How to Cope When a Student Suddenly Transfers to a Different Teacher...

January 19, 2008 at 11:04 PM · I've been teaching privately for six years.

This afternoon, I received and email from one of my students' Mom saying that she is transferring to a different teacher because, "our personalities clash." I feel terrible! I know not every teacher is perfect for every student, but I've been teaching her for a year and a half and I've invested a lot of myself in her. This is the first time I've had a student transfer away from me. I've had numerous transfer to me.

She wanted to quit in the middle (because of her social life) and we all had a chat and got it worked out to a different day. Things were fine from there until recently. She's in general a fairly rebellious, nearly gothic high school girl, and it's a challenge to make any corrections without her becoming defensive. I've tried asking for her input (never led to a response except what she wants to do later this summer) regarding the content of the lessons and my teaching, I've tried different attitudes in the lesson (positive/proactive, tough, enthusiastic, normal, etc.) and none of them have changed the energy in the lesson for us. I don't address her dark mood really, because A. it's none of my business, B. she never indicates a desire to, C. When I did once it made it worse, and D. I didn't want to appear judgmental of her lifestyle. She's really talented in the areas of expression and musicality, and I've told her this in a variety of ways, but her technique isn't all there yet and she has the same issues every week with the response of, "I'm working it." I've tried to ask her to consider different routes of working on things, but she shuts down.

I don't know where I went wrong. Her Mom thanked me for everything I've done and wished me well in my career, so I'm pretty sure I'm not a bad teacher, but still. Does this happen to anyone else? How do you cope?



Replies (40)

January 19, 2008 at 11:37 PM · It's clearly her fault, don't beat yourself up about it.

January 19, 2008 at 11:42 PM · I have had this happen in my studio before and it turned out that the student really wanted to quit the instrument, but made excuses why "don't like the teacher's style etc" she moved onto another teacher and ended up quiting all together.

I don't think you should take it personally, I think she maybe looking for a way out and this is the only way to make her mother understand.

January 19, 2008 at 11:35 PM · The nature of teaching is that everybody eventually leaves. This can be a relief, or it can be hard. That goes for both sides.

Sometimes teens get snippy and defensive. Sometimes they stop talking to you. Don't take this personally. I remind myself that if the teen is willing to show the current grouchy side of their personality, that means that they trust you enough to express themselves to you. I tend to let these phases pass: Mine did (Insert smiley face here).

Not every teacher is "right" for every student. That is OK. Something I do after every student leaves, whether "voluntary" or "involuntary" (transferring or quitting, vs. moving, etc.) is have a good think: How could I have been better? Sometimes there are answers, and sometimes there are none. This reflection helps, and also gives some closure.

Also, regardless for the reasons for leaving, what I have found out for myself is that the investment you give each student is never "wasted". It is always better to give than receive. Keep your chin up!

January 20, 2008 at 12:05 AM · Anne: I certainly don't find my time wasted with her. It's just sudden and since I did invest so much, it hurts.

January 20, 2008 at 12:06 AM · One more thing...I think that Mom handled the severance in a very classy way. She thanked you, and I'll bet she was sincere.

January 20, 2008 at 12:09 AM · I haven't found that these things get easier with experience. I had one resign from my studio just yesterday. Lovely child, lovely parents, talented, perfect ear, musical, practiced every day...but, she wants to Bluegrass Fiddle. And I don't teach that type of music. This fall, I found her a local Bluegrass Fiddle teacher with a stellar reputation...and now she fiddles.

Sigh. It has bugged me today. It will bug me tomorrow. It will probably bug me next week too. Chocolate will help. So will a victory by the Kentucky Wildcats Basketball team over the Florida Gators tonight, but I digress. I am glad that violin and music will still be an important part of her life.

January 20, 2008 at 12:24 AM · Anne, I love that you turn to chocolate for a remedy... Me too!

I'm sorry about your fiddler.

