Most studio owners don’t like to think about firing a teacher, but unfortunately, sometimes it’s necessary. The longer you’re in business, the more likely you’ll encounter a teacher who doesn’t work out on your staff, and you’ll be faced with the tough task of letting that person go. How do you know when it’s time? And is there a best way?
“Terminating an employee can be difficult for the employer, embarrassing for the employee and uncomfortable for the rest of the staff,” says Lauren McCausland, studio director of Studio Bleu Dance Center in Ashburn, Virginia. “It’s even more complicated due to the family-oriented nature of most studios. Dance instructors often form close relationships with their students, acting as role models and mentors. This dynamic makes firing an instructor potentially disruptive to the fun, supportive studio environment.” Read on for some guidelines on how to handle this delicate situation.
When you bring new teachers on board at your studio, it’s essential that you have them sign a written contract that lays out your ground rules. Also, be sure to give them an employee handbook that details what is and isn’t acceptable performance or behavior. “You want to make sure that as a manager, you’ve been clear with the employee regarding your expectations,” says Sharon Armstrong, co-author of The Essential HR Handbook. Once you’ve communicated your guidelines, it should be easier to determine when they aren’t being met.
When an instructor chooses not to behave respectfully to students, parents or other staff members, letting that person go is crucial, says McCausland. “Managers must always keep a pulse on guests’ expectations and their opinions on when an employee is interfering with students’ learning environment. An instructor forfeits the privilege of teaching when he or she jeopardizes the studio’s reputation or environment, or threatens a student’s confidence or safety. It only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch.”
Dance teacher Raissa Simpson agrees that although an unpleasant task, releasing underperforming employees is absolutely necessary. As the one-time administrative director for Fitness in Transit in Oakland, California, Simpson was in charge of hiring and firing between nine and 15 contract teachers, who traveled to area schools teaching dance to children ages 2 to 11. One instructor had problems communicating and being prepared for class. “She was a great teacher,” Simpson says. “She just didn’t necessarily work well with children and didn’t adapt in the way that we needed her to.”
It’s important to maintain open lines of communication with your staff—and know how and when to take action when needed. If you sense a problem, Armstrong recommends sitting down with the employee, being clear and honest about your concerns and expressing willingness to help him or her improve. “If the studio owner has given the teacher ample opportunity to correct the problem, but the employee continues to have a chronic problem, then the employee really ‘fires herself,’” she says.
Simpson says she first tried talking to a habitually late teacher about making improvements. “I said, ‘Let’s come up with a plan of how we can work together to improve things. What can I do to make sure your class goes well?’” After about a month, there was still no change, so Simpson fired the instructor.
“I felt good about my decision. I didn’t feel guilty,” Simpson says. “You need teachers who love working with children and are attentive to their needs. I know in most cases like this [where the level of commitment is the problem], it’s the person’s life or scheduling issues, and they’re having trouble focusing.” She phoned the teacher to inform her that it was best they go their separate ways.
“Dismissals should always be handled with the utmost professionalism, in order to respect the privacy and dignity of the employee that is being let go,” says Mario Barrett, a business management expert and author of Leading from the Inside-Out. “It should never be done in a public forum, no matter how small the company.” Since there is always the possibility that a dismissed employee will take legal action, Barrett stresses the importance of basing dismissals solely on performance or business needs–related reasons, and to keep careful records of any issues that do arise.
Ensure a Smooth Transition
Since most dance businesses are close-knit communities, you’ll want to have a plan in place for addressing an employee firing and minimizing the disruption such a change can cause. Obviously, students and their parents, as well as other staff members, will want to know what happened. “The message should always be delivered in a sensitive and humane way,” says Armstrong. “Few details should be shared with co-workers. Often managers just say that ‘worker X is no longer with our company.’”
In addition, make sure that you’re prepared for the employee’s departure—that their classes are covered, for example. “You want to know what access to the business the employee has and restrict it,” says McCausland. “Did the employee sign a noncompete? Is there a threat that they will take other students away if they go to another studio? Will you have a parents’ meeting?” Advance planning for the details will ensure a smooth change.
Simpson made sure that all of her students were familiar with multiple teachers, so that when their main teacher was no longer there, they could still take class with someone they know. “The kids know me very well, so I was able to be there with the new teacher, and I gave them someone who had already helped out in the past,” she says. Ideally, Simpson believes it’s best to wait until the end of the school year to fire someone, then start the next season fresh with a new teacher. But in this particular case, the termination was mid-season. “The main thing is to make sure that the students feel comfortable,” she says. “That should always be the top priority.”
Above all else, keep a positive outlook. “When an instructor leaves the studio, students often feel as though they’ve lost a family member,” says McCausland. “But although it seems devastating for students to deal with losing an instructor with whom they’ve developed a close relationship, new instructors are almost always warmly accepted and often provide a new sense of excitement and motivation among students. Your business will certainly survive!”
Debbie Strong is a freelance writer in New York City.