Many people in the nail industry may complain about the problems with nail care education, but there are plenty of schools that are producing quality nail professionals. Here are some of the ways they keep students motivated and help them become successful.
Nail technician Gina Mercer wrote a letter to NAILS Magazine that began like this. “Lately I’ve seen a lot of articles and letters to the editor about the lack of education in nail schools. It saddens me to hear this since I have taken it for granted that all the education in nail schools were top notch. Mine certainly were.” Mercer, who now practice professionally in Winnemucca, Nev., is a graduate of Idaho State University School of Applied Technology’s Cosmetology Centre. Mercer’s was one of very few letters with something positive to say about nail care education, but we felt the issue warranted a look at what’s right with our schools.
The school instructors and administrators we spoke to for this article say that although it is an industry-wide problem that schools focus solely on preparing students to take the board exam, they say that the industry also has unrealistically high expectations of a graduate’s professional readiness. Even in the states with the highest hour requirements, instructors complain that there isn’t enough time to prepare a student for a nail career in the 1990s. The common denominators among the country’s exceptional cosmetology schools are an emphasis on people skills, business savvy, hands-on training, and developing a professional attitude.
Instructors also say that developing successful professionals starts with weeding out students who are not fully committed to the rigors of the coursework and the profession itself. Here, several schools describe what takes their nail program above and beyond the norm.
Pocatello Beauty Academy in Pocatello, Idaho, hasn’t had anyone drop out of its nail program in the past three years. Explains educational director Linda Mottishaw, “We are really honest and up-front with students when they apply to school. We ask applicants why they’re interested in cosmetology. We show them that the course isn’t all fun and games. Ours is a short program — 300 hours in a nine- week program — so there’s no financial aid available for nails. We’ve noticed that students who pay their own way do better.”
Mottishaw says that to keep students motivated you’ve got to offer something different. “We have contests, we bring in educators, or we take the students off the books for the day and just do some work on more advanced things — nail art, for example.”
The school has innovative ways to show students what it’s like in the “real world.” Says Mottishaw, “The students are very concerned with how much they can earn in this profession. To show them, we have them fill out a W2 form and we provide them with the totals of how much money they were bringing in on the school’s books and we double it (since that is how it would work in a salon setting). They’re ‘paid’ for being on time, not having any absences, maintaining a grade of at least 90 on exams, things like that. At the end of the two-week period, we add up all their ‘earnings,’ take the standard tax deductions, and give them a ‘paycheck,’ which they can use to buy supplies in the school store.”
With this exercise, says Mottishaw, “we try to give them an understanding of their true earning ability.”
The school also conducts a salon owners’ panel. Owners will visit the school and conduct mock interviews with students to prepare them for actual interviews. Further, says Mottishaw, the school works with local salons that allow students to come in and watch experienced nail technicians work.
In New York where licensing has only been in effect a few months, schools are gearing up their nail programs At the Learning Institute for Beauty Sciences (LIBS) in Manhattan, Susan Meyer says the school emphasizes “services nail technicianscan and cannot do, conditions they can and cannot treat. Our concentration is on proper methods of sterilization, nail disorders, and nail anatomy.”
Meyer says students are often surprised by the amount of technical knowledge one must acquire to do nails professionally To reinforce the technical knowledge, she requires students to create an “encyclopedia,” which is actually a binder containing technical reference materials the students collect, which they can take with them when they eventually go to work in a salon. “Theory is unchanging in nails, so the encyclopedia will always be useful to them,” says Meyer. “It’s something they can use when they start working —you can’t expect them to remember everything.”
Lest students mistake nails for an easy career, Meyer says LIBS conducts an orientation that gives students a full picture of what is expected of them. “We tell them how attendance works, the hours necessary, what to expect from the state board, and their financial obligations. If they fall behind, they are put on probation.”
As for life after graduation, Meyer advises her students to be choosy about the salons they apply to. “Students really need to check out the salons themselves. They need to see things in person and they need to know that they’ll be working in an environment where they’re appreciated.”
