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Is Teaching About Selling? Absolutely.

A controversial comparison for sure, but this idea can revolutionize your mindset if applied correctly.

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by Norman Eng in Blog
October 7, 2017 16 comments

A professor once told me, “Students are NOT customers. To say they are is insulting to both professors and to students.”

Unlike customers, students are not always right, he argued, and that we shouldn’t tell students what they want to hear. Rather, as experts we need to tell students what they need to hear. Anything else is pandering.

Other critics fear that selling implies a transactional relationship, one where students pay for a degree. Most folks just aren’t comfortable with the term selling. They think of people like this guy:

Sleazy. Sales-y. Manipulative. Fake. Tricky.

But that’s just a perception. Selling is really about packaging information in ways that move others.

Look at the way clothing catalogs are put together. Every season, they focus on a particular theme, such as back-to-school, the holidays, or the summer season. Doing this makes them coherent, relevant, and meaningful to their customers.

It’s no different when we present research findings in an article. Except we use theoretical frameworks to contextualize our topic, set up our purpose, and shape our message.

It doesn’t matter how objective we think we are. We’re still framing our communication no differently than a lawyer framing her case, an advertiser framing his product, or a journalist framing her story.

Same in teaching.

If I’m lecturing about the law of supply and demand, I’m not just defining it. None of this: “Supply and demand is the amount of a commodity, product or service available and the desire of buyers for it, considered as factors regulating its price.”

Yet citing textbook definitions is common practice in many PowerPoint lectures. If it were me, I’d rather ask students, “Have you ever tried to buy, say, airline tickets or concert tickets and then come back to find the price went up?”

That’s how you get them intrigued about supply and demand.

In fact, K-12 lesson plans often refer to this part as the hook. I’m “packaging” or framing the content for my particular audience. There’s no trickery involved. It’s producing a clear, digestible, relevant, and meaningful message.

In that respect, I’m absolutely selling the idea of supply and demand. Is it then too much of a leap to say that teachers are sellers of ideas?

Author Daniel Pink doesn’t seem to think so. He refers to this as non-sales selling. Writers sell when they tell a story. Parents sell when they raise their kids. Colleagues sell when they collaborate. Friends sell when deciding which movie to see.

We’re selling every single day.

In a customer review for my book, Teaching College, one reader praised it but recoiled at comparisons to selling. This, despite the fact that I incorporated marketing terms like target audience, ideal customer profile, and unique selling proposition throughout.

We have this hang-up when it comes to selling. But if it’s about moving others, then isn’t selling the essence of great teaching?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

16 Comments
  1. LTG says:

    As a teacher, I feel like a performer more than anything else, because I’m constantly trying to keep students engaged. I do like the idea we are packaging info in a certain way. I guess there is an element of selling here.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      LTC, I get what you mean by performer–something I hear a lot. I think that’s all part of this idea of selling. Actors are selling a performance to an extent, right?

  2. John says:

    Teaching truly is, in my opinion, selling. We are selling ideas, we are persuading our students why they should complete assignments, we are persuading our students to follow the course protocol, and we are trying to convince them to get involved with campus activities. We also are selling ourselves to them as subject matter experts.

    In a school with high standards, though, we are not trying to “sell” degrees as proprietary schools tend to treat as degree mills. In education, when an administrator says he or she is customer service oriented, the hidden meaning is to sell the students our program and then make it easy for them to pass. However that is not the kind of selling that should occur in properly accredited schools that are non-profit.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Couldn’t agree more, John. But the reality is that education schools in particular are a cash cow for the university – esp where there are too many graduates in elem education than there are positions.

  3. Liz Falconer says:

    The key is to keep it authentic…and we can do that be believing in our “product.” Also understanding the needs of our students…like all good salespeople, we need to be able to read and understand others. This is something that needs to be approached intentionally.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Thanks Liz for that reminder. Authenticity and intentionality are both important to do what’s best for students.

  4. Eugene Matthews says:

    I like the idea of packaging information and delivering it in a way that students can understand it. I am compensated for my experience, skills, and ability to ‘cause my students to learn’ not simply stand and deliver.
    So I know in essence I’m ‘selling’ but I truly feel that I’m transferring knowledge.
    I used to think my job was more ‘edutainment’ rather than education, but since reading your book Teaching College, and listening to podcasts like Teaching in HigherEd, I’ve begun to see how to make the course information relevant without succumbing to being a performer, or simulating enthusiasm. Students know when we’re faking it.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Definitely authenticity is important. It’s the connotations of selling we seem to have a problem with. But when seen in the perspective of packaging information, or organizing it, in ways that resonate, I hope professors can see the value of a marketing mindset.

