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Give Students Better Service

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I recently shopped at an elegant department store. My trip was informative. It reminded me of a valuable, low-cost, semi-disregarded school innovation. The incident, and its education parallels, can be instructive. It may even stimulate some readers to carry out appropriate changes in schools and classrooms. What I mean by "appropriate'' will follow. But, first, let us examine my shopping discovery.

I had decided to buy my wife a lovely scarf for a special occasion. A friend recommended I shop at a fashionable store my wife sometimes patronized. I adopted the suggestion. I drove to the store, and went to the floor my adviser suggested. There were a number of merchandising departments scattered throughout the floor. Several of the departments carried scarves. I approached one salesperson, and she showed me several scarves in her work area. Nice, but ... I asked about the scarves in the other departments. She said she could take me to examine the scarves in the other departments. And so we took the grand tour.

The tour was very efficient. Each time we approached another department, my guide knew what scarves I had already seen. And so she automatically brought out the scarves that were (a) unique to that department, and (b) relevant to my tastes and concerns.

In other words, my shopping was fast and focused; the salesperson knew what I had already seen, and what I was looking for. All the essential knowledge was collected in one person.

After buying the scarf, I asked the floor manager about the origins of the peripatetic sales process. I was told such flexibility was storewide policy; it was due to a deliberate decision, adopted to improve customer service. The policy generated an extra burden for salespeople--they had to know materials throughout the whole floor. But it paid off in satisfied customers. And I could testify to that satisfaction. I felt I received personal service.

It is notorious that educators often hear pleas that students need personal service and attention. Yet the systems of teacher assignment used in most schools are diametrically opposite those applied in the department store.

In most schools, the teachers stay in place, and the students move about from one teacher to another. This is essentially like the patterns applied in low-service department stores. Customers seeking a particular product, which may be sold in several different departments, must circulate among salespeople in different departments. In schools, such pupil movement can occur in a school day--in moving from one class to another in junior or senior high school. Or it can occur over years, as all students annually move from one teacher and grade level to another as they progress through elementary school or move up in junior or senior high school.

All of such pupil shifts represent enormous wastes of costly, previously collected personal knowledge; knowledge which can help pupils receive truly personal service. Such "knowledge'' can include:

  • The knowledge of each pupil's needs, strengths, and family circumstances, accrued by a teacher during a school year, or even the immediate knowledge of where that pupil has emotionally been so far on any particular school day.
  • Each teacher's knowledge of what "treatments'' are appropriate for what pupils on what occasions.
  • Each pupil's particular knowledge of their teacher's strengths and idiosyncrasies.

Under typical structures of teacher assignment, much of this knowledge is discarded at the end of each school year. Furthermore, in departmentalized schools, such knowledge is extinguished several times each day, as pupils move to successively different classes, taught by teachers from different departments.

Theoretically, many schools have systems of "institutionalized memory''--individual pupil files and other records. Typically such systems try to provide each pupil's successive teachers with the information collected by other teachers or school personnel (for example, the school psychologist). As we all understand, the quality of such information varies widely, and is typically most complete on severe problem pupils. And, with other, more typical pupils, the information on file, for innumerable reasons, is often spotty or marginal. In effect, such pupils are formally unknown to the school.

Sometimes, teachers receiving a new wave of pupils skim the available but inadequate files on their incoming students. Sometimes, too, such receiving teachers are briefed by each pupil's previous teacher(s). And such measures are desirable. However, the reality is that most of the learning teachers acquire about each of their pupils occurs in the classroom, after the term begins. Thus, a good part of each school year is spent in teachers and pupils discovering each other's abilities, backgrounds, and priorities. Then, serious teaching can begin.

I realize some educators prefer not to consider the previous knowledge teachers have developed about pupils. These objectors stress concepts like "wiping the slate clean,'' or "making up my own mind,'' or "discarding biased conclusions.'' And, undoubtedly, outsiders should sometimes consider the condition of pupils with unique difficulties. However, few thoughtful people would argue that such consideration should entirely ignore a pupil's past tensions and successes. Indeed, all human experience argues against trying to seriously help or interpret pupils without considering previously developed knowledge and observations.

True, teachers' particular conclusions are sometimes wrong, or their observations inaccurate or uninformed. Mistakes do occur. But the fact that some observations may be wrong is not an argument for ignorance. And, if errors do occur, why should we assume that the wise teachers are ones who refuse to read the files or weigh the observations of others? Teachers who make accurate observations may be the ones most likely to maintain appropriate records, and enable colleagues to rigorously examine their views.

