Monday, October 4, 2010
Is the Customer Always Right?
By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
“We aren’t happy with our new English teacher.” This was the emphatic opinion of several of my friends who study at the same institute where I teach English. After listening to a few minutes of venting, I suggested they speak with the teacher about their concerns. They felt they couldn’t do that, so my second suggestion was that they meet with the director of the program. They did complain to the director, who spoke to the teacher, who then felt undermined and insecure for the rest of the semester.
This experience is a consequence of the student/customer divide. As teachers, we often think of the people our classes as students. We are the experts, and our teaching is informed by current and past methodologies, our own experience as language learners, and our cultural backgrounds and beliefs. Increasingly, however, in the minds of our administrators and, often, of the students themselves, they are customers. They have paid money to be in the class, and they have certain expectations about what they will learn and how they will be taught.
Yes, to some degree my students are customers. I work hard to meet their needs and expectations. However, ultimately, I am the teacher, and I make decisions that they may not agree with, but I believe are for the best. For instance, several years ago, when I was a much less confident instructor, I taught an Advanced Grammar class. On the first day, I had planned for the class to do an ice breaker, a survey activity. After I had demonstrated it, one student raised her hand and said that she thought they should not be wasting time with this activity. They were all adults and they wanted to learn grammar not make friends. I reacted by snatching up all the cards, my cheeks burning, and moving on abruptly to another activity. In retrospect, I realize that I should have described the benefits of lowering the affective filter at the beginning of the term and explained that in the class we would be doing a lot of pair work, so this was a necessary activity. From this experience, I learned that if I believe an activity is valuable, I need to explain its benefits to my students so that they know we are not just wasting time.
However, I also think it is important for teachers to remain open to student suggestions. Although I am the expert, I also believe students have legitimate ideas about how they want to be taught. For instance, several years ago (around the same time as the previous example, actually) I was teaching a Conversation class. We were learning idioms and listening to a dialogue from the text. I was about to move on to the next lesson, when a student raised her hand and suggested that the class read the dialogue with a partner before moving on. My reaction was the same as before; with burning cheeks I agreed. (I don’t know why I felt so challenged.) Unlike the previous example, however, this was the right thing to do. As soon as I saw how engaged the students were as they read their dialogues, I realized that sometimes students do really know best.
One way to gauge whether or not your students are satisfied customers is by giving them a chance to anonymously evaluate you. In fact, this is a built-in aspect to end-of-semester activities in many programs. However, I have long felt that if you wait until the end of the semester to find out how your students feel, it is too late to do anything about it. I do not believe that teachers always know if they are teaching well. In my experience, some of the classes that I felt the most positive about gave me the lowest of my evaluations. So rather than be surprised at the end of the year, I give students the chance to voice their opinions several weeks in. If a student complains about something, I will either adjust what I am doing or explain to them why I won’t. For example, when I taught a TOEFL Prep class a few years ago, I would occasionally get requests for less homework. I explained to the class that they could always choose not to do all the homework, but, as they were preparing for a rigorous exam, this was what I felt was necessary to ensure their success.
So, are your classes made up of students or customers? Maybe, like me, you try to strike a balance between the two. I would love to hear your experiences. I would also love to hear interesting ideas for conducting class evaluations. I tend to rely on the anonymous questionnaire, but I would love to spice things up a little.