Making a Graceful Exit

Leaving your teaching job at a studio to start your own business can be difficult—for everyone involved.

“Losing a good teacher is a major blow,” says Kathy Blake. The number one difference between an unfortunate situation and a hostile split is honesty.

It's on every studio director’s list of dreaded scenarios: After working hard to build and retain a strong and loyal staff, a top teacher leaves—and her students follow. This magazine often presents the studio owner perspective on such a situation, but it’s important to acknowledge that there is another side to the story. Whether fueled by a disagreement over business practices or approaches to training, or whether it’s simply time for a young teacher to take the next step in her career, there are real reasons for an instructor to leave a studio and open her own business.

If you’re ready to strike out on your own, there are certain steps you’ll want to make sure you take, and others you’ll want to avoid. It’s not easy, but it is possible to make the transition with your reputation and integrity intact, and without—hopefully—burning bridges.

Let’s be honest.

A studio owner is rarely going to be happy about a valued employee’s departure, says Kathy Blake, contributor to DT’s Ask the Experts column and director of Kathy Blake Dance Studios in Amherst, New Hampshire. “Losing a good teacher is a major blow,” she says. And if the teacher is leaving to open her own business, it’s easy to feel defensive. “There’s a sense of betrayal, no matter what is communicated.” But for Blake, the number one difference between an unfortunate situation and a hostile split is honesty. A few years ago, she fired a teacher who had secretly purchased studio space and began enrolling dancers while Blake was out of town at a conference. The teacher thought she could keep her commitment to KBDS while building her own clientele—in direct competition with Blake’s. “I had to take her off the schedule,” says Blake. “It was not pretty.” Don’t go behind an employer’s back on your way out. It won’t end well.

Timing is everything.

Amanda Watson chose to leave the studio where she worked in the Buffalo, New York, area because of a disagreement over her teaching schedule. Her employer couldn’t offer Watson as many classes as she requested, yet at the same time, objected to her working at other studios. Watson waited until after the stress of the spring recital had passed to give notice that she wouldn’t be returning in the fall. Blake agrees that a late winter/early spring announcement of a fall departure is best—it gives the studio owner time to replace you during a slow season and doesn’t disrupt classes mid-semester.

Mum’s the word.

Watson didn’t tell students, parents or other faculty that she wouldn’t be returning in the fall. “I didn’t want to make a big stir or have it get out to students that I was leaving,” she says. “It makes a lot of drama,” she says. If you broadcast your plans, it’s as good as advertising your new venture and stealing students. Your employer will be rightfully upset. As Watson points out, “I think most people don’t want to hurt a studio where they worked.”

Get out of town.

It’s best to locate your new business at least 20 miles away (or a 30-minute drive) from your former employer’s studio, Blake says. While this distance is considered reasonable to avoid competing for customers, it’s not always possible. Watson, for example, ended up closer than she would have liked to her former employer’s business—it was the best real estate deal she could find. But she avoids direct competition by operating under a different business model from that of her former studio. She markets only to adults and teens and offers an open class structure, with fitness options like Ballet Booty and Pilates. Still, she acknowledges, there are some students who take classes at both locations.

If you don’t have anything nice to say…

Remember, there are at least two sides to every story. Regardless of your perspective, hold your tongue and avoid gossip. Watson hasn’t spoken to her former employer since leaving, but there are rumors of accusations that Watson finds challenging to ignore. She says, “I have heard that she says things like I’m stealing students. I’ll just say, ‘I’m sorry to hear that. I wish her the best. She has a great thing going.’”

Say thank you.

According to Blake, the pain of losing a great teacher is worse when they don’t acknowledge the training, mentorship and career development they received as a member of her staff. It’s understandable, she says: “They’re busy trying to build up their own reputation and clientele.” But if you can let the person who trained you know that you respect them and appreciate the opportunity they gave you, the gesture will go a long way. Consider giving them a shout-out in your bio on your new website. “If you were someone’s protégé and you leave, but you can acknowledge and thank the person,” says Blake, “that’s the best thing.” DT

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