Thursday, March 19, 2015

Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Teachers (3 Nov. 2014)

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            I entered the Ed Biz in the late 1960s in large part because the government of the United States made me an offer that was difficult to refuse: I could be a teacher somewhere in the USA or (most likely given my size) tunnel rat with the Army of the United States in Vietnam.
            General Lewis B. Hershey, Director of the Selective Service System, made clear to the male youth of 1960s America that the law was "universal obligation" for us and "selective service" — with the criteria for selection dictated by the policies, needs, and interests of the United States. America needed teachers, especially young males as inner-city role models, so teaching could get a guy out of the draft.
            And so, for a while there, teaching in the US got a young-male subsidy to be added to the far longer-running and more important female subsidy: for a long time, nursing and teaching were two jobs a woman with brains could hold and remain respectable.
            Selective Service has been on idle with registration but no conscription for the last couple generations, and women in the US now have far better job opportunities than in the 1960s and for some five or six millennia before that.
            Like nursing, education has to compete now for bright young adults, and it is not surprising education is not doing all that well.
            Salaries have improved since I started out, but that was largely the result of unionization, and American unions are losing clout. And during The Great Recession, school administrations have shown that they will keep up teachers' salaries if they have to, but will do that while cutting expenses by reducing teaching staff: firing the untenured and "letting people go" for "financial exigency" for those with seniority.
            There has always been anti-intellectualism in the US, and teachers have had trouble getting respect. It wasn't just, "Those who can do; those who can't teach" but also the idea of teaching as "women's work" when the non-child-producing labor of women was radically undervalued — plus the idea that teaching is not really work at all: "Oh, do you teach, or do you work?"
            Nowadays things are particularly bad because of deprofessionalization in a wide swath of American life. It's increased equality, I guess, but that's about the only up-side for all but Management when physicians and lawyers, mid-level executives and engineers are reduced from fairly independent professionals to "professional employees" — and then just employees, to be managed and supervised.
            And managed and supervised ever more closely. To cite one extreme: When a condition of employment is having to urinate in a cup while someone watches, people aren't seeing you as a person whose dignity has to be respected.
            Americans today often value schooling and credentials and applicable forms of cleverness. General Hershey had taught for a while at Ohio State University, and I think he actually respected education. In any event, he thought that an American teacher might be as valuable as a hunter-down and (with luck) killer of highly motivated Viet Cong. It was a weird kind of compliment that draft deferment, but it was one I treasured at the time and still appreciate.
            Some people have a fairly literal sort of calling, and teaching is the one thing they want to do with their lives. I for one generally enjoyed teaching and got good student evaluations for enthusiasm — but most of us aren't borderline obsessives in having a vocation and can find what joys we will find in various ways. If teaching doesn't offer job security, dignity, respect as a professional, some autonomy and a chance to get your job done — all of which are related — then competent young people will go into jobs that may not be any better in most ways, but require less preparation and hassle, and can pay a lot more.

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