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5 Tips for Writing Better Policy

Tip #1: define what it is your client is purchasing

It's risky to assume that all prospective clients are familiar with and have an accurate understanding of the structure of piano lessons, i.e. students attend weekly lessons at a designated time. Even if it is understood, defining "piano lessons" protects you against silly arguments. If you don't provide a "make-up" lesson upon request, a client might argue that your terms of service don't mention that the student is entitled to lessons only as described above, which is, in fact, a valid argument.

While defining "piano lessons" actually makes a missed lesson policy redundant, you should have one nonetheless. But what a clause defining piano lessons does is strengthen and justify your missed lesson policy by making explicit what the client is purchasing and agreeing to. If a client takes issue with your missed lesson policy, you can refer them to the definition of what it is they knowingly and willingly purchased.

Tip #2: don't make it personal

Policies should maintain an impersonal tone, which can be achieved through a variety of ways:

Avoid personal pronouns unless you define them, e.g. "You refers to the person who is responsible for the enrolment, including but not limited to the student's attendance and meeting payment obligations." If you can, avoid personal pronouns altogether to emphasise the objectivity and formality of the policy.

Don't justify your policies by giving personal reasons. Very often I hear teachers justify their missed lesson policies to clients by explaining that they need to earn a living, or that their time is valuable, or that they could have booked in another student or done something else rather than wait around, and so on. Personal considerations like these can be problematic for a variety of reasons:

  • it can make you look unprofessional;

  • personal circumstances can change over time leading to inconsistencies in your argument;

  • personal reasons may not be understood because they are...personal; and

  • clients might feel they have an opening to debate or negotiate based on your personal circumstances.

Basing policies on objective considerations gives the impression of professionalism, thoroughness and competence.

Avoid policies that require private information. This point is really about missed lesson policies that make allowances for cancellations with short or notice under circumstances such as family emergency or illness. Eliciting such private information can raise several issues because:

  • clients have a right to their privacy;

  • requiring proof of emergencies or illnesses can imply a lack of trust between you and your client;

  • if you don't require proof of emergencies or illnesses, clients could exploit your policy by using approved reasons for rescheduling missing lessons, such as claiming illness, when the real reason is not, in fact, provided for in your policy;

  • even if a client provides private information, there's always a risk of that information being unintentionally disclosed or mishandled;

  • you could be putting clients in a position where they feel compelled to share private information; and

  • verifying the truth of emergencies or illnesses can be impractical—not every illness requires a doctor's visit, and not every personal emergency comes with proof.

Tip #3: don't use typographical emphasis like CAPS, underline, italics, or bold.

The greatest sin is a combination of any of the above! When you emphasise certain elements, it forces the reader to give unequal attention to different parts of the policy and it becomes harder to determine which parts are genuinely critical. Moreover, emphasis doesn't communicate professionalism and objectivity; it may even insult your clients' intelligence. Are they so stupid that they need you to yell at them? We all know that people, including you, don't read terms and conditions thoroughly (be honest, have you actually read the terms and conditions of all of your streaming services?), but typographically yelling at clients is likely to insult them. Having said his, I do highlight some elements of my policy, but importantly, the text itself remains unaltered and the policy preamble explicitly states that highlighted portions answer the most frequently asked questions and are not intended to provide emphasis.

Tip #4: don't mention potentialities

The most common potentiality I see mentioned in polices is some element that allows for cancellation of enrolment under extenuating circumstances,"make-up" lessons for reasons other than illness, or "make-up" lessons where possible. Potentialities can introduce ambiguity, making the policy less clear and more open to interpretation and debate. A strong policy should be precise and definitive to avoid misinterpretations. When potential scenarios are mentioned, even as mere possibilities, they can inadvertently set expectations, leading your clients to believe that these scenarios are likely or even guaranteed irrespective of how you much you emphasise there is no guarantee. Also, who decides what constitutes extenuating circumstances? How will you manage a disagreement about whether a circumstance is truly an emergency? The content of policies should be able to be universally applied to all circumstances; then you have a standard to lean onthat allows you exercise discretion.

Tip #5: take a very considered approach when exercising discretion

Too much discretion can undermine the intent of a policy, while too little can make a policy rigid and unresponsive to individual circumstances. In finding a balance, it's really important to consider second- and third-order consquences:

  • there's a risk that decisions can be perceived as arbitrary or favoring certain individuals over others;

  • the more discretion is allowed, the more it will become expected;

  • the more discretion is allowed, the more likely it is that different cases will be handled differently and complicate the policy's implementation;

  • policies that leave significant room for discretion can undermine the integrity of the policies;

  • too much discretion can lead to clients exploiting your kindness; and

  • when you exercise discretion, you can't lean on your policy to protect you ("but you said...!")

When we make allowances, we state in writing:

Please be aware that this particular instance of discretion is a one-time consideration and does not set a precedent. Such decisions are made based on individual circumstances and are not a reflection of a change in our general policy. Additionally, we kindly request that you respect the confidentiality of such decisions. Sharing this information with others can lead to increased requests for similar allowances, which will ultimately make it difficult for us to offer any flexibility to anybody. We appreciate your understanding and discretion in this matter.

We make it explicitly clear that just because we made an allowance this time, we are under no obligation to do so again and clients can't expect it. Moreoever, we ask our clients to keep it to themselves. If they tell others about the allowance afforded them, others will ask for it, then nobody gets any.

I hope these 5 tips have been insighful and helpful to you!

Steven Armstrong is a multi-award-winning former lecturer of musicology with postgraduate qualifications in educational leadership. He is a piano examiner for the Australian Music Examination Board and the founder and director of Advantage Music Academya music school of over 300 students in Western Australia widely recognised for its professional approach to pedagogy.

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