School & District Management Opinion

Are Students Customers or Just a Crop?

By Starr Sackstein — June 04, 2019 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

By Douglas W. Green, Ed.D.

Twitter: @DrDougGreen


Book: Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science, It’s Way More Complex: What’s Wrong with Education and How to Fix Some of Ithttp://bit.ly/2VdP82o

In 1982, I became the director of computer services for a city school district in Upstate New York. Prior to that, I taught science and programming and served as science and computer chair in a smaller district.

With my new job came exposure to the world of business as company representatives competed for the district’s business. That led me to believe that as an educator there were things that my field could learn from the world of business.

Unfortunately, too many people in business think that schools should be run like businesses with periodic reports that contain important metrics, hence the push from the business world for standardized tests and using them to rate schools and teachers. Unlike business metrics,standardized-testresults are a flawed way to judge schools and teachers, but details on why that is the case belong in another article.

One Thing We Can Learn From Business

One thing that I think educators can learn from business deals with the concept of the customer. As computer director, I felt that the people who needed services were my customers. My job wouldn’t exist without them, so it was important that I satisfied their needs.

My customers were other administrators who had needs for data and computer applications and teachers who wanted to use microcomputers for instruction. When I talked to my staff, I used the word “customer” often so they would realize that we were servants rather than lords of the computer kingdom. I also stressed that we had to listen carefully to our customers to better understand what they needed.

After 11 years as the computer director, I became the principal of an elementary school where 90 percent of the students were poor and 25 percent were refugees from the world’s hot spots. While the new job was very different, I took my customer focus with me. Now my customers were teachers, students, and their parents. (Superintendents should see principals as part of their customer base.)

When I started to talk to teachers about how students and parents were their customers, I got everything from blank looks to outright pushback. The first thing a teacher has to do is control behavior in the classroom, and that doesn’t come with fawning over students like a salesperson. I knew I had some work to do to get the teachers to see their students as customers while still being in control.

Few of our parents ever went to college, and many didn’t finish high school. Many also had bad memories from their school days. Unlike the classroom where the teacher has to act tough at least some of the time, there is no reason why we can’t be warm and friendly to parents all the time even if the parent’s demeanor is occasionally less than inviting.

Would I Want to Be in My Class?

I told the teachers that I didn’t necessarily expect changes in how they approached students. I just expected them to change the way they perceived their relationship with students. They should avoid one-size-fits-all approaches to teaching and increase the frequency and quality of their formative assessments. This would allow them to better know what each “customer” needed so they could strive for more differentiated approaches to teaching.

Since there was a class gap between the teachers and most of the parents, the challenge was to treat all parents with the same respect that teachers saved for each other. To help with this, I made it a point to be part of parent meetings as much as possible so I could model the kind of customer relations I was looking for.

It wasn’t unusual for parents to be upset about something a child reported. In addition to angry phone calls, many just stormed into the school demanding to see me or their child’s teacher. I would tell them that if they wanted to yell, that they could do that in my office with the door closed.

I listened and listened some more, and when I spoke, I did so in a calm respectful manner. This would often confuse them as in their neighborhood yelling was usually met with more of the same. I let them know that it was my job to work with them and the teachers for the benefit of their child. In most cases, it wasn’t long before they calmed down so we could move forward.

I recommend that teachers consider this approach when students talk to them in a disrespectful manner. Yelling back pours gas on the fire, while staying calm is more likely to do the opposite. If a student (your customer) is upset, your job is to find out why and see what you can do about it. I would often ask, “Did I do something to upset you, and what can I do to help?”

You Are a Customer, Too

Finally, as an administer, it’s important to realize when you are the customer. In New York, centralized organizations provide services that schools are too small to provide for themselves. Your state probably has them, too. They are called BOCES in New York.

As computer director, I was my district’s BOCES liaison. I was their customer. Due to the size of my district, I was their biggest customer. There were times when I had to remind them of that. I tried to avoid using the “C” word, but when they weren’t living up to their promises, I pulled it out. What surprised me was that other administrators viewed BOCES as holding a superior position. I did my best to help them see the error of their thinking.

In my life outside of work, I also try to treat everyone I meet as if they are a customer. I look for opportunities to unexpectedly help anyone in need, be it a friend or a stranger. When I do, I feel good, so in essence, serving others for me is a selfish act. Consider giving it a try.

How can we give students and/or teachers the best experience possible during the school day? Please share

*picture made using Pablo.com

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.