January 20, 2008 at 12:26 AM · I can't agree that that parent showed much class. An e-mail is sterile & impersonal, and "your personalities clash" sure has a sour ring to me. My suspicion is the kid wants to quit, the mother doesn't want to let her, is willing to cast blame rather than let the kid stop, or put her foot down. Parents should pick their fights, but they do GET to pick them. kids. If this is the parent's goal, she can say, "You will take so many lessons, or so many months or years,& you will practice so many minutes cheerfully. If you can't, there will be a consequence and if you can, there will be an incentive. Now let's talk about what those things might be." I read of parents whose deal, after agreeing to buy a much-desired expensive piano, was that the 13-yr.-old girl would take lessons and practice until she was 18. When the girl said a couple of years later that she didn't know what she was getting into, they said they didn't either when they got married and had children, but all of them were stuck with their promises! Gotta' love it. As to investing in our students, most of us do, and way more than they or their parents are often aware. I deal with that by saying to myself, "This is the best and only way I can do this and live comfortably with myself. MY choice." Sue

January 20, 2008 at 12:42 AM · Thanks, Sue. I wasn't sure how I felt about the email. The Mom didn't say in the email that our personalities clashed, she didn't state a reason. She simply said that she appreciated all the work I've done with her daughter, and with stresses of school, violin, and lessons, that she'll be moving on to new instructor next month. Shocked and hurt, I began to reply, but instead I called the Mom, inquiring as to why this was happening, (I wanted to try to learn from what I had done wrong) and her response was the personality clash.

I really hope she doesn't quit, she does seem to like to play even though she's seemed a bit more down than usual lately. I also truly hope this teacher can provide for her what I obviously couldn't.

January 20, 2008 at 12:40 AM · Sue, (not to be defensive...) I thought it was nice of the Mom to resign with a thank you. I have had a couple that stopped showing up for lessons, and wouldn't return voice-mail messages. Bleh. All things considered, at least Tasha got some sort of explanation.

And I agree with you about the choice we have about investment: the fact that Tasha did make a personal investment in this wayward student says a lot about her dedication as a teacher.

So Tasha, now the rest of your students, the ones that really, really want to be there, can benefit from your dedication, and you have room in the schedule for someone new. Good luck. Don't forget to brush your teeth after eating all the chocolate...

January 20, 2008 at 12:53 AM · Did I mention her lesson was yesterday and the Mom said nothing? This happened between last night and this afternoon. Hence, shocked.

January 20, 2008 at 12:54 AM · Anne: Thanks for your kind words about my dedication and the benefit of my unknown, future student who fills her slot. Means a lot.

January 20, 2008 at 03:11 AM · well, a thread that forces me to register after all this lurking...

ms. miner is awesome, and i'm lucky she puts up with me!

January 20, 2008 at 03:54 AM · Hmmm... What an interesting thread. I adore each and every one of my students and they all have interesting quirks which make them fun to teach. However, they are under no obligation to study with me forever. In a situation such as you describe, I'd probably want to know why they were so abruptly switching, just so I could fix anything I was doing wrong or that they had misunderstood. I certainly wouldn't take it so personally since they certainly have a right to quit, switch, take trombone, move to zimbabwe, whatever. My job is to teach the kids that want to be there and maybe help clarify intentions for the kids and parents that aren't sure or are confused for some reason about what they want. Beyond that, I don't have any expectations for loyalty to me or to the violin, and (once I am sure that there hasn't just been a simple misunderstanding) I always tell kids that switch or quit that I am still a resource for them should they want that. Anyway, it's not like a friendship in which they'd have some obligation not to just leave, although I do have many former students and their parents whom I count as friends.

The point is that your slightly inappropriate attachment to your student (sorry, I don't mean that harshly.. it's hard not to form that sort of attachment to your students)is not really their problem, but yours. Even if (worst case scenario) they are completely disrespectful when they leave and in the way that they leave ,the problem still ends up being yours because you have to deal with it after they leave. So, best not to form those sorts of attachments to your students to begin with since they ALL have to leave eventually, and since those attachments don't really advance their cause anyway.

Can you imagine if your doctor or your fitness trainer got mad at you because you wanted to switch to another? How about the baker or the guy at the checkout stand? I had a trainer once who was something right out of a Rocky movie- old guy with hair coming out of his ears, really nice but tough and always trying to motivate me by yelling things like, "Come on now... don't be a wimp!! Ya wanna run wit' da big dogs, ya gotta get off da porch! MOVE!". He meant well and was well respected. I respected him too, but needed something different since I aready had plenty of motivation and wanted a different level of engagement with the whole thing. And in the end, he wasn't mad at all. In fact, he helped me find my new trainer and I still ask him questions on occassion. Best of all for him, I send him folks all the time who want that style of training. No hard feelings, LOTS of business for him!

