Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Your job or your life?

Yesterday while eating lunch at school with my usual lunch bunch I heard one of my colleagues bemoan the fact that when he left work last Friday at 3:30, he still had work left to finish.
I remember wondering what was so remarkable about his claim since bringing work home is and has been a part of my professional life since I began teaching 25 years ago. The man was clearly nonplussed by what he saw as an alarming trend. As if to underscore the injustice of it all, he added, "I already donate the district five hours a week as it is."
I mulled this statement over while chewing my sandwich. My colleague is not a fool; he chooses his words intentionally. I wondered therefore how seriously he meant this statement to be taken. In our lunch meetings it isn't unusual for someone to lob a rhetorical grenade and then sit back and see how much chaos ensues. I didn't bite at this one however, nor did anyone else for that matter. We moved on to the sports where I managed to provoke outrage over my claim that Pete Carroll was no longer the most overrated elite coach in college football since after losing to Stanford he could no longer be seriously considered an elite coach.
The next day, however, my colleague repeated verbatim his claim about "donating" five hours a week to the district. I decided not to let it pass unchallenged this time and so I asked him if he accepted the distinction between professional salaried work and hourly wage labor?
His response was that we have a labor contract, that we are paid a per diem rate, and that we have a clearly defined contract year and contract day. I give the district five extra hours every week and this year I still can't get my work done, he said. I didn't use to be that way.
In my whole career, I've never been able to finish my work withing the confines of the contract day, I said. We have professional responsibilities that must be fulfilled regardless.
I have a family to spend time with and a life to lead, he said.
Someone else in the room chimed in, I give lots of time, evenings and weekends. It's part of the job.
Try this sentence on for size, I said. We don't give the district our time; we don't donate our time. We're paid to do what we do. It's the difference between being a professional and being an hourly wage earner.
To this my colleague whose remark had triggered all of this responded, Put me on a time clock. I'd rather punch in and punch out than give my time away.
The conversation more or less ended along those lines and it left me wondering about the thread of my own career and the ways in which it has woven itself into the fabric of my life. I have struggled at times to keep it overtaking my life, from isolating me from my own family and friends, from ruining a marriage, from turning me into some kind of martyr on the altar of public service. By the same token, I've never ever really wanted to wall off my professional life from my personal life. For me teaching is too wrapped with who I am for me to treat it as nothing more than a job. It's a vocation. If I'm a sucker, so be it.
My colleague's hard line on this matter strikes me as a rationale for pretending that he is in fact going over and above the call of duty, that he is being exploited, when the truth is more likely that he has perfected an approach prizing efficiency that embodies minimum personal investment for maximum pay. His irritation over increasing work demands reminds me of the complaints I hear from some teachers when they have to change textbooks and thus rewrite their lesson plans. His system isn't as efficient as it once was, it needs attention and tweaking, which translated into more work for him, which of course is what his system is designed to prevent from happening. He demands from his system no less than getting out of the building every day with his desk cleared off and his mind unfettered by unfinished business.
My colleague is a job holder, a worker, an public employee...and a teacher.
So am I.


Anonymous erin said...

Wow, Dad. The difference between people who teach and teachers is a line that the rest of us don't understand very often. Thanks for being a teacher!

5:18 PM  
Anonymous Missy said...

Wow is right. I relate to this post deeply as an employee in a newsroom.* Many of the same issues, except we have a more defined way, perhaps, to gauge when our day is done: the daily deadline.

*I originally typed "employee at a newspaper," but remembered something that happened several years ago: corporate mandate that every newspaper start using time clocks. The executive editor at the time flat-out refused because the majority of newsroom employees are classified as professional and he did not want to demoralize his employees by making them clock in and out. Today, not one newsroom employee clocks in or out. The majority of employees in every other department do, however.

There's a big load of psychology that goes with the whole situation.

I've been known to say it would be a relief to have a clock-in type of job, the type that when you leave for the day, you don't give your work another thought until you clock in the next morning. But I know myself better than that. I don't think I could be happy with another kind of job.

As for your coworker, perhaps he should seek employment elsewhere that is a better fit for him.

7:36 PM  

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