“Our philosophy of teaching at Carsten,” says Erin Doherty, administrative director of Carsten Institute of Hair & Beauty in Tempe, Ariz., “is that the business end is extremely important. Of course, technical skills are important, but what entry-level professionals need most are skills in management, communication, and managing themselves. We have attitude and posture classes,where studentslearn to communicate. Set goals, listen, conduct business, and learn about public relations, interviewing, job skills, resume preparation.
“This is a self-motivating profession and that starts with the atmosphere at the school. We have a very high-tech school — lots of natural lighting, lots of windows. Its not an old closed-in beauty school atmosphere; it’s all open and upbeat.”
Carsten’s applicant screening process is designed so that students essentially screen themselves. The process begins with a 45-minute interview with Doherty and the administrative staff. “We explain our curriculum and let them know what we expect from them and what they can expect from us,” says Doherty.
The school stresses commitment: Students must write a letter of intent prior to their acceptance in that letter they outline for the administrative staff what their career goals are. Also required is a letter of recommendation.
As for curriculum specifics, Carsten offers extensive business skills classes. Its senior section goes through training where they learn interviewing techniques and what to ask the salon owner at the interview. Explains Doherty, “The nail industry is such a transient industry; we believe that students should be selective about the salon atmosphere they want to work in. They need to know they have options.”
Carsten Wilms, who started the school chain, is a hairstylist who still works behind the chair and is a strong advocate of continuing education. In fact, school counselors tell students to ask prospective employers what sort of continuing education program they offer.
“School is just the beginning, enough to get them an entry-level position,” says Doherty.
The nail technology program at Idaho State University school of Applied Technology’s Cosmetology Centre in Pocatello, Idaho, developed “out of need of the industry in our area,” says program coordinator and instructor Rut Ruska. “I felt we needed to concentrate on the need of the nail technologists. It is difficult for a teacher who is working primarily with cosmetology students to devote herself one on to the needs of nail students. Because nails is more intense, more direct contact we developed our specialty nail course.”
Although Ruska says that nails require special attention because of the technology involved, she says that the school does spend quite a bit of time on interpersonal skills and group dynamics. “You can probably put anyone in a salon position, but what will keep them there is the interpersonal dynamic.”
Ruska says students engage in role-playing and “group counselling in an effort to develop there inter-personal skills. We ask students to talk about what they want out of their life. We remind them that cosmetology is a career where you are constantly doing things for other people.
“The sessions really work almost like group therapy, and students open up and talk about the fears and insecurities that keep them from succeeding. But we talk equally about what they need to do to change so they can get what they want out of life.”
The school relies on an advisory committee to help keep in touch with the needs of the industry. The committee consists of salon and industry professionals, small-business owners, salon chain reps, and two representatives from the university’s counselling center. “The committee keeps us in touch with what the industry’s needs are. They apprise us of what’s important for students to know. They tell us what they need, and we by to meet those needs.”
The school coordinates other extracurricular activities. For example, students go to a local juvenile detention center and do haircuts and manicures on the lads once a month. ‘We also reach out to students at risk — potential dropouts, for example — and we bring those students into the schools to visit and talk to our students about a career in cosmetology,” says Ruska.
“What makes us different,” says Karen Donovan, director of education for Ogle Enterprises in Arlington, Texas, “is we focus on producing a qualified employee, as opposed to someone who can pass the state board exam. We focus as much on nontechnical skills as technical skills. We attempt to provide students with a sense of how business works, how a salon runs, what an owner will expect of a professional nail technician.”
One of the activities that Ogle students do that helps them truly understand a salon’s inner workings is a project where they have to “create” their own nail salon Says Donovan, “They have to find a building, hire employees, buy supplies, develop a yearly budget, and then some. It’s a hard project.”
During field trips to salons, students are required to fill out an activity sheet on all aspects of salon operation: how the reception runs, what workstations look like, how clients are treated, and retail selling techniques. “We feel that these relationships with community salons are important because one of the biggest complaints we hear from salon owners is that graduates are not ready to go to work,” explains Donovan.
