Friday, October 21, 2011

Open Comment Thread: Student Poaching

Consider the following professional situations:

1. A teacher leaves a community to serve a one-year term at a university. At the conclusion of the contract, he/she returns to their previous musical community, calls up his/her old students, offers them a discount on what their current teachers are charging them, and rebuilds his/her teaching practice.

2. A teacher gives a workshop for a local registered music teachers' association. One of the performers in particular plays at an exceptional level. At the conclusion of the class, the teacher has a word with the performer's parents, expressing concern about the student's current teacher, and offers a place in his/her own studio in order to correct certain issues in the student's playing. The parents, honored to have their child offered a place in such a prestigious studio, then change to the new teacher.

3. A Sessional faculty member has an exceptional freshman student. At the conclusion of the student's freshman year, an Assistant Professor in the same department has a word with an administrator, and the student is then placed in the Assistant Professor's studio for their sophomore year.

Many of you with experience in the music teaching field may agree that these types of situations happen all the time.

These types of actions are also highly unethical.

From MTNA's Code of Ethics under the sub-heading of Commitment to Colleagues:
  • The teacher shall respect the integrity of other teachers' studios and shall not actively recruit students from another studio. 
  • The teacher shall participate in the student's change of teachers with as much communication as possible between parties, while being sensitive to the privacy rights of the student and families.
From NATS' Code of Ethics under the sub-heading of Ethical Standards Relating to Colleagues:

  • Members will not, either by inducements, innuendoes, or other acts, proselytize students of other teachers.

But let's face it, we live in an educational system that values excellence and achievement above all else, and these aggressive recruiting practices are what can help build a studio to a high level. On the other hand, building a studio at the expense of other teachers left in one's wake can cause long-standing resentments in the profession and is clearly unethical as set out in the membership guidelines of educational organizations.

How do you feel about poaching practices by music teachers? Should teachers be held to the highest levels of professionalism towards their colleagues or is this an old-school gentleman's code to be forgotten in the high-stakes world of music education?

Opinions both for and against are welcome, and I'll play the devil's advocate wherever possible. Comments on the Collaborative Piano Blog are always moderated, and allegations towards specific teachers and institutions will be ruthlessly deleted. On the other hand, if you fear for your reputation in talking about this issue, feel free to comment anonymously.


  1. Anonymous1:48 AM

    I'm sure some would reason that poaching is a necessary evil, like prostitution... and that nobody particularly likes to talk about either.

  2. Yes, never have I come across an issue of such importance to teachers that is talked about only in whispers. You say it's a necessary evil - how would you explain the disconnect between common codes of ethics and actual practice in musical communities?

  3. Mike Langlois6:39 AM

    I don't think it is a necessary evil at all, and I think our anonymous poster has chosen to set up straw people.

    To "poach" from another studio is to show no respect for the master of that other studio.

    In 1), the teacher should have made clear that he was returning in one year, and put his students in the hands of another whom he trusted on a temporary basis. When he returned, it would be then fine for him to call his students to let them know; those who wished to stay with the other teacher could. To offer the discount would be a form of coersion.

    In 2), the master-class giver has no business criticizing the other teacher, even if it is clear that poor work has been done (sometimes it is difficult to know whether it is the student's practice habits or the teacher's method, but this is another issue). The invitation is enticing to the level of being coersive, if the master-class giver's studio is prestigious, and cannot be voiced as the suggestion of a permanent change. A second, private coaching could be nicely offered, but this should be after first consulting the student's teacher.

    In 3), this is unfathomable. Besides a clear lack of respect and regard for the sessional teacher, the higher ranking teacher has used questionable tactics for getting what he wants; not to mention, the administrator who makes this possible??

    As I've said, it comes down to respect for the other teacher and self control. I think the quote from Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come" applies here. If you want exceptional students, do good things with the ones you have, give good master classes, and be convincing as a performer; don't take what is not yours by surreptitious means.

  4. Mike, great comments. I wish more there were more people like you in the profession!

    Nevertheless, if a teacher finds that their students have been poached, how are they to engage with the other teacher in a constructive manner? What if there is a university administration involved (case #3)? If a teacher on a year-to-year contract makes such an allegation, why not simply get rid of them and replace them with someone who is more compliant?

  5. Anonymous11:49 AM

    What about discussing it with the student herself? It seems to me as if these students are being traded back and forth, almost like chess pieces. Perhaps that student might have reasons for preferring one music instructor over another, but discussions of ethical behavior within a profession should start on a very basic level.

  6. Anonymous, that can be problematic as well. A poached student might be scared out of their wits because of the political situation, especially in a university. Talking about it openly might rock the boat, especially when the teacher to whose studio they are going is more powerful than the one whose studio they have left.

  7. In university environments, especially for graduate students, this should simply not be allowed. Fine reputations are damaged, even ruined, by these kinds of tactics. It is particularly reprehensible when chairs and faculty of senior rank poach students because their positions require them to mentor the very faculty member whose student they are poaching. Poaching is the antithesis of mentoring and damages trust. Included in the definition of poaching is creating a 'green light' for a colleague's student to ask to switch. This often involves conveying through other students that it is 'okay' to ask. The appearance of poaching should be enough to just say no.

    Meanwhile, the student loses an advocate when studios and teachers are treated in this manner. Never again can "without reservation" be written. Poaching spoils the work environment and the ethical faculty members end up treated inequitably. The other students in the Studio are left confused and hurt and worried. Department Chairs should explain to students that all on faculty are equally able to teach students, and that their recruitment and nurturing has involved a lot of work on the part of their teacher. It is not good to foster immaturity and deviousness which poaching inevitably involves. Students who are improving such that they gain the attention of others on faculty who then wish to poach them need to realize exactly what is happening. The teacher who recruited them heard something special and is cultivating it. The other teacher heard the audition too, right?—but didn't recruit the student. Think about that.

    Difficulties that arise because of the various pressures are part of the mentoring relationship and need to be allowed to work themselves out. It is essential for young people to allow that to happen and grow from it. Administrators who handle these issues in a secretive manner ("wait till after juries") and solicit complaint in order to help the student justify it ("just tell her what you told me") are not helping the situation at all. Poaching has a snowball effect and before you know it, a special and talented teacher is marginalized, a gossip culture is out of hand, and students are robbed of the very growth experience they came for. In a healthy environment, natural student curiosity about what others on faculty might have to say to them can easily be satisfied in a wide variety of ways when faculty work together and support one another without poaching each others' students.

    Studio faculty also need a system of placement of students that is more nuanced than 'every man for himself'—a match system, so to speak, that allows several variables to be addressed with varying weight, as appropriate, in any given year, for example: more freshmen, more grad students, balance of student types and levels, good students placed with new faculty, good students placed with long-time excellent faculty, fairness regarding scholarships, specialties, etc. Using a match system for Studio placement is gold, and when faculty don't have to worry about their students being poached, they can work together more creatively on the myriad needs of a department and its students.