Shades of Grey: 2012 String Teachers Ethics Survey Results
String teachers discuss the ethical dilemmas faced when trying to make music pay
Mixing passion with practicality can be a confounding thing, as string teachers well know. Of course, violin teachers enjoy the professional delights of encouraging their students’ love of music and guiding them toward musical success, but most will admit that doing so with a full stomach and in comfortable surroundings remains a priority. And so they must find a balance between their calling and their business, which elicits a number of difficult questions. How to gather enough students, how to be paid appropriately for your time. How to ensure your students’ success. Is it ever okay to poach students? Should teachers accept a commission on an instrument that they recommend to a student? And should teachers ever suggest that a student use beta blockers?
Strings polled teachers in 2007 to find out how they navigated the more vexing ethical issues that confronted them and recently updated our poll to see if attitudes had changed.
Here’s what string teachers—many of whom requested anonymity—said in the latest poll and how opinions have changed since 2007.
Soliciting students on another teacher’s roster is a tricky business. There are times in a student’s career when a change in teacher is a natural part of his or her education—the move from high school to college, for example. But often, it is the result of the student wanting to move on, or of another teacher encouraging the move. In the 2007 poll, only 3% of respondents felt that it was always acceptable to solicit students who were studying with another teacher, while 72% felt it was never acceptable and 25% felt it was sometimes acceptable, depending on the circumstances.
In the updated survey, not one teacher responded that it was always acceptable whereas 52% felt it was never acceptable and 48% thought that it depended on the circumstances.
The circumstances under which “poaching” a student from another teacher is deemed acceptable are similar on both surveys and focused on the happiness, health, interests (generally style-specific), and progress of the student. As one respondent noted, “The relationship between student and teacher is unique because of the intimate nature of learning. When there is a mismatch between personalities or learning/teaching style, the student may progress, but not joyfully or quickly. It should be every teacher’s desire that every student find the right match of teacher.”
Melinda H. Crawford Perttu assumed she was very well prepared for her first year of teaching elementary through high-school levels. She’d absorbed everything she’d learned in her college pedagogy classes about teaching technique and writing lesson plans. What she wasn’t ready for on the first day of class was everything else.
“Nobody had told me I needed to take attendance and the [attendance] slip had to be at the other end of the building 15 minutes after the bell rang,” says Crawford Perttu, who now teaches string pedagogy and is the orchestra director at Westminster College in Pennsylvania. “I wanted to start rehearsal, but I was still dealing with paperwork issues.”
She had other questions on that first day. Like what was she supposed to do during a fire drill? And what was this thing called bus duty? Oh, and where had some of the orchestra equipment gone over the summer? “No disrespect to my band colleagues,” she says, “but if you share a room with the band, and they’ve had band camp over the summer and used music and moved things around and taken your tuners, you have to track all that down. You have to lock things up or they will walk away, very quickly.”
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Many respondents specify that they do not seek out a student on another teacher’s roster, but may respond to an inquiry if approached. Still others will ask prospective students if they have discussed their interest in leaving with their teacher, and may call the student’s current teacher as a professional courtesy before agreeing to take on the student. “Once the conversation between student and current teacher has taken place, I feel I have met my ethical obligations,” says one teacher. Other reasons considered acceptable deal with the quality of the teaching (“Only if you consider that permanent damage is being done to a student by an unqualified teacher”) and opportunity (“If the new teacher can offer more than the current teacher, whether it is greater motivation or more advanced technique, theory, and opportunity”).
Teachers are split on setting up shop. The needs of a string student are seemingly endless. Instruments, strings, bows, rosin, peg dope, sheet music—the list goes on and on. A string teacher, in addition to offering sage musical advice, may choose to stock some of these items with the idea of selling them to students. But what of making a little extra on these items? Is it ethical to sell musical items to your students for profit?
In 2007, 58% of respondents offered an unqualified no. Another 15% said it was always acceptable to do so, and 28% preferred the gray area in between. This year, 40% thought it was positively unacceptable, 20% responded that it was always acceptable, and 40% thought it was sometimes acceptable.
