Originally published in educational Horizons Fall 1996. 9-10

The Student as "Client"
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

edited 4/5/12


Does what I teach really interest you?
You want to be my student?
Well, then, just be true to yourself
And I will have been . . . your teacher.
-- Nietzsche, Vademecum - Vadetecum

The euphemistic practices of our advertising-saturated culture invariably slop over into education. Houses are offered for sale as "homes"; amusement parks as "great adventures"; life insurance as "protection." Some suggest that a student should be thought of as a "client." Perhaps what is at work here is the thought that people who deal with clients are more "professional," more worthy of respect, than those who deal merely with customers, wards, dependents, charges, inmates, or students. Is reconceptualizing student as client just harmless ego bolstering for the practitioners of our traditionally underprized occupation? I think not.

Students are not their teachers' clients. Nor should we aspire to our students' someday achieving such a relationship with us. Client is a term both too pompous and too shallow to characterize the special relationship that under the best of conditions exists between teacher and student. No teacher gains an increment in prestige by referring to his or her students as clients. That deep commitment to (one might say, "obsession with") students' well-being found in many, many teachers -- a commitment that leads them to spend energy, time, and money far in excess of any compensation they could hope for -- is miserably served by the characterization of the student as "client."

Non-adult students are rarely, if ever, clients. Clients are people who have a choice to withdraw from the relationship. They can voluntarily cease to be clients. Students from 6 to 16 do not have such a choice. Clearly, compulsory education laws do not create a clientele. Teachers have long been recognized to be in loco parentis in the place of parents; and a child is not the client of his or her parents.

The usual relationship between service-provider and client is a quid pro quo. Fee recompenses service. Nothing else is expected to be given or received. But teachers and students are engaged at multiple levels. This is why "working to contract," to which many teachers' organizations have to resort to make school boards negotiate, is highly uncomfortable, not only for parents and students, but for the teachers themselves.

One reason for calling students "clients" might be that it obscures the effects of laws which compel students to attend institutions often ill-suited to promote love of learning. In students' earliest years, they are forced into relationships with their teachers. A wise teacher knows that it is his or her job to meliorate this compulsion, as well as the many other discomforts of schooling in a mass society, e.g., arbitrary schedules for eating, drinking, defecating. Students soon pick up on the fact that teachers themselves are often restricted in what they can do, even if the activity is interesting and educational. They recognize that the teacher's professional decision is often constrained no matter how pedagogically sound: for example, field trips may be canceled for fear of remote possibility of accident, or books left unread or films unshown to avoid controversy from community zealots.

Teachers know students in certain ways better than their parents do. Teachers understand individual students in relation to other students of the same age and background. Teachers' experience gives them a sense of comparison parents often lack. Teachers are less likely to be obsessed, as parents often are, with a student as an individual. Parents tend to push for privileges and exceptions for offspring; teachers tend to insist on equity for the whole group. In this respect, lawyers, who serve clients act more like parents than teachers.

No less important, teachers may know better than parents what a child is capable of. Parents, obsessed with standards unrealistically chosen for the child's age and ability, may make the very demands that bring about failure they fear. A good teacher knows when to insist and when to indulge.

Teachers not infrequently act as advocates for children. They press the needs and rights of children in the face of public disinterest, administrative inconvenience, and parental neglect. This is an important function -- perhaps the most important in the politicized ambiance of the modern public school. But aren't advocates like lawyers? And don't lawyers have clients? So, aren't students, then, so to speak, clients?

No. That is to get it backward. Good advocates must be teachers. No one need be their client to be their student.