education 23 Aug 2012 07:00 am
This week, I return to my full-time position in sales.
In this line of work, approximately 20 to 25 customers at a time enter my warm, inviting office, where pictures relating to the product hang tastefully on the walls. They take a seat and, whether they know it or not, begin to evaluate my pitch.
After about 45 minutes, a bell rings and the customers get up and go to another presentation. Or to lunch. Or to study hall. Four minutes after this first group exits, another group arrives, and so it goes throughout the day.
These sales seminars last for about nine months, with time off for weekends and holidays. Periodically, I evaluate how well the customers (and I) are doing — are they buying? what is their potential to buy even more? how can I help?
At the end of the seminar season, clients receive a three-month sabbatical before being assigned to other sales reps. These new reps will hopefully build on my selling techniques, just as I built on the techniques of those who had the clients before me.
To avoid confusion at parties, when people ask me what I do, I identify myself as a high-school teacher. But my real job is selling.
My specific products are reading and writing skills, but those are really just end products along a spectrum that includes self-reliance, productivity, critical thinking, the supremacy of education over ignorance and good citizenship.
I have many tools at my disposal — technology, textbooks, film, audio recordings, and skilled members of the community — but as any good salesperson knows, the number one asset is the seller’s skill in matching clients’ wants and needs to the product.
After all, I don’t want merely to make a sale. I want to make them want to buy. That difference is key. With the former, buyer’s remorse sets in almost immediately, and the next day you’re right back where you started. With the latter, the student finds the subject and skills so inviting, so interesting, so cool that they intrinsically want them, that living without them isn’t an option.
If all this sounds cold and calculating, it isn’t meant to. I recognize that my students are individuals, that they come to me with a variety of past experiences, good and bad, that have molded them into the people they are today. Like all of us, they are more receptive on some days than others. My job is to meet them where they are and advance them. Or more to the point, make them want to advance themselves.
Some days, I’m the sage on the stage, delivering direct instruction. Other days (the best days) I’m the guide on the side, watching and cheering as they practice and hone their abilities to analyze, strategize, and effectively communicate their positions. To paraphrase the title of a book by Donald L. Finkel, I must remember the importance of teaching with my mouth shut.
Everything I do — or don’t do — is an opportunity to close a sale. Appearance is important, so I lose a few points for mustard-stained ties and scuffed shoes, but I make them back with traits that really matter — the bemused grin, self-deprecating humor, corny joke, and incisive question. Like Charles Dickens’ Old Fezziwig, who “has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil,” I strive to make class fun, both for my own selfish entertainment and because it makes happier customers. And happier customers return more often, buying instruction in essay writing, rhetorical analysis, or the simple joy of a well-turned sentence.
It’s a sad consequence of the state of contemporary education that I have to clarify my little sales metaphor here and say that, while I see a definite and beneficial correlation between sales and teaching, this doesn’t carry over into the more business-oriented models of classroom instruction. The endless testing, the drill-and-kill “instruction” considered good teaching by legislators and too many administrators, the rating and sorting and grading of schools — all these drain the life out of the classroom and create a self-fulfilling prophecy to allow for-profit businesses to swoop in and “save” our kids while good teachers lose jobs and reputations, and large corporations feather their nests with more millions.
But those are unhappy thoughts for another time. The beginning of a new school year should have room only for optimism, unlimited horizons and the honing of the perfect sales pitch.
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Originally published Aug. 23, 2012, in The Alliance Review