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Here we go again...missed lesson policy

It's a big one, so here are the key points:

  • Align your policies with your business model and brand.

  • Use language and tone consistent with your brand.

  • Leave no room for misinterpretation or silly arguments.

  • Don’t state the possibility of anything in your policy or it will be expected regardless.

  • Don’t set undesirable precedents when exercising discretion.

  • Define exactly what it is that your clients are buying.

  • Consider second- and third-order consequences of your policy decisions.

  • Keep asking, ‘but what if…’ to ensure you cover as many scenarios as possible.

  • Don’t use italics, bold, underline, or all-caps as these communicate nothing positive.

  • Consider the impact of your policy on your work-life balance.

  • Failing to justify your policies when asked can come across as defensive and suspicious.

  • Don’t give personal reasons for your policies.

  • Remind your clients that your policy benefits them.

  • Everything works somewhere, nothings works everywhere.

You don't have to look far to find staunch opposition to the idea of offering a "make-up lesson"or a music school coaching business claiming that they have the solution to the unsolvable missed lesson policy problem. Teacher communities are rife with conflicting advice. You'll encounter all sorts of policy suggestions: no make-ups (usually expressed with caps lock on), make-ups granted with at least 24 hours’ notice, group lessons or masterclasses at certain times of the year, swap-lists, a flat monthly tuition rate that factors in missed lessons, and more. How do you know which policy is best for you?

The best missed lesson policy is the one that aligns with your business model and brand—that's not the same as "you do you", which is bad advice. Maybe being entirely flexible is right for your business, or maybe no make-ups is right for your business. Whatever the policy you implement, it should leave no room for misinterpretation, be consistent with other policies, and be communicated using language and tone that is consistent with your brand. You may need to spend some time reflecting on your brand; even if you have a well-established business and have been operating for a long time, reflecting on your brand from time to time is really important.

By way of example, I'll share the policy I implement at my school, Advantage Music Academy (AMA). We have two different policies. One pertains to our standard enrolment which is structured in 10-week terms; the other pertains to our month-to-month enrolment which offers a lot of flexibility.

Our missed lesson policy for our standard enrolment reads:

“You accept that lessons missed by the Student under the Term Enrolment, including but not limited to lessons additional to those to which You are entitled in accordance with the Enrolment, will not be rescheduled by Us irrespective of the reason.”

At AMA, under our standard enrolment agreement, as a matter of policy, we don’t reschedule missed lessons, but in reality, we do try to. We consider all things: the length of time a client has been with us, their advocacy, whether they are difficult to deal with, why they are missing a lesson, and so on. But we are very, very careful that we don't set a precedent, so careful that we explicitly state that to the client in writing when it does happen. I write (verbatim): "Please understand that this does not set a precedent for future missed lessons." However, over a 10-week period, we might only reschedule 5 of 2500 lessons that took place.

Our missed lesson policy for our month-to-month enrolment reads:

"You accept that lessons missed by the Student under the Month-to-month Enrolment can be rescheduled only if at least three-hours' notice is given before the scheduled starting time of the lesson. Any one lesson can be rescheduled only once. If the Student misses a rescheduled lesson, the lesson is forfeited."

No room for misinterpretation and silly arguments

In our full terms and conditions of enrolment, we define “You” the account holder, the person responsible for the enrolment and payment for the student, we define “Student” as the person taking the lessons, and “Us” as AMA. This is actually really important because the student and the person responsible for the student and payment are not the same unless you teach adults. Defining all the parties involved leaves no room for silly arguments.

The standard enrolment policy explicitly states that lessons missed by the student—as opposed to the teacher—are not rescheduled, and it makes a point of including any lessons booked in addition to the normal schedule to ensure that we cover everything. If it simply read: "Missed lessons are not rescheduled", it could be argued that this includes lessons missed by a teacher (which, in my view, would be unfair to the student). A client may also argue that an extra lesson in the holidays doesn't count as it's not a part of the enrolment agreement, so we leave no room for misinterpretation or silly arguments.

Both our policies deliberately avoid the word "make-up". We want to rid our vocabulary of the word and set new expectations. So, we don't know where anybody got the idea that offering "make-up" lessons is something that we might do; in fact, we don't know what "make-up" lessons means. Do you want us to teach you how to put on eyeliner? (Obviously, we do know, but I'm making a point). We don’t even say “make-up lessons are not offered”; we only ever use the term "reschedule". There is a significant difference: "make-up" may imply something is owed. Under the standard enrolment policy, we'll gladly try—emphasis on try—and reschedule a lesson that someone can't attend, but we don't need to make up for anything because we don't owe anything. Importantly, we don't state in the terms and conditions that we'll try to reschedule because we don't want to set any expectations, despite that we make no guarantees. We carefully consider second- and third-order consequences; we don't want to set any undesirable precedents. If we continue using this language —"make-up" lessons— people will continue to expect "make-up" lessons. If we state that we "may be able" to reschedule, people will expect that we will.

Our month-to-month policy allows for rescheduling if the client gives us at least three-hours' notice. The policy explicitly states that the notice is required before the "scheduled starting time" to leave no room for misinterpretation or silly arguments about what the notice is in relation to. It might seem ridiculous to think that a client might misinterpret what "three-hours' notice" is in relation to specifically, but the whole point here is to leave no room for misinterpretation and silly arguments. Our month-to-month policy also anticipates rescheduling lessons an infinite number of times and carrying them over from month to month: "Any one lesson can be rescheduled only once. If the Student misses a rescheduled lesson, the lesson is forfeited."

A brief footnote: I've seen many missed lesson policies that allow for very short or no notice under circumstances such as family emergency or illness. At AMA we never ask a student why they miss a lesson because firstly, the client could lie about having an emergency and, secondly, it's none of our business. So perhaps you require proof of some description or a doctor's certificate in the case of illness. In my view, that's inappropriate and invasive—it's just none of our business.

