aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Home Truths for the Home Room

I keep seeing memes posted by friends who are teachers (or who have teachers in their family) to the effect that it’s horrible that teachers spend so much of their personal money buying stuff to use in their classrooms. Sometimes, they seem to be making the point that the government spends too little on schools; sometimes, they seem to be making the point that they themselves are underpaid. Other memes gripe that teachers spend lots of hours on weekends and vacations grading papers or preparing for the next term. Behind the protests, however, there is an old question about teaching that has never been finally answered: is teaching a profession, or something else?

To give you some perspective, I am a retired minister. I spent over forty years pastoring churches, leading trips and retreats, and doing the grunt work of an elder in The United Methodist Church. I had to acquire a lot of fancy degrees and I was, by many people’s standards, underpaid – though I left any sense of grievance behind me years ago. I went into the ministry because it was what I felt called to do. And without taking away anything from my sense of a holy calling, I was also a professional.

I spent thousands of dollars a year out of my own pocket to do my ministry. I started back when we weren’t reimbursed for travel. And it was only my last charge where I finally wound up in an appointment where they reimbursed me for other ministry expenses and for Continuing Education. And still, I had unreimbursed mileage and expenses and CE over and above what I billed to that congregation. In 2016, my last full year in the pastorate, I spent more than $3500 over and above what I was reimbursed for mileage, routine business expenses, and CE. I never begrudged it. You see, I was a professional, and that’s what professionals do. They invest in gear and resources in order to do their work better. Doctors, lawyers, clergy, accountants – to be a professional is to invest in your work.

Another model of work is the craftsman or tradesman. This person may work for others or may hire oneself out directly, but either way, the craftsman owns his own tools and typically takes them from job to job. The cook brings his own knives, the musician owns her own instrument, the potter owns his own wheel and kiln, the mechanic puts a lock on his tool chest that is left behind at the employer’s site. These folks don’t have the fancy degrees that the learned professions do, but they are the medieval equivalent of professionals. The skilled tradesmen own their own tools (though they may also use those provided by an employer) and invest in their own work.

The laborer is different. The laborer (skilled or unskilled) just shows up. All tools are provided. The laborer only does the task, and only so long as one is paid. The professional and the craftsman will work unpaid hours to make themselves better at their work; the laborer must be paid even for his training. Historically, there is a huge difference in status between those who own their own tools and those who do not. The labor movement in America is made up of both craft unions (the old AFL) and labor unions (the CIO). And though “labor” has covered both kinds of work-for-wages, it hasn’t always been an easy amalgamation.

In any case, teachers (basically, public school teachers) have never figured out which kind of worker they are. Are they professionals? Then why are they unionized? And if they are union labor, are they craftsmen or laborers? Teachers want the high status that goes with the learned professions, but then gripe about what is expected of them, as if they were common laborers. I’m not trying to be snippy about it, but I have a hard time engaging my sympathy when I can’t figure out what teachers want to be.

My wife is a therapist. The new, Obama-era labor rules made her agency switch all the counselors to hourly employees. I told her she should leave upon the end of each work day and refuse to put in unpaid overtime. When everybody did that, the agency couldn’t get their paperwork (without which they don’t get paid) done, because there was more to do than could be accomplished in eight hours’ labor. So, they put my wife back on salary, because a professional assumes she will work until the task is done, even if that goes past the time notionally allotted for it.

So which is it? Is teaching a profession, a craft, or a job? Whichever it is, there are certain advantages and certain disadvantages that will accrue to it. But until you tell me what kind of work it is, I can’t know whether you’re getting a raw deal or crying for the moon. And when you’ve decided which it is, I’d like to see more posts about the things that you like about your profession/craft/job, rather than just what you don’t. Because if there are more things to complain about than to celebrate in your line of work, I’d suggest looking for a different way to make a living.

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