Friday, September 4, 2015

Enabling the Machine

Over at Slate, Bryce Covert was critical of teachers at Chester Uplands who went to work without pay. Covert was not the only person in the world to make that criticism, and I'm not unsympathetic. Teachers are terrific team players, and that impulse sometimes leads us to enable the institutions in which we work.

At times, I find that a little infuriating. Here's an example of how it sometimes works:

The administration fails to properly schedule teachers to cover a particular group of students. So teachers, on their own, give up some of their lunch period in order to cover the gap. Three months later, the teachers are irritated at their short lunch. "Why," they complain, "doesn't the office fix this problem?"

The answer is simple. The office doesn't fix the problem because it doesn't have a problem. The teachers with the short lunch have a problem, but the office's problem is totally solved. And met needs do not motivate.

It is not an easy line to draw. Teachers are professionals, and our job is to see and address the problems around us, not mutter, "That's not my job, man," and move on. At the same time, school districts are always short on resources, and without being nefarious, they will gladly take every piece of free work that teachers want to donate. There are school systems where the local union has no need to call a strike, because if they simply worked to contract (did exactly what the contract called for and no more) the district would come to a screeching halt.

This is why teachers and unions often end up fighting their district over seemingly stupid things. "Could everybody just come in ten minutes early every day this year," doesn't seem like a huge request, but it may well be the latest peak on a camel-based mountain.

Sometimes teachers have to let the system fail. If your administration is implementing a policy that will create systemic failure, you need to let them do it, and you need to put on your big girl passive-aggressive pants and let the chips collapse where they may-- because otherwise the problem will not get fixed. You may have to let things get bad for a few students today in order to hundreds of students in the future to be saved. Because, truly, going to your administration and saying, "I'm making a personal sacrifice to fix this and the extra effort makes me sad," will not cause your administration to leap into action. They will only hear one thing-- "The problem is fixed." You might just as well wait for your principal to go demand that the board reimburse you for the $500 of your own money that you spent on supplies.

Teachers work on the event horizon of a giant black hole of need, and you have to draw the line somewhere or be sucked in. "Somewhere" will always be something seemingly small and petty, because teachers are most often worn down by the death of a thousand cuts, not a single huge issue (though, as in the case of Chester Uplands, huge issues certainly do come).

Should we never ever enable the system? Of course not. Taking ownership of the problems within our sphere is healthy and good for us professionally. So is holding our school leaders accountable. So is taking care of ourselves so that work does not drain us dry (because, remember, we will never be enough).

Do other jobs deal with this? Sure. In fact, the feds just proposed a change to rules for non-salaried employees because employers were taking so much advantage (think a "salaried" restaurant manager who makes $20K for an 80 hour week). I know nurses who tell stories just as self-sacrificey as those told by kindergarten teachers. Is it a professional thing? Try this-- the next time you're in the doctors office with one kid, ask him to treat your other child for free since you're already there. As a plumber to work a few hours more just for free just because you need it.*

Every time we make the call, context and the circumstances matter. Is it a problem administration could fix, or is it beyond their control? Will this be a short-term patch, or will there be long-term consequences to the system? Will holding the line just end up making my own job harder? Are administrators doing their best and coming up short, or are they just being jerks? Are we treated as valuable team members or just being taken advantage of? Can we live with the fix we're considering, or will it be too much of a drain on our personal resources? And most of all, what are the implications for the students?

Covert doesn't approve of the Chester Uplands teacher decision because she feels it further devalues the profession, reinforcing the idea that teaching is women's work and therefor less valuable and not even worthy of pay. She has a point. But the district is the victim of state-level politics and finance well out of its own control. Starting the school year late (which is what's really on the table) will ultimately screw up the teachers' own schedule and make their own jobs harder. And Chester Uplands finds itself on the front lines of the battle for public education, with plenty of folks hoping they'll fold so that public schools can be shut down and swept away. As one commenters said, this is an act of defiance, not capitulation.

The decision about whether or not to enable the machine is never easy and often personal, and sometimes stepping in and taking ownership of a problem that isn't technically yours can be the path to empowerment and making a real, positive change in the system. But it always comes with a price-- just make sure you have a good idea of what cost you're paying, and what you're really getting for your troubles.

*This paragraph somehow was dropped in the initial posting


  1. When I first entered teaching as a second career, it was the most surprising thing to find how much the "exempt employee" thing was abused by administration. My wife is an elementary teacher and I think they have it worst. Not going the extra mile and giving your own resources to fix district problems often literally results in harming little children. I think some districts are fully aware of this and gladly let the emotional burden these teachers feel motivate them to routinely do things for their employer no reasonable person in another profession would even consider.

    1. And then the real fun starts when, after making heroic measures a part of your normal operating procedure for decades, you hear how much politicians and the general public despise you because you get paid a lower-middle class salary and have health insurance.

  2. I wish I had written this. Grateful that you did. It articulates a complicated problem very precisely.