The Blessing of Professional Development “Tithing”


Piano teachers are a professional cohort driven by a desire to do good in the world much more than by a desire to do well in business, so it’s no surprise that in the quest to share the love of music in our communities many teachers struggle to come to terms with what it means to be a small business owner. Because that’s actually what piano teachers are, whether we really want to admit to it or not.

Sure, many teachers give lessons in their own homes, and this blurring of the lines that comes from the business venue doubling as a residence contributes its small part to the struggle teachers have to face the mirror, look themselves in the eye, and say “I am the owner of a successful small business”.

To start with, very few teachers understand that the fee they charge is an entirely different thing to the money they earn. Your rate is $25 an hour? Great! You’re probably earning, at best, $15. You are charging $50 an hour, and think that sets you miles apart from people you know who are making $40k a year? Even if you are teaching 60 students, no, you’re not coming too close to that figure, at all.

Because piano teachers are a business, not employees, the money we earn has to cover all the things that contribute to our businesses being, firstly, possible, and also being successful.

In the “making it possible” category we have expenses such as:

  • owning (or renting) at least one piano of an appropriate teaching standard
  • owning (or renting) a piano bench (or two, or three), and a chair appropriate for you (!)
  • acquiring a working library (for your own reference) of sheet music
  • any local licensing fees that may be payable (as required by local government)
  • phone calls/texts to maintain communication with the families of your students
  • electricity costs involved in running your teaching space
  • the cost of any furniture you deem necessary for your teaching space (most people have some kind of a desk, at least!, and some kind of bookcase/storage space)
  • costs incurred in invoicing (maybe that’s negligible, but maybe you bought a computer program, or subscribe to a service that streamlines managing this aspect of your work)
  • the cost of any games, toys, stickers, charts, flashcards, whiteboards, highlighter tape, etc. you use in the course of your teaching
  • hiring of venues for recitals
  • insurances for public liability related to injuries that may occur on our properties or within our teaching studios

In the “making it successful” category we have the expenses above, but we sometimes forget to include other essential elements for running a successful teaching studio in our budgeting, such as:

  • ongoing professional development –  ongoing lessons, attending conferences, online seminars, professional journal subscriptions, and so forth
  • membership of professional associations
  • social media and online/mainstream media presence expenses – costs involved in owning a domain name, maintaining a website, having professional head shots taken, hiring or purchasing costs of equipment used to further the social media/online presence of the business, etc.
  • fees for a professional accountant
  • trophies, awards, rewards, prizes

I grew up in a community that believed in the Old Testament money-management principle of “tithing”: 10% of the money coming in gets set aside for a higher purpose. Now, I expect there are plenty of piano teachers who live their lives according to this religious principle. But I’d like to take this idea and explore it a little in relation to the secular reality of being a small business owner who is also seeking to do good in the world.

When we use up all the money we earn on our everyday living expenses – rent/mortgage, food, clothes, school fees, transport expenses, medical insurance and expenses, and so forth – and we fail to “tithe” our income for the purpose of making our teaching better, we fail not only ourselves as professionals, but we fail the very communities we are seeking to help.

If we, as teachers, are not engaging in our own learning and development then we are not just stagnating – we are contributing to having our knowledge shrink, and our fluency as professionals slow. Our fires burn lower as we fail to tend to our own need to learn, and our teaching suffers as we have less and less experience outside our own four walls upon which to draw.

Money is only one side of the, ahem, coin. We also need to tithe our time – setting quiet moments apart where we can explore and learn without a sense of deadline and due date. Without time spent exploring repertoire, ideas, games and techniques that are new to us, our own teaching becomes hemmed in, limited.

To be able to experience the blessing of tithed time and money, however, we need to be responsible with how we share ourselves in our communities. Charging fees that leave us feeling that we cannot afford the money to engage in our learning, working so many hours that there is simply no more time left for our own development – these are choices that are disrespectful, not only of ourselves, but of our students. Even students with the most modest ambitions will be happiest as a learner with a teacher who experiences their own learning renewal each year.

This is not about unrealistic goal-setting – it’s about a proportioned commitment to keeping our teaching possible and successful.

Wherever you find yourself as a teacher today, do yourself this service: promise yourself that you will spend 10% of the fees you take in expanding your own learning, and that you will set aside the equivalent of 10% of the time you teach to engage in learning of your own.

  • Buy that big repertoire series you’ve been thinking will energise your teaching, and spend time at the piano getting to know all the pieces in every volume!
  • Order in that book on music history, or music and the brain, or that favourite composer of yours, that you’ve been longing to read – and then read it!
  • Take that trip 3 hours away to that day-long seminar that looks so good – you’ll learn things from your fellow seminar-attendees, the seminar-giver, and you’ll make some friends!
  • Go to that concert that seems like an extravagance – you’ll find yourself coming back to teaching with new ideas, even for your tiniest beginners!
  • Take that course on video-editing – your students will love having you help them document their performances!
  • Start participating in a beginner’s Italian conversation class – you’ll love having some insight into the language we so often use in music notation!
  • Learn another instrument!
  • Learn something completely unrelated to music and piano teaching – you’ll be learning what it feels like to be a “learner” and this will keep your teaching in great shape!

Just as those who tithe find it to be a blessing, so you will find this professional “tithing” brings multiple blessings to your work as an educator.

8 thoughts on “The Blessing of Professional Development “Tithing”

  1. Spot on, as always Elissa. I remember a post you did a while back that suggested a similar thing for finding the time to search for and exploring new repertoire (perhaps this is part of the bigger picture of PD now, which I agree it should be). It’s a tough thing to do, but so vital. Thanks for getting it on ‘paper’.

  2. Excellent as always! I shared it with my local association. Too many teachers in the area feel they shouldn’t raise their rates because of the economy. Yet, as others have posted, fail to see the full picture. This is our business, not a charity. Thank you for speaking for us!!

  3. The idea of tithing time relative to the amount of time we teach is such a great way to make professional development more concrete and thus more likely to actually occur. So often we know we should…we really feel we would like to do these things…but we continue on our “hamster wheel.” Ditto for the financial side of things. Thanks for gourmet food for thought and action!

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