 24-hour cancellation policy for you as a teacher--as in, they'll cancel your class or let a student cancel a lesson right before and don't pay you--please don't work for that studio. There are a million ways in which working conditions can be less than ideal, but this is an industry standard (across all private teaching industries, not just circus and pole) and it should be a dealbreaker. We'll probably never be unionized, so holding our ground on something this basic is as close as we're gonna get.
  • If it's MORE than 24 hours in advance, and you're starting to think you might not be feeling well or your grandma's taken a turn for the worse, and you're not sure whether or not to cancel, talk to us. I can't speak for others, but schedule permitting I'm sometimes cool with letting a person quasi-cancel. Sort of a "more than 24 hours cancellation but if works out for both of us I'll do a drop-in" kind of thing.
  • Even though I'm touting this as the industry standard, it shouldn't be assumed. If your teacher has not given you any cancellation policy, you owe them nothing. You could still pay them just to be a good person, but you're not required to.
I bring this up partially because I'm not always the best at it. I theoretically have a strict policy, but I don't always have the balls to follow through, and am too worried about people being mad at me. So maybe putting this out there with my name on it will force me to stick to my guns. I don't want to be a heartless monster, but I don't want to be a hypocrite either!

Again, I'm not implicating any one person here, because I've been teaching for years, so naturally I've had many cancellations and no-shows over time. But I DO appreciate everyone who's been cool about it. Interestingly? The people who are quickest to say "I know I still have to pay you and I will" are always other teachers.

Image from Travel Insurance Review

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Quality vs. Quantity: Are you collecting tricks?

In my spare time, I have a day job as a writer in IT. In IT, you basically have developers and non-developers. And the two camps love to complain about each other. One of our favorite gripes is that developers never polish anything. They get really excited to invent a cool new app, but once they've got it made, they move onto the next cool project. Debugging, usability, documentation--this is no fun. Hence all the buggy software out there.

I see many--nay, most--students approaching pole and aerial the same way. They want tricks. New tricks, fancy tricks, tricky tricks. They obsess over learning something new. They practice it (often over-training it), pay teachers large sums for lessons and workshops, pore over videos and tutorials. Then one day the finally get it, and they have their friends take a picture of it, and that's it. Maybe they add it into their regular repertoire and maybe they forget about it. But either way, they mentally check it off a list and call it done. It's kinda like going on one of those Contiki tours in college, where you see like every city in Europe for like one night each. Been there done that bought the tshirt!

Have you bought the tshirt for all the tricks you've learned?

Don't feel like debugging your dance?

Polishing is not really fun. There's no rush, no happy dance. There's no bragging rights, and, in a community where we mentally rank each other by what tricks you can and can't do (admit it), there's no cred. No bullet point on the mental resume.

And then one day you see a video of yourself and you cringe. Or you enter a competition and can't understand why your scores were so bad. Or you audition for a show or a circus troupe and pull out all the stops and bust your ass and are flabbergasted when you don't make it past the first round of cuts.

Sometimes polishing means discipline. It means inverting without hooking your foot even when you're tired and PMSing. Other times it means inspiration. It means turning the lights down and putting on the perfect music (NOT your usual workout playlist), and practicing finding that place where you feel amazing and it shows. All the time, it means not mistaking a checklist for art.

Photo from i can has Cheezburger, of course.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Are you training your competition?

 Over the weekend I taught an advanced pole tricks workshop. Since I'm mostly self-taught (not attached to any studio) and don't follow competitions and YouTube trends very closely, I end up coming up with some of my tricks and sequences on my own. (Someone else may come up with the same thing, of course. I don't claim bragging rights on any points of ownership or inventorship.) So I end up teaching a lot of what are de facto "signature moves."

So now anyone who took my workshop (or my classes, privates, or other workshops I've done), or anybody they subsequently teach, can run out and use my moves in a competition.

Great! Do it! That's what I'm here for.

The problem comes when your students end up working or competing in the same circuits you do.

Back in the good old olden days (not that long ago), the best teachers were basically retired from illustrious performing or competing careers. They would earn their living in their art for as long as they could, and then they would settle down and pass their wisdom on to the next generation of stars.

We tend to have a nostalgic view of this career path. "Isn't it great that people/the government was so supportive of the arts that these artists could make a living just performing?" "Isn't it great that there was so much employment that they didn't even have time to teach, they were so in demand as artists?"

The landscape has changed, for sure, but I think we are idealizing things. It has NEVER been easy to be an artist. Ask Mozart. There are other aspects to this arrangement that we forget to consider.

Artists also waited until they were retired to teach because they didn't want to share their secrets. They didn't want others in the field using their knowledge to depose them. They didn't want to create competition for themselves. After all, pretty young Sally Soprano has everything you don't: youth, beauty, energy, potential-and she'll work cheaper. Why risk her replacing you?

Well, the old system doesn't always suit the modern world. First of all, for a number of reasons, artists do usually need a day job, and often that means teaching. Secondly, the world changes so quickly these days that older, retired artists might have outdated information. And in some cases, the field is so young, or has so recently expanded, that we don't have a trove of seasoned pros to learn from. I mean, if you're learning clarinet, there are centuries of master clarinetists who have paved the way for you. If you're learning lyra? Circus arts aren't new, but just how many people do you think there were doing lyra 20 or 30 years ago, compared to today? Somebody has to teach all these budding aerialists, and that usually means working or aspiring professionals.

All this means that many of us are training our own competition, without having thought through the ramifications.

How do you deal with this bundle of logistics and awkwardness? Well, for some people like me, it's not a big issue. I don't really compete or perform professionally. I mean, if I want to enter a contest or a showcase, I will. But I'm not trying to break into the competition circuit, or earn my pro card. So if someone shows up with the same trick as me, it doesn't affect my life a whole lot.

Other people chose to keep their signature tricks, or at least their new tricks, to themselves. But new tricks are exactly what students most want to learn from us. So we're kind of hurting our business. Plus, we can really only keep so many moves polished & practiced at a time, so with advanced students who already know the basics (or think they do), we often end up teaching them whatever we've been polishing on our own time.

Some less evolved teachers might prevent their students from achieving their potential. They might discourage them from entering competitions, or imply that they're not good enough. Obviously you shouldn't study with someone like this. (It's important to be objective, though. If a trusted coach tells you you're not ready, you should listen, or at least get a second opinion.)

Teaching doesn't only create quality of competition. It creates quantity. You'll often hear old-timers complaining about newcomers on the market who don't have enough knowledge/experience and are ruining things for those who are already established. Here's a thoughtful piece by aerialist Laura Witwer (who I had I think one silks class with years ago at STREB, where she told me that glitter is what separates us from the animals, which is good advice) complaining about new aerialists drastically undercutting the pros and bringing fees down. This is a legitimate issue, but I also think you can't make a large part of your living training hordes of new aerialists, and then turn around and complain that there are hordes of new aerialists on the market and prices are dropping. If you are teaching your skills to many people, then it's your own fault that your skill set is no longer rare.

If you want to teach while you are still active as a performer, that's fine-that's actually what most of us do. But you should be aware of this dilemma going into the situation, so you can think ahead about how you want to handle it when it comes up. And if you're an outstanding teacher, it will come up. The best want to train with the best.

Photo from