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.

Not Always!

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.

But, Sometimes!

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.


Comment from Nick Jaworski
October 4, 2010 at 11:52 pm

A very good post. The curriculum and classroom activities should always be in a constant state of negotiation between students and teacher. Regardless of how informed a teacher’s practice is, if students don’t believe in it, the lessons will ultimately fail just as many students’ desire for more grammar and less participation will also fail.

Comment from alejandro
October 18, 2010 at 12:10 pm

teacher my name is edwin alejandro , Im a student in the university in ecuador
becouse i not speak inglish for that reason I want to learn to write and to speak by means of its aid

Comment from admin
October 19, 2010 at 10:29 am

Good luck with your English studies, Alejandro!

Comment from Philip
November 4, 2010 at 8:35 am

I think you ask the wrong question–in this day and age, at least.

The “right” question is “Does your supervisor think your students are your customers?”

These days, the reality for most instructors (not the older, tenured and thus well-shielded ones, but those in the mid-range–Oh, and not the newbies either since they are given a lot of leeway as newbies) is that if you teach at an institution where the seats have to be kept filled, your supervisor probably sees your students as your customers, first and foremost.

I find myself frustrated when I read some of these blogs because it seems the teachers who blog are the ones with supportive supervisors who allow them to develop their techniques and defend their strategies. I’ve taught at every level of higher education: community colleges, private colleges, universities and R-1 “megaversities” and at each, perhaps because I’ve taught required courses, the student IS the customer, without a doubt. If that freshman isn’t happy, he or she may change majors or drop out. Head count goes down, administrator’s fret, the lowly teacher gets warned…almost never is the student told to just grow up. Frankly, I think this is part of what is lowering the competitiveness of the U.S. educational system and its outcomes.

Concerns are rising about for-profit institutions (there are in the works proposals for stricter financial aid requirements based on objective student outcomes–efforts to put a stop to “degree mills”), but even as that is happening, we are still turning a blind eye to how commercialized some of our public institutions have become, too–especially those where (state) funding is based on enrollment. No one will admit to the instructor that the expectation is to keep those seats filled and push students on through their programs, regardless of whether they’ve learned anything. It’s a shame because it is only going to get worse, IMO.

Comment from Tamara Jones
November 5, 2010 at 1:03 am

It sounds like you are pretty frustrated. It is discouraging when you do not feel supported by your administration. I am not sure if you teach ESL or a mainstream subject. (I am not sure if it matters, but I tend to hear comments like yours more from mainstream educators than ESL instructors.)

However, regardless of who we teach, I do think that all instructors should be concerned with keeping students satisfied and regularly attending their classes. If there is a constant stream of students complaining about a teacher to the administration or a mass exodus of students from a particular teacher’s class during the semester, I think both the teacher and the administration should take notice. Ideally, the administrators and the teacher should work together to determine the cause of the problem (Students want more interaction in class? They have misguided expectations? They think the tests are too hard?) and come up with solutions together. Failing that, the teacher should take steps him/herself to understand and address the problems. He/she could administer a mid-semester survey to identify student dissatisfaction, attend conferences to learn new strategies for presenting material or working communicative activities into the lesson, re-visit the course syllabus to make expectations clearer, explain the purpose for unpopular policies or assignments, and extend office hours or set up study groups to help students prepare for the exams.

Although we teachers may have a different ultimate goal than our administrators (they want the revenue, we want to prepare students for a life outside of ESL classes), that doesn’t mean that we should reject the notion that students’ opinions about our teaching count for a lot. I take my students’ opinions about my teaching personally. After all, I don’t teach in a vacuum, and if my students aren’t happy, they aren’t learning as easily, and I am not doing the job I want to be doing.

That’s just my 2 cents. Does anyone else have an opinion on this?

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