Consistent with other policies

Our standard enrolment missed lesson policy is almost unnecessary because of how we define enrolment; it implies that we don’t reschedule lessons (but of course, we don’t want to leave anything open to misinterpretation). Here is our enrolment policy:

"The service you are purchasing.

Enrolment entitles the Student to a lesson(s), as stipulated in the Enrolment Details, on the day and at the time and frequency for the applicable length of Enrolment, or as otherwise varied and agreed upon in writing in the course of Enrolment."

The policy clearly defines what the client is purchasing; we make no assumptions about what a client understands about how their enrolment is structured. This policy also puts the responsibility on the client as the enrolment is structured according to how they stipulated in the enrolment details (on the enrolment form). But the enrolment structure can change. Perhaps a student needs to change their lesson day, length or frequency; the policy takes this into account and, importantly, requires that any changes are agreed upon in writing to avoid any he-said-she-said.

Under our month-to-month enrolment, missed lessons can't be carried over from month-to-month because we specifically state in our enrolment policy that enrolment entitles the student to lessons for the applicable length of enrolment, in this case, one month. Students can only have the lessons that a month entitles them to in that month because their enrolment is only for one month (at a time); a new month is a new (renewed) enrolment. Our policies are consistent; one links to another.

Consistent language and tone

AMA prides itself on, and indeed has a reputation for professionalism—in our pedagogy, in how we present ourselves, and how we communicate. We don’t take a casual or familiar tone in our emails, and we don’t communicate via text or use messaging platforms (and this is outlined in our terms and conditions of enrolment). If an email communication goes back and forth so much that it starts to resemble a text message, we call the person. Naturally, our policy is written professionally. We don't use any fully capitalised words, underlining or italics or anything else that communicates emphasis because that can be interpreted as aggressive and preemptively defensive. We do, however, use highlighting. Importantly, we state at the top of the terms and conditions of enrolment: "Highlighted portions address frequently asked questions." This communicates to the client that the highlighting is there not to communicate to the client that we think they're an idiot who needs flashing neon signs spelling out the terms so that they read them, but to draw attention to the answers to frequently asked questions. Our policy is certainly firm and states everything in no uncertain terms. The policy also uses a lot passive language. Compare "I do NOT provide make-up lessons if you miss a lesson" and "You accept that lessons missed by the Student will not be rescheduled."I hope you'll agree that the latter statement is more professional in every way.

The substance of our policies is also consistent with how we talk about what we do. AMA doesn't sell "lessons"—we don't charge per lesson or per hour. We sell educational experiences that unfold over time, which we articulate in our messaging. No one enrols to have a lesson; people enrol because they want to learn. People generally know that it takes years to learn—they already accept that. It's our job to help the client reconcile their understanding that they are here to learn (not to have a lesson)—and that takes a long time—with their understanding about the nature of enrolment. Missing the odd lesson is inconsequential.

We communicate this message even to our clients under the month-to-month enrolment agreement. We make every effort to communicate to them that, while they are enrolled on a month-to-month basis, they should expect to be enrolled for a long time if they wish to get value for their money. Our month-to-month enrolments pay a premium essentially for the privilege of having flexibility to reschedule and to quit without being locked into a longer commitment.

Another consideration in devising your missed lesson policy is your work-life balance. If you work from home, maybe you don't mind rescheduling as required with little or no notice. At AMA, our month-to-month enrolment that allows for rescheduling is available only between certain hours (off-peak) and with our teachers on salary. When these teachers are not teaching, they're working on projects, so no resources are wasted if a student doesn't show up. This isn't quite to the point of work-life balance, but it illustrates how we consider the impact and cost of a student cancelling or not showing up to a lesson.

I've explained all that we've considered in devising our missed lesson policies, but should we have to justify our policies to clients? Many believe we don't. From a legal perspective, that's probably true, but it's an incredibly hostile attitude in my view. Imagine for a second how a prospective client would feel and react if you declined to explain the reasons for your policies. It will undoubtedly come across as defensive and suspicious. Maybe they enrol, nonetheless, but we're not off to a great start. We need to build trust. In justifying your policies, I'm opposed to making it personal. I've seen a lot of teachers explain that they don't reschedule because "my time is my time" and "I'm trying to earn a living" and "I have bills to pay" etc. I'd never get it into discussions about whether or not another student could have taken the place of the student who missed a lesson either. All of this, my view, is just unprofessional. The only thing I would say to a client about the financial aspect is that when they ask for a make up lesson, they are asking for a discount because you will give them two different bookings for the price of one. If you charge monthly, then rescheduling a lesson is effectively as much as a 20% discount for the month. However, I absolutely would not turn this into a sob story about my need for an income—it's just not necessary. Pointing out the sizable discount is (should be) enough for someone to understand it isn't fair to you.

In devising your missed lesson policy, assuming that you don't allow for a complete free-for-all, it can be really helpful to explain to concerned clients that it actually benefits them. If you allowed everyone to reschedule as it suits, you'd have no reason to keep any place for anybody and it would become a bidding war for the best places from week to week and you'd have to manage your schedule every week and for all that administrative time (work) you'll want to be paid and where does that pay come from? Increased fees. Having some kind of policy in place actually benefits your students.


The takeaway message is that everything works somewhere, but nothing works everywhere. The right policy is the one that aligns with every other aspect of your business model and brand—that is all that matters. Carefully consider your language and tone. Carefully consider second- and third-order consequences—you don't want to set undesirable precedents.

piano teacher

Steven Armstrong is a multi-award-winning former lecturer of musicology with postgraduate qualifications in educational leadership. He is 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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