Ok, one more thing- you are young,right? It's always harder in the beginning of a teaching career to erect the right boundaries with your students and their parents but this experience will help with that, I think. Your teaching and your feelings will be the better for it!

January 20, 2008 at 04:49 AM · Ahhh...I too just had a student quit - her reasons being that she doesn't want to learn "classical violin", she wants to learn fiddling. Of course, this student (an adult) also expressed her frustration with the seemingly slow pace of her lessons ("I haven't even learned how to put my fingers down yet.")

Mind you, every week that she came in, I would hear "Well, I didn't practice at all," so every week was a review.

We did speak quite candidly, but instead of trying to find out what I did wrong, I simply let her argue herself until she was blue in the face and said "Well, thank you for calling and good luck."

Many years ago I had a similar situation - a student with some deep-seated emotional issues (not saying that your former student had any) was quite rebellious, and finally decided to stop. Well, years later I heard that she had started practicing, started doing well in school orchestra, and during her senior year thought "I wish that I had taken my lessons seriously years ago."

While teaching is in some ways a business, it IS difficult to not take someone's decision to leave one's studio personally. Someone brought up the point of professional boundaries and that is a very wise idea. It is somewhat distressing and seemingly not human to do so, but that may be the most beneficial thing to do.

I have found that one should definitely not try to change your personality to fit the student's "needs". Please forgive me if that statement seems judgmental or condemning, that is not my intention - but being who you are all the time while focusing on the job at hand does seem to make things flow more smoothly.

January 20, 2008 at 06:57 AM · Sam, I have a student just like the one you described.

Tasha, I agree with everyone who told you not to take it personally. Teenagers can be very difficult to understand. Keep in mind the fact that you gave her a good foundation which will help her with future studies.

January 20, 2008 at 09:11 AM · Pauline - you're so right on that, and thank you for posting that outlook.

January 20, 2008 at 09:53 AM · I have found that female adolescent pupils can be extremely challenging to teach, personality wise - far more so that boys. In any case, yours sounded very difficult to me.

You sound like a very patient and understanding teacher, and I've no doubt that she is going to have a personality conflict with any future teacher, until her mother finally allows her to quit.

The frustrating thing about teaching sometimes is that you don't get credit when you know how hard you have worked. I definitely wouldn't take it personally though, you sound like a great teacher to me.

January 20, 2008 at 01:32 PM · Calvin,

You're so funny, I love teaching you! I am happy you decided to post, now you can get more perspective on your questions regarding your playing! I truly appreciate your review of my teaching, too. =) Don't be so hard on yourself! (Yeah right, every musician is hard on themselves, just don't take it too far... =)

Everyone else,

I don't consider myself a teacher who demands loyalty forever. I am 22 years old, but I've been teaching privately for six years. Either way, I certainly am young, but gaining in experience the best I can. I do not count any of my students as my "friends" because I have kept a professional boundary in this regard and none of my students have objected. I do want to know why someone suddenly wants to switch, learn, and grow from it, however. I take my teaching very personally, because it relates to my music and how I share it with others who want to learn.

I appreciate everyone's suggestion an support so much. It has lifted the "pit of the stomach" sour weight that has been there since I read the email. Further suggestions (and words of comfort) are much appreciated as well!

January 20, 2008 at 02:17 PM · it is a bitter sweet tale, one that reminds us of teachers out there who still care far beyond...

there are lots of almost comparable parallels,,,a kid growing out of a pediatrician's care, a client retaining another lawyer after the first one has invested sweat and soul in the case, friendship/relationship coming to an end...

may be a more pertinent simili will be a plant lover who nurtures seedlings and take great satisfaction in seeing the plants mature, with patience, care and sweat...

then one day the circumstance changes. the plant lover becomes a prof gardener, one that grows the plants only to see their departure...

