A Cure to the Music Teacher Shortage Part II | EP 230

A Creative Solution to Finding Music Teachers

Our guests today, Cathy Hallessey and Brian Brodersen from U-Rock Music School near Ottawa, Canada, have found a fascinating solution to finding instructors. They only hire teenagers as their teaching staff. At first, I was skeptical—teenage teachers? How does that work?


After chatting with Cathy, Brian, and one of their students’ parents, it turns out teenage teachers bring something special to the table. Remember when you were a kid? Teenagers were the epitome of cool and mystery. Kids look up to them, seeing them as role models.



Handling Parental Concerns

I was curious about how Cathy and Brian handle this with parents. Do they upfront tell them their child’s teacher is a teenager? It reminded me of my daughter’s dance class, where her young teacher turned out to be a hit despite my initial doubts.



Rethinking Teacher Qualifications

Many music schools aim to hire highly qualified instructors with advanced degrees, but degrees don’t necessarily make great teachers. Sometimes, a 17-year-old can connect better with an eight-year-old than a seasoned 35-year-old teacher.



Matching Teachers to Student Skill Levels

Consider your students’ skill levels. If most are beginners or intermediate, do they need a teacher with a doctorate? These highly qualified teachers might feel underutilized with mostly beginner students. From my experience, and what many schools report, 70% to 80% of students are beginners or low intermediate.


In today’s episode, I asked Cathy and Brian some tough questions about their teenage teaching staff. Next time, we’ll hear from a parent about their experience with these young teachers. But first, a quick word from our sponsor, Piano Jam.



U-Rock Answers Tough Questions


1. I find your employment model super intriguing. Could you share with the listeners about your teaching staff and what makes up your teaching staff?


Unique Business Model

Okay, so we have something really unique as a business model. We only hire former students who have been with us for at least five years and have received their five-year achievement award.


Training Process

They’ve been taught by either myself or Brian. Then they do shadow teaching with us, either in our summer session or anytime during the school year, so they can put the different hat on from being students to teachers. They can learn and watch how we teach.


Retaining Talent

The coolest thing about this is that we’ve not really had a hard time finding teachers. Many of our students stay and join our band program after their private lessons. We give out awards to five-year students, typically three or four a year.


Ideal Candidate Profile

We’re looking for that magic number. The ideal age range is between 14 and 17 or 18. We want to get them younger so they stay with us longer because, of course, once they go off to university. Then as much as they love us and we love them, they do have to get on with their lives. But some of them have come back. So that’s kind of interesting too.


2. Do you get pushback from parents when you tell them? How do you present this to parents?


Minimal Pushback

Not at all. In fact, we present it as a selling point. We say our teachers have all learned from us, and from the beginning, they teach exactly the way we do. We emphasize the homey environment that our school creates and the fact that these kids who are teaching for us have been with us for so long. They’re like family. They’re really an extension of us. So it actually becomes a selling point for our school.


3. How do you train these kids?


Natural Progression

It’s actually really not hard because if you imagine a student coming in at age nine or ten years old and maybe taking singing lessons, piano lessons, and guitar lessons over the course of five years, possibly joining one of our band programs, maybe being a Roxy (which is our all-girls singing group for girls that are around seven to nine years old). And so, all the performing groups get a lot of stage experience.



Stage Exposure

Our school is pretty different in that we do at least six performances a year. So we’re constantly working towards the next show so the kids don’t get bored. There’s always the carrot on the stick. The big win is getting up on stage and performing, either solo, duet, or with a group. And how we train the kids is they’ve already been through all of this.



Identifying Talent

So we hire the ones that are, obviously, wonderful and really talented. They learn with us, they do the shadow teaching with us. They already know us really well, and so do their families. The families love the idea that they can get their first job experience with us, and it’s a career-building thing for them as well because it looks great on your resume when you’re 15, saying you work at a music school.


4. What do you pay them when they start?

So we pay $17 an hour, regardless of experience. All the teachers get the same pay, so there’s no difference in the pay scale.


5. Do you have an ongoing mentorship or observing process? Tell me a little about that.


Surveillance System

Yeah, so we have cameras in all our teaching rooms. We have three studios: one big studio where Brian teaches mostly, and that’s where our bands and groups practice. Then we have two smaller studios for one-on-one lessons and some of our little groups like POP Patrol, which are for five and six-year-olds. We watch the teachers periodically. They’re aware of this. The cameras are there for lots of reasons. As any business owner knows, it’s a good idea when you’re working with children. You always want to make sure everything is cool and that parents feel comfortable.