Those who felt it was sometimes acceptable cited student convenience and teacher expertise as justifications for the markup. Others thought teachers should be able to include their own costs in the price of the items (transportation and overhead, for example). Some teachers stressed that it would be acceptable as long as the student was aware of the markup and also not made to feel obligated to buy these items from the teacher.
Instruments and bows can fall into their own category, however. “I can imagine a situation where a teacher may have an instrument that would be appealing to a student and a better value than what is offered through local dealers,” says one teacher. “If a teacher has held on to a good student instrument for five years and finally sells it, isn’t it appropriate that the teacher sell it at a fair current price (even if that price is higher than what the teacher originally paid)?”
Accepting a sales commission
Instrument commissions make teachers uneasy. Helping a student find an instrument isn’t an uncommon undertaking for a teacher. And while it is safe to assume that all of our respondents consider their time valuable, the method of compensation for the time they spend patiently contemplating student instruments is the subject of lively debate. Violin shops often offer a commission on the instruments sold on a teacher’s recommendation; about 60 percent of teachers in both surveys say the practice is totally unacceptable. In the 2007 survey, only 15 percent of teachers accepted the commission without reservation; this year, 12 percent responded in the positive. Of that number, however, a majority added that the student should be informed about the commission. The rest felt a commission was sometimes acceptable.
It seems that the argument of time spent and expertise are acceptable in theory, but not always adopted. “If I spent time with the student or family helping them to look at bows or instruments, then I could have the right to accept a commission (although I never have),” opines one teacher. Says another, “I’m totally uncomfortable making money with this, but feel that it is my business and I should be able to earn from it.”
Of the teachers recently surveyed, 80% felt that if a commission is accepted, the student (or the parents) should be told. Others ask the shop to deduct the commission from the price of the instrument, or accept it and give the commission to the student. And of those who think a commission can, under certain circumstances, be acceptable, most specify that a teacher should not be guided by the commission in his or her recommendations. A candid comment sums it up best, “It’s always a gray area. And I would probably be happier if no one gave commissions.”
Drug recommendations are best left to doctors. Gifted musicians, those with a true affinity for music and talent for bringing it to life, can still be terrified of the stage. What then? When asked about the ethics of recommending beta blockers or other drugs to students with performance anxiety, one pithy 2007 observer noted, “Well, Heifetz used them and he was the greatest violinist in the world.” Most comments, however, focused on the use of drugs as a last resort with students of a certain age (high-school was the youngest age suggested, but most recommended them for university or graduate students).
The results of the two surveys are similar: nearly 80% would never recommend them, and about 20% might, but usually only under certain conditions. Comments addressed the ages of the students for whom drugs might be appropriate, also stressing that, though the concept of beta blockers may be introduced by the teacher, only a doctor is qualified to recommend them. “Making students aware of the option as one of many in dealing with anxiety is the job of the teacher,” concludes one teacher. “Drugs are between student and their doctor.”
The Need For Ethics guidelines
Should ASTA provide a moral compass? At this time, the American String Teachers Association does not offer members any guidelines for dealing with these questions. In the recent survey, 68% of respondents were members of ASTA, and 56% felt that an ethics policy, most likely in the form of guidelines or recommendations, would be helpful. “This should be robustly discussed at conferences around the country and then have a ‘constitutional convention’ to craft the statement on ethics,” suggests one teacher.
There are no easy answers for string teachers, and one respondent thinks ASTA could play a role in discussing the ambiguity in the issues that the members face: “Any ethics policy or guidelines should take into consideration that there are a wide variety of situations,” the teacher notes. “I know some teachers have practices that I consider to be questionable, but I like to think that we are, as a rule, governed by a sense of personal integrity in our dealings with students.”
Do you have an opinion on any of the ethical questions discussed here? Share your thoughts with the String Teachers group at AllThingsStrings.com/community.