January 20, 2008 at 02:39 PM · Hi,again,I don't think age has much to do with how a teacher reacts emotionally to a student/parent suddenly stopping lessons. We ask a lot of students in the way of trust; to make errors in front of us, ask questions they think are stupid, reveal their inner selves through their playing. When they can't or don't do that, I question myself first. When they can, I am easily both anxious & humbled. The sudden disappearance of a student, which is easy to read as rejection/denial of best efforts prompts some soul-searching, even when the answer is, "There was nothing I could do to change this." I have had a parent do the disappearing thing; suddenly not answering e-mails or the phone,last-minute excuses. Figured out they wanted their kid out of school lessons so he could have a study hall, and to get a good audition score so he could go to a community orchestra. NO qualms about treating them the same; just stopped sending them any more notes. Only regret I hadn't started a pre-pay plan since they stiffed me for a couple 1/2 hours before I figured it out. There is a person teaching in my area who has, a number of times, blown a gasket at students & parents who decided to move on. She has also called up the new private teacher, screaming. Not exaggerating; been on the receiving end. Besides instability, what would that be about?? Sue

January 20, 2008 at 10:35 PM · As a parent who has left teachers, this thread is a little hard to read. Unlike other professions, music teachers seem to get more emotionally involved with their young students. All my daughter's teachers have been extremely nurturing, beyond what I pay them to do. It makes me wonder if there is a good way to leave other than going to college or moving away. We can definitely put a better face to it than simply disappearing but the element of rejection will remain unless teachers and parents agree the exact moment when it would be beneficial for students to move on to another teacher.


January 20, 2008 at 03:35 PM · I think the teacher-student relationship is so complex that it's inappropriate to try to assign blame. Also... the parent (and her relationship to her child) is a huge unknown in the equation.

One possible scenario: The kid isn't as interested in music as her mother would like. The mother can't deal with this and leaps to the conclusion that she has a personality conflict with her teacher.

The fact that you're so concerned about this means that you're probably a great teacher. If you know the other teacher ask him/her if he has any idea what happened. Of courser, don't ask until the topic is less emotional for you.

IMHO there's a pretty good chance the kid will have a "personality conflict" with the next teacher as well.

January 20, 2008 at 04:28 PM · Tasha,

You are young but you sound like an inspiring teacher. The most difficult thing about teaching is what effect we actually have in our students' lives. Did you ever consider that all your efforts were not unnoticed by your student? I believe that she wasn't willing to work as hard with you as you were willing to work with her and in a way she didn't want you to waste your time on her.

Violin lessons have a way of sticking to us though. I've come to remember teachers I didn't like as teachers that I now have affection for, or vice versa. It's the great karma of teaching. Whether for good or bad you'll never know, but you have changed this girl's life and you should take pride in that. By the way, I have never met an adult who has regreted taking music lessons in their youth. Keep that in mind.

Someone above said not to get attached to your students. I certainly can't control how I feel about a student, only how I respond to them. It's silly to try not to invest emotionally in the profession you love. Just try not to blame yourself for someone else's actions. You said it yourself that you tried all kinds of ways to get through to your student. Have confidence in your teaching, and don't worry about her decision.

January 20, 2008 at 07:17 PM · "Personality clash" is a loaded phrase sometimes. Unless you were participating in the "clashing," you've got nothing to feel bad about.

January 20, 2008 at 07:15 PM · I don't teach violin, but I have mentored people and taught students in other professional fields, and I think there are some parallels.

In particular, there was a person I was supervising and mentoring at my old job who was high-maintenance and in the end just couldn't do the job she had been hired to do. I had to let her go, and this was very traumatic for me. I felt that I had failed as a supervisor--and that I had failed her and failed the company. That was a number of years ago now and I think that the biggest lesson I learned from the experience was that sometimes things don't work out and it's nobody's fault. She wasn't a good fit for me or the position and keeping her around and trying to make it fit wasn't doing her, or me, any favors. She went on and got a better job somewhere else. Sometimes cutting your losses and ending the relationship is the best solution for everyone involved. Like an ill-fitting romantic relationship, it actually can be a relief it the other person ends it first so you don't have to be the heavy.

I think I've gotten better now at recognizing those types of situations earlier and heading them off before they get that far and I get that emotionally invested, and I think you will too, with experience. You don't have to take every student who applies, and you don't have to keep every student. Of course you want to be the best teacher you can be, but that's not the same as trying to be all things to all people.

January 20, 2008 at 11:00 PM · Tasha,

You sound very well-grounded and...oh, heck, drop Calvin, move to South Carolina and teach me! (Sorry, Calvin). Seriously, I don't have time for a teacher right now, but if I did I would want one like you. I bet that empty slot fills up real quick.