We can coach them on anything that might’ve happened if they ask us about it. And if we’ve audited any of their classes, we can say, “Oh, hey, I noticed you might want to do this,” or “You’re doing this really well,” or whatever.


Promoting Effective Teaching

It’s good for positive reinforcement and also for nipping something in the bud if you see something like too much chatting, for example. Because it’s peer-to-peer and they’re much closer in age to their students, there can be a lot of chatting about life and soccer games and you name it, which is good. We don’t mind. We say we’re building relationships, not just teaching an instrument. So it’s okay to talk to your students, but you have to stay on task. You have to have achievable goals and you have to make sure you’re keeping track of what they’re working on, all of these things.


6. What are some challenges you come across with these young people teaching?


Increased Emotional Turbulence

Well, once in a while, you’ll deal with emotional crises, right? Especially with the post-COVID kids who were in, let’s say, grade seven or eight. So yeah, with these teachers we’ve been hiring in the last couple of years, we’ve definitely noticed a difference. There’s a little bit more emotional turbulence in their lives, I think, just from having spent a couple of their formative years really isolated.


Balancing Support Needs

Like all kids, I’m sure everybody in your audience recognizes the same thing in their own schools—that kids are definitely affected by COVID. Our teachers are no exception, but I think the biggest thing we experience with our teachers is that they might need a little extra coaching compared to older teachers. But having said that, all employees need to be supervised and coached. So is it that much more? I mean, I don’t know. Yeah, probably not.


7. How would you describe a good lesson to your staff? What does a good lesson look like?


Structured Training Approach

So we do map it out for them as much as possible. I’ve written a little booklet for beginning guitar students, for example, just to give teachers a blow-by-blow guide for the first four or five months on everything they need to do. Do this, then do that, then do the other thing. They give the books to the kids to keep, but it’s also set up as a guide for the teachers with everything they need to do.


8. How do you determine who gets offered these jobs? Do you ever have to deal with hurt feelings?


Familiarity with Students

We really haven’t. We sort of keep an eye on the kids that we think have potential. Usually by the time they’re 14, we’re thinking about who would be a good fit. And usually we know who’s in the school. You get to know the kids who’ve been here for a while pretty well, especially if they join our band programs, because then they’re around a lot. So we do get to keep an eye on them. And if we think they have potential, we’ll talk to them about it and to their folks.


9. At what point in the sales process do you introduce the idea of the student teacher to the parent?


Embracing Uniqueness

When they meet us for the first time, we don’t actually talk about it. It’s all on our website. We’re not trying to hide it, but we make a big splash about it on our website, all about us. We clearly identify that our teachers are all former students and that they’ve done their five-year award and shadow teaching. So when parents sign up, we’ll send them a link to the “About Us” page so they can read about it. If they have any questions before they send money, they can ask us. We’re not trying to trick them, but I think most people know that our school is like that and it’s different. And I think they really like it.


10. What do you do if a parent calls after the first lesson and prefers an adult teacher over a teenager? How would you respond?


Inviting Parental Observation

So that’s a really good question. The way we handle that, for the most part, is when a new student is starting, the parent gets to sit in on the first lesson. We don’t have a lot of space and we don’t actually have a large foyer or a waiting room. We do have a really great front porch, but it’s winter in Canada, so there’s a limit to how many blankets they can put on.


So we always encourage the parent or parents to come and sit in on the first lesson. Often it’s the first time they realize that their child is going to be taught by a teenager.


11. How challenging is it to manage a staff of teenagers who have other priorities like finals and extracurricular activities?


Encouraging Flexibility

It can, but one of the things we’ve done is encourage the teachers to swap lesson times. Obviously, it doesn’t work if they can’t play the instrument that the other teacher teaches. But in cases where they have multiple instruments and there is overlap between both teachers, like with singing teachers, for example, let’s say one teacher can’t come on Wednesday, so the Friday teacher will take her shift and they’ll switch shifts. That sometimes works. Sometimes it’s a bit of a headache for me. But you know what? I think that’s the kind of thing that happens no matter what age the teacher is. People have things that happen in their lives. I don’t know that it’s any different with teenagers. Sometimes there’s a bit of pushback.

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