In Search of Quality: Teachers as Service Providers and other Tales of Conspiracy
Jay Schwartz is a freelance ELT consultant, teacher/teacher trainer, and author with mixed experience in education, business and psychology. He is also the director-coordinator of ELTzone Network Affiliates. E-mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once upon a time there was a noble teacher. The teacher, by all accounts, was quite a humble and selfless character indeed. In fact, he spent his days engaged in circumstances where success was measured, not by his own deeds, but rather by the deeds of others he administered to. On the first day of each school year, the teacher would briskly stroll into the freshly painted yellow classrooms of wide-eyed young faces seemingly filled with trepidation. The teacher, a caring and concerned humanist, would sense his charges anxiety and smile his widest smile as he reassuringly remarked: "Good morning class. Welcome to the new school year. My name is Jay, and I will be your ... SERVICE PROVIDER."
The role of the teacher is apparently very confusing to some. Most education minded individuals, would agree that teaching is an art not a service. After all, foreign language teachers teach more than just language. They teach life skills, culture, and even in some cases, ethics. Moreover, their efforts helps perpetuate communication and society, and in a much larger sense mankind. Yet, some "consultants" apparently would have you believe otherwise. It is these same individuals that might also suggest that 'quality' and the pursuit thereof, is strictly a proprietary business concern.
Recently, I've been both amused and dumb founded by a suggestion that equates teachers with service providers. This is a tired old conspiracy-laced analogy reared by efficiency-expert type number-crunchers and business consultants whose sole and financially viable purpose in life is to uphold some mythical, albeit economic, 'bottom line' for their clients. It's an analogy I thought had long since passed into whimsical lore, like the fabled Yuppies of the 1980s. Yes, in business matters we often speak of bottom lines (i.e.: profit), because time is money and money is time and the bottom line is ... well, money and time. But teaching is a different matter altogether. Consider the great philosopher Aristotle. He was of course a significant school owner, but while I've come across much of his philosophy, I've yet to find scant reference to his investment portfolio!
It's a fact that accountants equate teachers to service providers, because accountants deal with facts and figures, not people. If the case were the opposite, we would speak of an accountant as a 'people person' and of his or her academic portfolio sweetened with a few psychology classes to complement the requisite tax management and cost accounting courses.
By definition, a service provider is one who provides a function or a service for another individual or entity. In other words, if someone paid me to take a proficiency exam or to learn English for him, then I would indeed be providing him a service. Translators, for whom I have a great affinity, are good examples of service providers.
Some would argue, however convolutedly, that the service teachers provide is the teaching itself. In other words, we would all like to be able to teach ourselves many things, but we can't - so we hire a teacher to do the teaching for us. Of course, there is the actual learning to be considered as well which is the often forgotten component in the classic 'exam pass-fail ratio' enigma we are all too well familiar with. Perhaps students should be hiring private learners as well as teachers, and frontistiria could offer learning by proxy! This notion certainly brings new meaning to the term 'in-house testing and exam services'!
Another spin on the twisted logic is that teachers provide a service to the school owners themselves. Of course! School owners need employees. There's no point in being your own boss, if there's no one else to delegate tasks to ... and exploit! But, the service provider analogy suggests that teachers merely act on behalf of the school owner to provide education to the school's students/clients. Of course, this begs the following question: are teachers appropriately paid for their investment in time, energy, and education, and also in commensurate with the financial benefit the school will reap if they are successful in their occupation?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is far more elusive than that of the meaning of life. It also depends on, with reference to the novel of the same name, whom you talk with, rich-man (consultant), poor-man (school-owner), beggar-man (teacher) or thief.
Regardless, the greatest asset an education-oriented concern possesses is its staff, specifically its teachers. In strict business terms a successful teacher not only brings academic success to the school but also an increase in the number of student enrollments. In reality, the good name and reputation of a school lives and dies on the strength of its teaching reputation, not on its advertising budget, affiliation or armies of business consultants and accountants. Yet in some cases, for all their successful efforts, some teachers net only praise, minimum wage and the promise of a few cents more per year. Oh, lest I forget, occasionally an exalted title like 'Assistant Director of Classroom Product Services and Paper Clips', is thrown in as well.