  5. Howard A. Doughty says:

    I have been a post-secondary classroom educator for fifty years and one month exactly. I have taught undergraduate and post-graduate courses at private and public colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. I am almost done. My approach hasn’t changed since my first class in the Fall of 1967. It has served me and (I hope) my students tolerably well … so far.

    I do not have any wares to peddle. I do not try to motivate students to read or write or perform in any way. I merely show them how, provide what I think are interesting questions for them to consider and see if they can do anything with them.

    I assume that they already have an interest in my courses because they enrolled in them. If they do not, or if they decide they made a bad choice, I say “good-bye” and wish them well.

    What I don’t do is put on a smiley face, display phony enthusiasm and assure them that they will have “fun” or (worse) travel further down a “path to success.”

    I do not perform. I do not try to be funny (though I can be in a somewhat sardonic fashion; but, I am long past looking “hot”. I do, however, encourage genuine interest in their work and reward it as fairly as I can.

    Mostly, I tell them the truth (or as much of it as I can muster) about the world, my discipline, the fads and foibles of education, and them (or as much of them as they permit me to observe).

    And, when anyone tells me to “pitch” something – either to the authorities or to the students within my reach – I respectfully decline, go home and play “Sell, Sell, Sell” by Alan Price from the soundtrack of “O Lucky Man!” It usually quiets my nerves and lowers my blood pressure sufficiently to carry on.

    To reduce education to a commercial transaction is to degrade the process and disrespect everyone involved.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      I love this perspective, Howard. Others feel this way? Let’s hear it.

  6. Chris Davis says:

    What do you gain by equating selling and teaching? When we use a metaphor, there is some currency gained in meaning through the equation. Usually we want to take advantage of a transitive property such that be saying that teaching is selling we can tap into ideas about sales that can inform teaching…or the metaphor is intended to spark innovation and creativity by relating two previously unrelated ideas in a way that opens up new thoughts and ways of seeing. I do not see the advantage to this metaphor.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Chris, I am definitely tapping into ideas about sales that can inform teaching: 1) that selling is about saying things a certain way to move people to action (i.e., buying, finding out more info, etc.), and 2) sales is about understanding your prospects–their needs, wants, frustrations, etc.–something many teachers aren’t necessarily thinking about (many are only thinking about teaching content).

      And isn’t my post specifically what you refer to as opening “up new thoughts and ways of seeing”? I’m specifically wrote that selling is about packaging information in a certain way to move others–something I don’t hear too much about in the education circles (I hear more about the “student as customer” metaphor). The advantage of this metaphor is to get instructors to think beyond merely “teaching” content. People who sell (marketers, etc.) are keenly aware of their prospects’ needs, something we as professors can benefit from.

  7. DWH says:

    Some interesting comments, but I’ve heard this all before. If you equate teaching with selling, then your courses will probably reflect this commercial nature. If it helps you sell books, then it serves your purposes, not necessarily those of the students. In this university for profit era, with students as consumers, I guess this overtly capitalist approach to teaching might be unavoidable, though I suspect the great teachers I studied under, both as a PhD in the Humanities, and the great thinkers and writers of many cultural perspectives whose works I have taught, would cringe at this metaphor. For me, of little use.

    1. Norman Eng says:

      DWH, I hear what you’re saying, but as I mentioned in my post, the idea of equating teaching with selling is about packaging information a certain way–something I believe all teachers (should) do. Nothing about commercialism mentioned here, except what readers inject based on their perceptions–again something I point out. Nothing to do with capitalism. In fact, I’m very much against the idea of privatization of schooling. This is merely a metaphor that helps some see teaching as more than about teaching boring content.

  8. Joel haire says:

    Setting up a straw man-defining selling as persuasion. Persuasion is only one tool used by salespeople to get you to buy the product. Teaching in higher ed is about showing students the options and letting them make up their own mind and develop their own skills! Is Teaching some to ride a bike persuasion. I think note. Please no more of this economic rationalist imperialist infusion of customer in human relationships. It is where suckers moon. You have been sold a puppy perhaps?

    1. Norman Eng says:

      Of course teaching to ride a bike is persuasion, of sorts. Same with a dad teaching his kid to play baseball. or piano. he’s passing down what we believes to be of value to his child. often times, parents end up having to persuade their kid to learn piano! according to some, there is no such thing as teaching completely in a vacuum where you just show students the options. This goes back to the idea of the teacher as critical theorist or social reconstructionist. Is their job to educate objectively or to pass down culture? i think educating completely objectively is not possible. we all grow up in a certain culture, nation. we’ve been shaped by our parents, teachers, etc. and yes, we pass down our biases. and by virtue of what we decide to include or exclude in our curriculum we are making choices of what to teach. and when we teach a topic, we are carefully crafting that narrative. that’s selling. nothing wrong with it.

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7 PROVEN STEPS TO PLANNING, TEACHING, & ENGAGING YOUR STUDENTS

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