Just sayin' "Hey", from SC, L

January 20, 2008 at 11:59 PM · Ok Tasha, do it your way, kiddo. But why did you ask for advice if you didn't want to hear it? As for proper setting of boundaries, I refer you to your comment about the "pit of the stomach sour weight that has been there since I read the email [from the mother]" Doesn't sound like a nice feeling, and it's one that I NEVER have anymore, because I know that students come and go for all kinds of reasons, mostly having nothing to do with me or my teaching! Anyway, I really didn't mean to insult you in any way, and please forgive me if I sounded condescending! Chalk it up to bad writing skills...

January 21, 2008 at 12:16 AM · Remember, we're all just internet hacks. Don't take this list too seriously.

January 21, 2008 at 12:13 AM · Lori - Well, thanks! Actually, I think Calvin's originally from one of the Carolinas...

Howard, I hope I don't offend anyone regarding taking or not taking certain advice. Everyone works differently, and for me with my particular background, I can't make my teaching or my music impersonal. If I could, that certainly would eliminate any future sour feelings I have from situations like this, which would be a real bonus!

However, I must agree with Sue in the matter. This is how I do it, and I can't feel good about myself, comfortable with myself, if I did it any other way.

I sure do appreciate everyone's viewpoint and methods of experiencing things, regardless if I am personally able to share them the same way or not. I had hoped that by posting on here, I could get opinions on the matter whether anyone spotted ways for me to improve to avoid students switching in the future due to some sort of failure in my teaching method(s). I also hoped people would be able to offer what they have: that life goes on, it really isn't a personal assault, and the like.

Howard, I do not take your comment as a personal insult, regardless! =) Do not fear for your seemingly unusual writing skills...

I'm really touched by the support of this community, and am tremendously grateful for it!

January 21, 2008 at 12:22 AM · lori - nothing would be finer than to be... well you know. i'm from fayetteville. if we could get tasha to move, i certainly would! it was like 3 degrees here this morning!!!

actually, she graduates soon, so i'm thinking of bribing some professors to flunk her so she has to stay.

January 21, 2008 at 12:43 AM · Hi, Tasha,

I don't teach violin, either, but I teach another arts discipline. What bothered me about the parent's note to you was her citing the "personality clash", which seems to insidiously shift blame onto you (since, of course, we adults are expected to rise above mere personality differences.) In my almost 25 years of teaching I've had this one zinged at me twice and it took me a while to understand why it made me feel so peculiar. "I don't like your teaching style", or "you're too demanding/easygoing/humorless/funny/etc" makes sense, but "personality clash" is vague and unsettling, and seems to shift the balance of power in the teacher/student relationship to 50-50. Which isn't the case. If you and your student "clash", that implies that the two of you are equals in that relationship. But you aren't. You're the teacher. And by citing a clash, the mom implies an imbalance of power along with an inability (yours) to control your "personality" during teaching.

I won't go so far as to say the parent who wrote you that note was skilled at passive/aggressive guerrilla tactics, but I will say that her intentions were to redirect your attention from re-examining anything you might possibly have done in terms of teaching style to examining who you are as a person.

It would have been more honest for the parent to say "it wasn't working" or "your teaching style doesn't seem to work for my daughter", but instead she let it get personal.

January 21, 2008 at 12:42 AM · Thanks Tasha! Anyway, any minute now Buri will be here (as he is wont to do) with a post telling me to eat some prunes....

January 21, 2008 at 01:51 AM · E. Smith: Yes, you've got it exactly! I didn't quite understand why I was so unsettled, but that phrase, when psychoanalyzed as expertly as you've done, does exactly what you said! (Did that make any sense?) I'm not sure what to do with that knowledge, though. It seems more unsettling. I'm not sure whether to more seriously doubt my "self" or become less disgruntled that my student (or her Mom) has chosen to move on to a different teacher with a, hopefully, more suitable approach. Only time will tell.

Calvin, why do you think I'm leaving?

If/when Buri posts, I can't wait. Whenever I read his posts in other topics, I always enjoy them.

In case he doesn't, Howard, perhaps you should just save yourself the prompt and eat some prunes ahead of time... =P

January 21, 2008 at 01:54 AM · Oh, and Calvin, trust me, some of my professors would like to flunk me so I have to stay... I'm considering doing a Master's there, so never fear... yet.