Some schools apply teacher-assignment policies that moderate such institutional ignorance. And I will evaluate some of these measures later. In addition, a number of current education-reform proposals--identified with persons such as Sy Fliegel, Deborah Meier, and Theodore Sizer--also aim at stabilizing teacher/pupil contacts. Still, in too many instances, pupils receive insufficient understanding or support from their uninformed faculty.

The current assignment process has obvious inefficiencies. In part, the high levels of transiency discourage participants--both teachers and pupils--from risking deep engagement with each other. If either party has "problems'' with the other, just grit your teeth, and the year or class will be over. There's little incentive to work at growing through differences and serious concerns in an educational environment of semi-transiency. Imagine the social disorder generated if such transiency were the norm in other important social environments--beyond schools. Suppose married couples switched their spouses annually, or parents exchanged their children with other parents' with equal frequency, or employers switched their employees each year?

In the short run, such shifting might generate some stimulating novelty; however, as time went on, the emotional tension engendered would be recognized as debilitating. Eventually, some form of stabilization would occur. Healthy adult human beings find such recurring interpersonal instability intolerable. I suspect children have similar difficulties with transiency in their schools. Unfortunately, they lack the power and experience necessary to make a sound diagnosis or a vigorous protest.

From careful listening and observing, over a number of years I have identified a variety of existing education policies deliberately designed to increase teacher/pupil stability.

In Japan, where both academic and affective learning is important, policies at both elementary and high school levels favor student/teacher stability. In elementary schools, each teacher remains with an elementary class for at least two years. The saying is, "The first year is for getting to know the pupils. The second year is for learning.''

In Japanese departmentalized schools, each subject-area teacher follows the whole class--or cohort--through its complete school enrollment. A high school math teacher, thus, might successively teach algebra, geometry, and trigonometry to the same pupils as they proceed through school. By this process, each teacher gets to know his pupils and their families well--and vice versa. Furthermore, teachers can plan future subject matter with a precise knowledge of (a) the curriculum taught the class earlier, and (b) the particular strengths and weaknesses the class formerly revealed.

Incidentally, most Japanese teachers regularly make house calls to each pupil's family. Such calls are more manageable when each teacher and family will work together for at least two years--compared with one year, with 100 percent turnover.

In the former Soviet Union, according to my informal sources, such multiyear stability among elementary teachers was also common.

Other measures, applied in some American and foreign schools, can also facilitate greater knowing among faculty and students:

  • Smaller schools--and it is notorious that average American schools enroll more pupils than those in other nations.
  • Well-organized systems of subschools or houses, where school buildings are subdivided into separate subschools; teachers and students in each such unit are in close contact with each other over a number of years.
  • Systems of division or homeroom in high or junior high schools, where pupils regularly assemble (daily?), under the direction of one continuing faculty member over four years, for advisement or community-enhancing activities.

During my years of working with teachers, I have met four American elementary teachers who, for diverse reasons, were assigned to teach the same class for two or more years in succession. Each of them enthusiastically recalled the occasion. They each said their second year was the most successful class they had ever taught.

There are some objections to increasing teacher/pupil stability. Some of them are serious, and others specious. Probably the most notable objection is that such persisting contacts compel teachers to master larger amounts of subject matter--to stay with pupils over two or more years. But the general success associated with stability suggests that the advantages of knowing one's pupils very well far surpass the difficulties generated by having to learn and transmit more subject matter.

Another possible difficulty arises if a school has one or several inadequate teachers. Assume that school then adopts pro-stability policies. Then, it is harder to hide such incompetents if a group of pupils is exposed to them for two or more years. The parents of the pupils in prolonged contact with a weaker teacher may be especially prone to complain, or request transfers from a class. In contrast, under the one-year-assignment norm, a larger proportion of the pupils will all receive shorter exposure to the school's unsatisfactory teachers.

Of course, we would all like to say that every teacher in a school is effective. And, surely, stabilizing faculty/student contacts is an additional cause for stressing such a precious goal. But there are also other ways to moderate such problems. Stability need not encompass the whole school, all at once. It can seep in gradually, as the staff is reshaped via transfers and turnover (and/or retraining) to meet the challenges involved. Furthermore, some teachers may actually show better advantage while working with the same pupil for two or more years.

More elementary and secondary schools should adopt some mix of these types of stabilizing policies. The changes can occur incrementally, or in a more broadcast fashion. The end effect of such low-cost (or no-cost) changes can be notable. They can increase the knowledge teachers possess about the strengths and weaknesses of the particular pupils they deal with. Such knowledge can provide pupils with something like the excellent service I received at the quality department store. Surely the welfare of our children is as important as the convenience of shoppers.

Edward A. Wynne is a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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