Ogle conducts a job fair and invites salon owners to visit the school and watch students as they work. “We put together a profile of each student, with their photos, attendance records, grade point average, goal-meeting ability and other pertinent facts, and we post that information for the salon owners to see.” The students’ resumes are also copied and made available so the owners can take them if they’re interested in a particular student. This year’s job fair is the school’s first in this format, and Donovan says students are “nervous, but excited.”
Another striking way that Ogle works to develop professional attitudes is it provides students with custom-made workstations. ‘The tables have a place for everything you use during a nail service, and it’s organized so that it’s easy to maintain and keep the work environment clean, which is a good habit to form in school,” says Donovan.
Top students are recognized by their peers at Pittsburgh Beauty Academy (PBA), says Monica Beckett, the school’s retail supervisor/administrator. ‘We give a top student award at graduation, and all the students know about that from day one.”
To stay in touch with the needs of community salons, the school does salon surveys to find out what salon owners think and what they need. “We also do graduate surveys four times a year to follow up with our former students,” says Beckett.
When students enter PBA, they know the rules are strict. ‘We supply an orientation booklet with all of our rules when a student begins the program. A student with a student loan or on federal assistance must maintain a C average.”
The teachers at PBA are held to the same strict standards as the students. “All the lesson plans are timed out. An objective is written on the board and the instructor knows to cover that material in a certain amount of time.” The student-teacher ratio is low: just 14-18 students for each instructor.
Probably one of the best ways that PBA students learn how to deal with clients is a project where they each have to give a presentation on a particular product. Explains Beckett, “Students have to explain the product ingredients and how they work. Then they have to tell the audience how to use it.
“We have what we call ‘alumni educationals,’ where we invite graduates to come back four times a year and learn about the latest products and techniques.
“Michelle Davenport, director of the Lemoyne, Pa., International Beauty School, shows her students exactly what the real salon world is like by doing role playing where she is the client. “We do skits to prepare students for the real world. I may come into class and pretend to be a radical customer! I ask the students, ‘What do you do with me?’
“I let students know that sometimes they have to bite their tongues with clients. So what if you don’t like someone, I say. If a customer leaves happy, she tells 20 of her friends. If she leaves angry, she also tells 20 of her friends. You’re either up 20 people or down 20 people.”
But Davenport admits that instructors are stretched to get everything into the nail course “Two hundred hours just isn’t enough to learn everything you need to know. But we encourage our students to get involved in the industry so they can keep up their skills. We can’t teach them everything.” Davenport knows well what nail technicians face: She and all the rest of the instructors have worked m salons themselves. “If you’re only in a school environment and you’ve never worked in a salon, how can you teach what’s out there?”
Sissy McQuinn-Boulus, who owns International School of Skin and Nail Care in Atlanta, Ga., is as well-known for her “astronomical” N A.S.A show as she is for her pioneering work in nail education in Georgia. Says McQuinn-Boulus, “I was appointed by the governor to the state licensing board, and I helped to set some stringent requirements for the state. We were the first school in Georgia: Licensing began in 1983 and we opened the school in 1985.”
McQuinn-Boulus encourages students to learn to think for themselves. “We have salon owners come in and talk with the students about salon life. Product manufacturers visit and do demos, too. But we don’t use any name-brand products in class because we want students to pick and choose their own products after they graduate. We urge them to go to every tradeshow.
“Two weeks before graduation, we have a consultation with each student. We advise them to go on three interviews before they take a job. What happens is that students get so excited that they may take the first job offer they get, and that often doesn’t work out.”
McQuinn-Boulus says that what sets her school apart isn’t related to any of the programs it offers; it’s the schools atmosphere. “We’re big on motivation here. It’s a really ‘up’ atmosphere. My philosophy is that if you can’t have fun while you’re doing something in life, eliminate it!”