Restaurant waiters provide services too! Indeed, what more noble a profession than one that 'serves' the best interests of mankind (the client). And, waiters have much in common with teachers; in return for their proficiency in people skills they too are offered minimum wage and seasonal contracts. Unlike teachers however, waiters have the opportunity of receiving tips, sometimes even gratuitous ones!
I prefer to think of teachers, unlike waiters and some service providers, as artists. But alas, their karma is apparently that of the struggling artist. This is true especially in lands where money rules supreme and art is relegated to sidewalk showmanship. It is no wonder that teaching bares the stigma-laden opportunity of minimum wage. Certainly this phenomenon is a black stain on the fabric of modern education, or at least a black comedy of errors, as you like it.
So who are the villains in this black comedy? Business consultants, school owners or the teachers themselves? My opinion, like any good conspiracy theorist worth his salt, is of course the government. What vested interests propel governments to hold teachers in the highest of esteem but afford them the minimum of wages? Government lobbyists? Who might these nefarious characters be? Some disgruntled teachers would say it's the school owners protecting their 'bottom line' interests. If this is the case, where are the teacher lobbyist groups to counter this social injustice and rally for occupational and wage reform? Professional teacher unions and associations could fill this role, but...(insert a long pregnant pause here).
Professional teacher unions, like TESOL associations, provide many avenues for professional development for local teachers. Professional development, as my students say, is 'good' and is a pursuit that should be embraced by school owners to enhance their 'product'. To their credit most humanism oriented school owners know this. But consider another bitter reality in the form of a rebuttal spoken by one less than humanistic business-minded individual: "knowledge is a dangerous thing and the more training teachers have, the more money they will ask for, and the less profit the school will have at the end of day". (Insert another long pregnant pause here followed by a long sigh).
To speak of a larger national union of teachers is less than plausible, because there will always be union busters in the form of unmotivated and ill qualified 'service providers' that are willing to be exploited for the sake of 'pocket money'. It is these same nefarious characters who are too proud to earn some real money by working as waiters or waitresses. Indeed, the sad reality is that nationally all the private teacher associations combined probably represent less than 10% of the entire non-public EFL work force.
So what we are left with then is simply the case of some teachers not understanding school owners' business concerns and personality complexes, and some school owners not understanding teacher needs and angst, even if they themselves were once teachers. Seems like a vicious circle, which of course brings me to the 'Quality Circle'.
Recently, it has become inevitable that if one dares mention education and profit in the same breath, surely the 'Q' word will raise its holy countenance. Ah, quality, that seemingly supernal creature that now apparently comes complete with a price tag and membership perks. But what is real quality in education? The simple answer, as in business, is that quality comes from the strategic reinvestment of profit into the upgrading of resources, based on periodic yet consistent review of existing levels of operation. Big words for "use your money to fix what doesn't work and take good care of what does". Sure, there is a lot more involved to quality assurance than that, but it is obvious that quality teachers are the hallmark of a quality school. They should therefore be treated accordingly as partners in profit and not just partners in work. In the same respect zero-tolerance should be afforded to teachers who do not share in the common goal of the holy trinity of student, school owner and teacher. To this extent, 'quality associations' have a vested interest and a public mandate to strive towards this aim, not just for their own schools but for the industry as a whole.
Lastly, investing in the art of teaching is more a matter of humanism and individual worth and less a matter of pure business. In fact, sound investment opportunities in education are few and far between. If you believe that the road to wealth is paved with 'frontistiria', then you might also be interested in some prime real estate & franchise opportunities located in the resplendent gulf of Thermaikos. Nevertheless, the best investment for school owners with the highest possible return is still their own teachers who in turn should respect this investment by providing maximum productivity. True quality will be achieved when altruism is the order of the day and profit is reinvested into teachers in the form of both wages and training, and when the overall school facilities and methodologies are maintained and improved upon. Yes, obtaining success, quality, and harmony in the workplace without conspiracy and politics is that simple and needs no accreditation or approval. So is providing good service. If you don't believe me, go ask your students!
Please check the Skills of Teacher Training course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Expert Teacher course at Pilgrims website.