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Students as 'customers'

Business Standard 

Work, by its nature, cannot run smoothly for long. All I would like to do is teach at the CAT (Common Admission Test) coaching institute that employs me. But no, there is always that dicey expanse called “human nature” to traverse. The other day, 25 minutes into the class, I was in the middle of making an important point about adjectives when a group of students casually breezed in. I was explaining how adjectives can sometimes behave as nouns, like “His tattoo is the ultimate in cool”, and lost my cool when they sauntered in, as if it was their strobe-lit living room. “Is this a joke?” I exploded. “We are already 30 minutes down. I can’t let you in. Speak to Nalini [the scheduler] and arrange for a backup.”

Perfectly legitimate, right? Oh no, sir.
Taking me aside, one of the directors, Rajeev, who also teaches Maths at the coaching centre, discussed the matter in earnest tones. “They are not just students, they are customers,” he said, gravitas hanging on his every word, “They have paid us big bucks, dude. They cannot be sent home. It’s not a school.”

I saw his point (I could have done without the slithery familiarity of “dude” but I will live). However, much as I try to be commercially-minded, I can’t bring myself to treat students as customers. I get angry when they misbehave, ecstatic when they get a tough problem right, disappointed when they do not perform up to speed, proud like hell when they make an insightful observation. In short, they now occupy a deeply personal space and woe befall anyone who calls them customers.

I told Rajeev as much. He nodded and then said: “There is another thing. We pay you for eight hours of work, and we expect you to do marketing besides teaching.” How sneaky! Was there any relation at all with what we were discussing? But of course. The subtext: “We pay you for eight hours, so you better get your prized derriere outside the office. Teaching is all hunky-dory; now get some action.”

It was my turn to nod. On most days, I have six-hour classes split into three sessions of two hours each. The one-hour breaks between classes raise eyebrows and I am wink-wink-nudge-nudge’d to make English material “during breaks”. CAT verbal material is a formidable fiend in its own right. The last time I made a reading comprehension exercise, I learnt so much about Billie Holiday’s nasal voice and brush with drugs that I got a headache. It was from an obituary from The Times of London’s July 18, 1959 edition that I happened to chance on a fan’s webpage. 

I am supposed to provide innumerable such passages over the next few months. Not only are the passages to be sassy but they must be amenable to questions such as: “Which of the following is a contention the author might make?” If this sounds easy, run your eyes through the articles on this or the facing page and make me one, just one, question of the inferential type with four legible options. See?

Anyway, our conversation continued. I said, “I don’t mind marketing but where is the time? Between classes and making material, I am left with no breathing space.” Rajeev was persistent: “See, it’s like this. We pay you 50K and expect you to do eight hours per day. I understand that you need breaks but Vishy [the **** director] doesn’t get this point. As a director with one-fifth holding, he thinks he is paying you 10K from his own pocket. Humour him, please.”

Can you believe that? Right, everybody knows that private sector salaries cover only about half the work that’s squeezed out of you but such a blatant admission! And before I forget, we also switch off lights and air-conditioners as and when the “equilibrium” is reached. When I left the recruitment firm I was working for before this place, I needed something as soon as possible. I was suffocated by the dull nature of the work and by the horrific antics of my boss. Now that I am rested and recovered from the trauma, I should look out and find a better job that pays me an Indian Institute of Management salary. 

Damn, I don’t know. I do love teaching a helluva lot.
That was last week. I am now committed to a clutch of engineering colleges lining Dadar to Bandra to sell them the training services that we provide for campus recruitment. Yes, I agreed. With Rajeev, I had to. He is sensible, calm and doesn’t get my stress hormones running helter-skelter. My conversations with him invariably turn into those affairs where all the preparation at getting my way is dulled into admiration at his state of ease. There I was all hot under the collar and here I am now, smugly visiting one college after the other. I knew it — I am the most predictable person around.

The author has switched too many jobs in the past and hopes he can hold down this one

First Published: Sat, December 29 2012. 00:06 IST