Unlike many established schools, ISSNC offers advanced continuing education for former students “Sometimes someone who has completed cosmetology school but didn’t get as far as she wanted to with nails will come back and take the advanced program,” explains McQuinn-Boulus.
The reputation that schools have earned in the nail industry may be justified, but just as in any industry, there are the good and bad examples of what is possible. These schools, like many, shine because they focus on the business of doing nails, not just on the techniques. However, even the good schools are defensive asserting that the industry — salon owners, manufacturers, veteran technicians, students themselves — have put unreasonably high expectations on schools.
Says Ruska, “The industry’s expectations are greater than what a school can offer. Nail technology is a vocational activity, so our responsibility as a school is to provide entry-level skills, not the kind of things you learn after being in a salon 20 years. It isn’t the school’s responsibility to teach advanced techniques at that point in time.
“I think even students have misplaced expectations of their schools. They should ask a school what the school’s standards are, how grades are figured, for example. They can comparison-shop for a school and go to one they think is best for them. They should choose their school more wisely instead of complaining that the bad school they chose didn’t teach them anything.”
Davenport says that students themselves and established professionals have to work together to improve the image of nail care. She says, “People still associate nail technicians with gum chewing, beehive hairdos, and dangling earrings. We do need to have stronger standards to encourage professionalism.” She points to such things as nationalizing curriculums and licensing requirements as a step in that direction.
Says Davenport, “I tell students when they come in that they’re no longer the same person after they cross that doorway. Now they’re in a profession.”
Let’s Hear It for the Teachers
Gina Mercer of LaMane Salon in Winnemucca, Nevada, was surprised to learn that so many nail technicians had bad school experiences. Her letter to NAILS, reprinted in part here, singles out those individuals who made a lasting impression on her career:
Amid all the negatives revolving around education these days involving those of us in the nail industry, I would like to let four very special instructors at Idaho State University’s cosmetology program know that they are very much appreciated.
Robert (Bob) Kimber was our coordinator. He retired the year I graduated. I feel lucky to have studied under this wise and talented man. He took us on field trips to local salons so we could see what the real working world was like. He taught us professionalism, how to retail, and many aspects of running a successful business. He trained us on the desk, PA system, and taught us the correct way to book appointments. He helped us with resumes and when I was ready to look for a job he wrote me a wonderful letter of recommendation that helped me get my foot in the door of the salon of my choice. I am eternally grateful to Bob.
Carole Harland was hired as an educator at ISU midway through my own education. Carole knew how to get a point across and make us understand something when we were stumped. She inspired us all to be better individuals.
Nothing was ever quite right for Judi Phillips, although I now know why she pushed us so hard. It was next to impossible to get a perfect grade from Judi, which made us work even harder to show her that we deserved one.
Judi was a very tough lady. Always well-dressed and professional in appearance and in the ways she dealt with the students and the public, she could have us in tears, feeling like we couldn’t do anything right. But by the end of my schooling she was giving me perfect grades on my nails. Judi gave me encouragement. In the areas where I needed. It most and even though she made it hard sometimes, I am grateful for it now.
I saved the best for last —Ruth Ruska. Ruth was the best instructor ever Ruth was our basics instructor and she led us through the first quarter of our education. By the time we came onto the floor, we were so packed full of knowledge we thought we would burst. Ruth knew every aspect of hair and nails. She knew how to teach us to do the work; she never did it for us. If we didn’t do something right, she let us know how to improve.
Ruth made learning fun. She took us to shows and encouraged us to compete. She was there for me, giving me pointers during my first sculptured nail competition (I placed second). I couldn’t have done it at all without Ruth.
When I read the horror stories of technicians whose educational experiences were not what they should have been, I feel very privileged to have attended a school with such good instructors I’ve been out of school quite some time now and I still think it was one of the best experiences of my life. I am now a product tester and educator myself. I still attend many shows and classes every year to further my education. I compete as much as I can and I win my fair share. When I go onstage to accept my award, they ask me who I have to thank, and I always say. “Number one: educated. If it weren’t for them I wouldn’t be here today.”