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Should Teachers View Their Students as Customers?

How do we treat our students both as important customers and as children who need our guidance?

I recall a master teacher with a golden heart, high expectations of his students, and a somewhat gruff exterior once telling me about how one of his student's parents used their parent-teacher conference to demand that he be more understanding and sympathetic toward their child. They made excuses for their child's disruptive behavior and lack of effort, and the teacher became tired of it.

During the conference, the parents became belligerent, insisting that the teacher worked for them and it was his job to ensure success for their child. "We are the taxpayer, and we pay your salary. You work for us," they said. Knowing that there were thousands of taxpayers in the community, the teacher reached into his pocket, pulled out a dime, and handed it to them, saying, "Here is your share of my salary."

The teacher certainly could have dealt with these parents more tactfully, but many educators become frustrated with the tactics of well-intentioned but often preoccupied and guilt-prone parents. Educators increasingly complain about students and parents who expect success to be given rather than earned. Yet many educational experts, myself included, contend that the best teachers are those who view their students as their most important customers.

How do we treat our students both as important customers and as children who need our guidance, especially when their effort and performance are subpar? The answer lies in understanding what school sells and what its customers need. Like a salesman who persuades a customer that a product or service will improve his life, the best teachers are able to persuade reluctant students that knowledge and skill will enhance their lives and that their effort, not their ability, will determine their success. From day one, effective educators target all their rules and expectations toward two primary goals: success and responsibility.

Success is the demonstration of knowledge and skill—you either know how to spell a word or you don't. Responsibility is an expression of the values needed to achieve success, like effort and practice or showing respect for others. Students are likely to be most motivated to buy the product—achieve success and learn responsibility—when they feel connected, competent, and in control. I call these the "Three Cs" of success.

To create "Three Cs Classrooms," good teachers adjust their teaching methods without sacrificing their goals. They define success as getting better at a skill each day and responsibility as the tool it takes to get better. They let their students know that when they break the rules, the consequences will depend on what will best help them learn better behavior.

These teachers devise assignments to fit the student rather than subscribe to a one-size-fits-all philosophy. If a student can spell three-letter words today, success for that student means lots of three-letter practice and a few four-letter words. Like a good coach who brings out the best in each player, teachers treat each student with respect and dignity.

But with teacher accountability increasingly tied to test performance, consistently supporting the individual needs of students is difficult. It’s not surprising that the teacher who gave those parents a dime would feel stressed by the situation.

It's tough in the moment, but teachers must be open to adjusting their methods based on parent complaints without sacrificing the goal. Instead of handing them a dime, imagine if that teacher had told those parents, "I know the grade Matt received and that is the grade he earned. If you want him to earn a higher grade, he needs to turn in an assignment that is worthy of his ability. I am sure you would agree that neither he nor I should ever be satisfied with anything less than his best." If educators can have those honest conversations—and keep focused on ensuring students leave their classroom having acquired success and responsibility—they've done their job.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user woodleywonderworks

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