In my lifespan, there has been a clear wall dividing the business world from the public sector. These parameters are usually fenced off by the rewards attributed for work in each context. Business work is often painted as more driven: the effort input corresponds directly with the reward outcome. Government work, frankly, is often disparaged as clock-punching: the bureaucratic work will always be there, so there’s job security regardless of an employee’s drive. Even for teaching (indisputably a non-bureaucratic job), the spectre of union protection offers a fair proxy for that pacifying job security. This security fosters suspicion and perhaps envy, but it has also allowed some workers sufficient comfort to become rude, recalcitrant, or resigned. This in turn prompted a reaction from management: the customer service mentality.
In schools, there is often a push to provide customer service: to treat our students, parents, and community members as customers and to strive for customer satisfaction. It is always a good idea to respect the people with whom you interact, at least enough to be polite, to make every effort to hear their concerns, and to answer their questions. However, this customer service credo does not permit educators to push back, even when appropriate. We are professionals, well-trained & highly experienced; our perspective on the needs of students is naturally different from a parent’s perspective on what they want for their child. We ought to make an effort to balance these goals: by listening actively to parents and responding professionally to their concerns; being flexible in our thinking, yet holding fast to those goals which are valuable or necessary; offering our perspective on students’ developmental needs and the significance of curriculum objectives and pedagogical moves, in consort with a parents’ perspective on their individual child’s developmental history, their life goals, and their family history, culture, and values. If we listen honestly and openly to parents, then we can respond seriously and importantly, even if we disagree. It is not bad service to offer our insights sincerely and courageously; it is our professional duty. It is a public service.
Education is not a customer service because learning is not a product to be consumed. Education is a public service because learning is an investment in our society. Public service is an exceptionally high demand– failure to perform has repercussions not just in the bottom line, but far down the line– and this should be the aspiration of all educators. We should strive every day not to satisfy our clients and stakeholders, today and the next day, but to serve the public good, now and in perpetuity.
Turn away from the customer service expectation that everyone should leave a conversation satisfied and a professional’s expectations must take a back seat to the client’s. Realize that education is a long arc and learning happens through challenge, in fits and spurts, and sometimes in spite of our deepest-held beliefs and most exuberant efforts. It is in service to this lofty goal that we find our greatest rewards.