Ready for Change

by Rhee Gold and Debra Steele

NOTE: This questions has two responses; one from Rhee and another from Debra Steele, Dance Images Dance Center, Methuen, MA

Dear Rhee,

I’ve figured out that the business side of my dance school is more than I can take. When I read your magazine, I learn about teachers who are in the same place I am, but their issues seem to be different. It’s not listening to crabby parents that bothers me; I do well with them. And it doesn’t have to do with not making a living, because I have done very well. The hard part for me is having to deal with my employees.

I started my school because I love to dance and I wanted children to be in love with the art form too. Back then I was the only teacher, along with a student’s mom who acted as a secretary; together we ran the school for seven years. She is gone; it’s 20 years later and I have 400 students, 7 teachers, 2 secretaries, and some part-time employees who are supposed to help keep this school on track.

My employees bicker about who’s going to do what work and some have told me point blank, “That’s not part of my job description—have someone else do it!” Another big concern of mine is running a professional operation, which includes arriving at work on time. Day after day I find myself explaining to parents and kids that my secretary is going to be late or that class will start late because Miss So-and-So is stuck in traffic. This happens all the time, yet my concern for arriving on time is the first thing I discuss with all potential employees and the first topic addressed in our employee handbook. I reiterate my feelings in every meeting, but for some reason I can’t fix this one.

I am no longer upset because I know I have made my best effort to change things and I accept that it isn’t going to happen (short of firing everyone, and I’m not going there). After much contemplation, I’ve narrowed down my options to two. First (the one I like the most, but I’m not sure if I’m crazy) is to go back to where I started with myself and maybe one other teacher and a secretary. I want just one classroom (now I have three) and about 100 students. My other option is to close my school and seek employment at another school, where I will be an employee who arrives on time for my classes!

Have you ever heard of anyone who wanted to make their school smaller? If so, how did they go about doing it? Are there repercussions, other than maybe not making the same income? Any advice will help. Thanks in advance.

Hi Jordan,

One of the things I admire about your letter is the fact that you seem confident about what you want and what your options are, instead of harboring resentment toward the employees who have forced you to think about these options. You deserve a pat on the back for that!

With that said, your downsizing concept is probably a good one for you. You would have a lot of options. You already have the clientele to draw your reduced enrollment from. Not only that, but you would be free to decide which students or age levels or subjects you want to teach. For many school owners that’s a pipedream.

With a smaller operation you would eliminate the expense (and stress) of all those employees, which when balanced with one-fourth of the enrollment needs to be considered. But I’m sure the rent for one studio would be much less than for three. If you can pull this off and be financially comfortable, I say more power to you! You might just start a trend.

As for teaching for someone else, I have met many former school owners who now teach for others. They too found it difficult to deal with the business side but had the passion to continue to teach. And I have never met one who had regrets. Whatever your decision is, I have a feeling you will be a success. If you do downsize, please let us know—I know that our readers would be interested in your story. All the best to you. —Rhee

Hi Jordan,

Instead of considering downsizing, which would come with it’s own set of problems – least of which is the same overhead with less income, why don’t you have a teacher’s meeting and explain that although you can sympathize with heavy traffic or a car that won’t start, getting to their job on time and being ready to work was discussed and agreed upon at the interview/hiring stage.

Start to train some of your older students to assist (your assistants will get training to be teachers and you will have a much better pool of teachers to hire from – ones with your work ethic). As far as the late instructor, dock their pay. If they are more than 5 minutes late for the start of the class, you will deduct one half hour (teachers should always be at the studio preparing for class at least 15-20 minutes before class, as a rule). Make your instructors sign, saying that they understand and agree to abide by your new rule. If they get upset, explain that this is a business and parents pay good money and have chosen to send their children to you. You have a responsibility to provide them with a good class that starts and ends on time. Teachers who run in late and are all stressed out, train their students that it is acceptable to run in late and disrupt the class). If each teacher just does what they had agreed to do in the first place, show up on time every week, you will never need to dock anything and life will go on as usual. The ones that will get the most upset are the ones who are anticipating that they will continually show up late.

Make sure that you go into the meeting with a specific agenda and it is not open to discussion. There can only be one chef in the kitchen!

Make sure that you reiterate that you have hired them for their talents and they have chosen to work for you because of your professionalism. This rule is not a good or bad one, it’s just the way that it has to be done. Don’t bring personal feelings into any of it and if someone starts to whine, tell them that you will talk to them after the meeting is over, so that you don’t hold anyone else up. If they were working for any other company, they would not get paid to come in late. Make sure that they understand that they will never get raises for coming in on time and teaching a good class, that is why they receive a paycheck. They get raises for going above and beyond what is expected of them.

Then, go ahead, and reward your instructors who do go above and beyond. Actions speak much louder than words. The word will get out…did you hear that “so and so” got a raise! Take control of your own work environment, after all, isn’t that one of the perks to running your own business? I wish you the best of luck! Just remember that we are all behind you cheering for you!!