Neil Tambe

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I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Who do educators really see as their customers?

I’m not an educator, but let me share an insight about education that came to me while sitting in my business school class about the “Co-Creation of Value.” I’ll leave off a description of what the class is about, for now.

Think of a good teacher. I’m don’t even mean the very best teachers. I mean good ones, of which there are probably many. Those teachers, in my opinion, see their students as their customers. They create experiences which help their students learn. Moreover, they work with their students to co-create experiences which help them learn better. They adjust to students and do amazing things. They’re able to do this, because they interact with and communicate with their students every single day. There’s an ongoing feedback loop between good teachers and students. Incorporating that feedback into their teaching practice is indicative of a customer-oriented relationship.

When you look to other institutional stakeholders in schools (administrators, school board members, superintendents, policy makers, etc.) they don’t see students as their customers, the majority of the time. Of course, they claim too, but I would argue that their behavior doesn’t back up that claim*.

One piece of evidence is looking at who has the power to hold them accountable. Administrators, school board members, etc. aren’t held accountable for their jobs and performance by kids. They are held accountable by parents and voters (who are above the age of 18). Even if a student had strong feelings about those non-teacher stakeholders, they don’t have any easy mechanism to act upon those feelings. Sure, they could protest, or lobby their parents, but that’s an extremely indirect way to foster a change in their experience. Speaking, from personal experience, it’s also very hard.

The more indicative piece of evidence suggesting that non-teacher stakeholders don’t see students as their customers is how little time those stakeholders spend with students. Good administrators (of which there are some) spend time with students and incorporate their feedback, but from my observation that varies a lot across schools. The higher up the food chain you go, the less those stakeholders interact with students. This leads me to believe non-teacher stakeholders rarely, if ever, see students as their customers. They just don't spend enough time with them and really digging into understanding students' needs, directly.

This is a problem because ultimately students are the customer, they hold final power over whether they learn. So, because so many stakeholders don’t treat them like a customer, they don’t create the best solutions which help students learn.

If someone could truly create opportunities for students to be co-creative customers in their own learning and their educational experiences more broadly - beyond interactions with just individual teachers - I think it would be a game changing innovation. Why? Because customers, when co-created with, can give the firsthand feedback required to shape experiences to be better for them. Customers are the best advocates for their own needs.

A note on “good” teachers

A good friend of mine, Sam, pointed out that as a teacher he often hears that teachers treat students the least like customers and are the least likely to co-create with them. I’d personally chalk that up to all the testing and mandatory requirements that teachers have to follow. My guess is that good teachers have their hands tied when it comes to co-creating with students because if they don’t raise test scores and get through their requirements they are reprimanded. 

So it seems that even if teachers appear to not be treating students like customers it’s probably because they’re being given directives by administrators, superintendents, school boards, policy makers etc.

Of course, there are probably “good” non-teacher educational stakeholders, too. I just see co-creative behavior much less by non-teachers.

* - For the record, I’m lucky to have had many good teachers and many good administrators while I was in school, especially as a student at Stoney Creek High School. So thank to all of those wonderful educators!

Please do say hello: neil.tambe[at]gmail[dot]com