During a day of peer review, I sat at the front of the classroom watching students critique each other's papers. For once, things were going smoothly, and I prefer not to intervene unless it's necessary. The point of peer review is that they hear from each other, so as long as they're on topic and being polite, I try to leave them alone.
Things were going so well that I pulled out a stack of in-class writings to grade while they worked*. From the back of the room, a student who had a habit of being verbally disruptive in class called out, "What do you have up there?" Not knowing he was even talking to me, I continued grading. He then called out again, "Hey, teacher, what you have there?" I looked up, puzzled, replied with a simple, "Papers, but why don't you worry about what you're working on?" He then said, "Papers for this class? Because you're on our dime, so it better be for this class." I was taken aback by his rudeness, but I stayed calm and told him, "You worry about what you're doing. I'll worry about what I'm doing." He didn't say any more, and I talked to him about appropriate classroom behavior after class.
His attitude, though, and the idea that I was "on his dime" is one that is becoming increasingly popular on college campuses. Students are now seen as "customers." The buzz word is everywhere. College staff wear IDs to provide better "customer service" and campuses need to adapt to their "customer's needs."
I have no problem with campuses adapting to meet students or people wearing ID badges to be identifiable for students, but I have a big problem with those things happening for "customers."
I worked in customer service. I was a "customer service manager" for a big retail store during undergrad. I have served beer and burgers and cleared tables. I have handed sacks of greasy fries and milkshakes out drive-thru windows. I know a lot about the relationship employees have to "customers."
Customers are something to placate, to nod and smile at through gritted teeth, sometimes to fear. As a cashier, I was frequently screamed at by customers and unable to do anything about it for fear of losing my job. A customer once gave me a ten-minute lecture for "squishing" his bag of spinach (when all I did was place it at the top while bagging his groceries). A drunken customer once leaned over a service desk counter and took a swing at me. Customers have cussed me out, blamed me for things I didn't do, and threatened me.
Of course, these were not the majority of customers. Most customers were perfectly fine people. Many were even polite, amazing people. Some customers made even a day slinging burgers feel worthwhile and fun. But the thing about customers is that they have the power, and everyone in the relationship knows it. "The customer is always right" is a cliche for a reason. They are bringing their business into an establishment and the employees within that establishment are merely a means to an end, a delivery system for the product.
That cannot be what teaching is.
My customers saw me as subordinate to them. My students need to see me as someone with knowledge and experience they can learn from. My customers saw me as a means to an end. My students need to see me as a collaborator in their accrual of knowledge. My customers saw me as someone who could be threatened by their displeasure. My students need to see me as someone who cannot be knocked down by their displeasure, especially when that displeasure is about the standards for classroom performance or behavior.
Effective teaching is first and foremost a relationship. Those relationships differ because of individual's teaching philosophies and particular sets of students. Some teachers may see themselves as authorities on their subjects while others view themselves as collaborators. Some teachers may waver between different relational vantage points throughout their career or even throughout their day. But underlying all of these styles is a relationship between students and teachers based on mutual respect and shared goals that involves a bilateral growth. In effective teaching, teachers become better teachers, students become better students, and everyone becomes a better person.
That effective, mutual relationship does not happen when students are viewed as "customers." I've had customers, and I've had students. I assure you that you do not want me confusing the two.
*Edited to add: This post is getting a lot more traffic than I anticipated, and I've seen some comments about it on some of the sites it's being shared. I don't mind criticism, but I want to be clear that I don't "just sit in front of my students and grade papers." I have a hard time just letting students be during peer review, and I know from experience and research that giving them the room to breathe during that particular classroom activity after designing it and implementing it is the best course of action. I was looking at the papers for maybe five to seven minutes out of an hour and fifteen minute class so that I wouldn't be hovering at students' elbows as they tried to do the work they needed to be doing. I was present and immediately reactive to any questions from any of the groups as they worked. I very much value the time that I have in the classroom and would never see it as an opportunity to do "busy work" while my students suffer the consequences of an ineffective classroom. My classroom is an active place full of a combination of discussion, lecture, group work, and silent writing. Sometimes my classes work better than others, but I am always an engaged participant in the environment. I used this particular example because I thought it captured the tone well (the student saying I was "on his dime"), not because I think students should keep themselves busy while I do other work.
Update: After the conversation this post has generated, I wrote a follow-up post to bring in some other voices.
Photo: Kathy Montgomery