January 21, 2008 at 03:28 AM · Maybe that is just how life goes sometimes. No need to blame yourself except maybe for not seeing the handwriting on the wall sooner. As a parent who decided to leave a teacher (our sons) a few years ago, I have had time to reflect on this issue. I agree with Howard's post and did not read it as insulting or anything but very honest. While I liked the old teacher, and appreciated her help, I felt a little claustrophobic for our child. I telephoned her to say we were leaving and she told me and she was shocked and defensive and told me how our son had been with her so long. What was amazing was how rough the lessons were in the last two months. I thought the call was a mere formality, but she was completely blind sided by the call. I told her she was a good teacher, but sometimes change in itself can be good.

People may leave your studio for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason you will ever understand. No use trying to analyze it all, but understand change is the constant in a people intensive career. Did you know the average employee stays aproximately 3 years? People are transient and it sounds like this student was going through a phase which had little to do with you or violin.

Very often I hear teachers let students go when they don't progress or they feel the student or family is not serious enough. Why would the student or parent not be free to excersise the same option? It is not only the teachers option to end lessons or dictate the relationship. With our current teacher, we have a very open communication and my son is very active in the relationship, not just a bystander as he was before. This teacher is a mentor and far more than a music teacher. We understand children change, and he helps our son in this moment and does not worry about "keep him" as a student.

As to the parents emailing, they probably should have called. Maybe they didn't want to get into a discussion in front of the child. I think parents need to be careful not to undermine a teachers stature. That is a simple courtesy I think every professional teacher deserves from parents.

January 21, 2008 at 03:19 AM · J Kingston:

I completely agree with not becoming too attached to students. I hope I don't come across inappropriately so. However, neither my student, nor her Mom, has expressed any concerns or requests to me by any media (hence my shock) and I wish I could have gotten something along those lines these past few weeks. I did notice the negativity, and was attempting to work with it and help "counteract" it for the lesson time. It obviously didn't work.

It is in this regard I hope to improve my teaching, so that all parents and students feel very comfortable coming to me with these sorts of things. Sometimes, feedback in the lesson isn't enough for me, since things can be going on in life to affect my student's mood during the lesson. It's also a very delicate matter inquiring as to 'why' my student acted the way they did that day.

I have sent various updated letters home to all my students with my policies and their changes, specifically requesting that parents and students come to me with any questions or concerns at any time about anything. I fear the letters either weren't read, or an in-person request was required for the desired sincerity.

I am learning that a slightly more music business-like approach is necessary in these matters, however. Thank you!

January 21, 2008 at 03:32 AM · Tasha, I'm not a teacher, nor a parent of a teenaged student, but I was a teenager once a long time ago (though some of those years I would rather forget). I DO remember is that those years were full of turmoil on so many different levels. Even my own parents had a difficult time coping with my mood swings back then. I wouldn't take it personally. If you wish to learn how to work with teenagers better, I'm sure that there are a variety of courses for both teachers and parents on how to handle those years where hormones run amock.

January 21, 2008 at 02:03 PM · Tasha wrote, "E. Smith: Yes, you've got it exactly! I didn't quite understand why I was so unsettled, but that phrase, when psychoanalyzed as expertly as you've done, does exactly what you said! (Did that make any sense?) I'm not sure what to do with that knowledge, though. It seems more unsettling. I'm not sure whether to more seriously doubt my "self" or become less disgruntled that my student (or her Mom) has chosen to move on to a different teacher with a, hopefully, more suitable approach. Only time will tell."

I guess what I was trying to say was that her language was slyly manipulative in a way that deflects responsibility from her family and towards you. I don't think it has anything to do with your actual personality or the situation with her student, it's just one of many disarming tactics people employ to turn the advantage in a conversation, a kind of rhetorical dirty trick. Like when someone says, "I'm sorry that I reacted so strongly when your behavior was so offensive." (Not the same thing, but maybe you get my point.) The mom has probably had more experience with these kinds of conversation, give that she is older than you and has been cleaning up after her daughter for a while, so she pulled this off with a flourish, and as a result you felt bad and doubted yourself, but you should not. HOpe that makes sense!

January 21, 2008 at 02:34 PM · E. Smith: Thank you so much. That is a tremendous help.

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