Friday, February 25, 2011

I work here

Twice this week I've had conversations with students in which I have found myself clarifying, in one way or another, that the place they think of as school is actually where I work.  For example, seven fourteen year old girls run screaming down the hall at lunch in a pitch that should only be heard by dogs.  Feeling curmugeonly, I walk out in the hall, tell them to stop and add, as they are walking away, "I work here, you know?"

They stared at me as though I was some sort of exotic South American bird and then mumbled "Sorry, miss" and walked away.

In the same vein, one of my students suddenly discovered yesterday that I had business cards on my desk.  "Hey!  You have business cards!" he observed.  Why this came as a surprise is unclear, as he has been in my class for a month, but we'll take what we can get.

"Yes, because I work here" I explained. 

"But the other teachers don't have business cards.  That's why I was surprised.  Why don't the other teachers have business cards?"

Okay, so the kid has a point.  Realistically, the answer to his question is that I made my business cards myself because my school email address is 900 characters long, features elements of my name that even my mom only used when I was really in trouble and ends in an acronym that would confuse some astrophysicists.  So the fact that I have business cards is mostly a result of my ability to operate Word templates and a laser printer. 

Most people do understand that teaching is a job.  As in, we show up each day, get paid to be there, and eventually, we leave.  The piece of this that is missing is the recognition that schools, in addition to being schools, are also workplaces. 

It's this fact that nearly caused my head to explode on the day that a group of thoughtful parents decided to arm the kids with an impressive array of dollar-store toys, turning my otherwise sedate sixth period class into a small army of teenage noisemaking machines apparently sent for the sole purpose of creating a countywide run on Excedrin Migraine.  I was displeased.  One brave student dared to ask why.

"Because this is my job!  How would your mom feel if I let all 30 of you loose in her office with those things?"

Being good teenagers, they insisted that Mom wouldn't mind at all.  They did get my drift, however, and managed to stow the assorted pinata innards after I threatened to take them all away and stash them in my desk until June. 

The fact that people don't think of schools as workplaces, but rather as some kind of oversized storage locker where persons between the ages of 4 and 18 are kept during the hours of 7:00 AM and 3:00 PM is evident in the lack of attention to one particular aspect of the ongoing debate about unions and collective bargaining in Ohio and Wisconsin.  Everyone wants to talk about is the list that follows:
  1. Wages
  2. Benefits
  3. Pensions
  4. The right to collectively bargain
And waaaaaaaaay down at the bottom of this list in teensy print is the thing that teachers should absolutely be talking the most about in the debate: working conditions.

Why is nobody mentioning this?  Surely some PR wonk somewhere has thought: "Hey!  Teachers' working conditions are students learning conditions!  Genius!  Let's talk about that!"

Think about it: teachers' working conditions mean things like:
  • How many kids there are in each class
  • What percentage of these kids have identified learning differences
  • How many hours in a row a teacher can work without being given a chance to pee
  • How much time teachers are pulled away from classes for meetings
  • How many different courses a teacher can be expected to prepare to teach in any given year
  • How much time teachers are given to plan with other teachers in order to improve instruction
Not being able to bargain over working conditions is, simply put, not being able to effectively advocate for the percentage of the population that cannot vote.  Why aren't we talking about this?  First, because in all of the recent debate about education, the voices of individual teachers, the powerful voices of the people who really know how things work (and don't work) in a 21st century classroom are missing.  Why?  We're busy.  We're teaching more and more kids with greater and greater needs every day. 

Why else?  We haven't found a way to make the reality of these working conditions and the impact that they have on students' learning visible to people who aren't in classrooms every day.  It's not quantifiable.  It's not a line on a budget.  It's hard to explain to people who don't face children every day.  But if what we do every day is to be understood, we must talk about what we do and why we do it every day. 

Describing our working conditions and demanding control over them is not "whining" as some are prone to argue.  It is a public service: we are reminding them that teachers and students are the ones doing the work of education every day.  If anyone should need a further reminder as to why these conditions matter, I would be happy to donate some kazoo-wielding tenth graders to the cause.

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