Saturday, October 06, 2007

Why work when you could teach?

A study in ignorant jealousy
“Most teachers are in it for the easy money.”
—My idiot uncle
I have a timorous colleague whose attacks of angst can be contagious. He's conscientious to the point of overzealousness, but this time his concerns are more disturbing and frightening than usual. He thinks that the general public could be out to get us, and I fear he might be right.

A former member of the California state assembly has filed a measure that “reforms” the retirement system for public employees. The sponsor is a Republican, which might tip you off that “reform” is a euphemism for “slash.” Keith Richman failed in an earlier attack on the California Public Employees' Retirement System when he was incautious enough to make its provisions apply to law enforcement officers and firefighters as well. Having inserted some new provisions to exempt the more popular public employees, Richman is back with a new initiative for 2008. CalPERS and the California State Teachers' Retirement System are in his cross hairs again.

The sponsors of the initiative want to simultaneously lower retirement benefits and raise the retirement age, so it's a double whammy. My trepidatious colleague has anecdotal evidence that the politics of resentment could provoke his neighbors and acquaintances to vote in favor of the supposed reform. His reasoning gives pause to even the most stolid among us.

Like my idiot uncle, who opined in my presence that teaching was a profession for lazybones, many people deduce from meager data that teachers have it easy and don't deserve much in the way of salary or retirement benefits. Those who can, you know, do. Those who can't, well, they teach. Ha, ha, ha, ha!

I'd like to see them try.

The meager data include our supposed work hours. As a California community college faculty member, my mandatory minimum load is fifteen class hours. Sure sounds better than a forty-hour work week, doesn't it? The fifteen hours may comprise any combination from three five-unit classes to five three-unit classes, resulting in an aggregate student load varying from about 120 students to 200. In addition to the fifteen class hours, we are required to hold five office hours per week for student assistance outside of the classroom. These days, of course, students do not need to be able to attend office hours physically since they can readily e-mail us or post to discussion groups for the increasing number of classes that have those. If you're keeping track, the fifteen class hours and the five office hours add up to twenty hours per week. Still looking good, right?

It is good, but it's sure as heck isn't easy. These twenty hours are the hours that require us to be in certain places at certain times. They are nowhere near enough to cover the responsibilities that accompany our teaching load. Teachers understand this, but lots of innocent (or ignorant) bystanders do not. My colleague routinely gets snarky comments from neighbors who see him at home in the early afternoon. (I presume they must be retirees if they're home, too. If they were teachers, they'd understand.) What the resentful neighbors don't know, thinking back on their eight-hour days in the midst of the rat race, is that my colleague and I have flexibility, but we don't have freedom. We haul stacks of paper home to read and grade (an especially onerous task for our colleagues with lab reports or essays, which are typically much harder to correct than math quizzes and tests). We often prepare our lessons and our handouts at home where the distractions may be fewer than at school, where it's easy to get recruited for “other duties as required,” including hiring committees (weekends spent reading applications), curriculum review (one could as easily read encyclopedias for recreation), and informal office hours (most of us do not turn away students when they catch us in our offices outside of the official hours). We all routinely perform some of those non-teaching duties.

As George Bush used to say, “It's hard work.”

The teaching profession has its privileges. I am keenly aware and appreciative of them. But opportunities for laziness aren't really among these privileges, because every laid-back afternoon or morning exacts its penalty from us by piling up the stacks of work into the other hours of the day. We normally spend a lot of time on our feet, running to and from classes, standing up and lecturing or roaming around helping our students' working groups or lab teams. When we get back to our offices, we heave a sigh of relief as we sit down, just like most stand-up workers who make it to the break room, but even then we must be ready to deal with students and colleagues, either personally or electronically. The electronic connection even follows us home, of course.

Never a dull moment.

Please note that I am recounting my own experiences, which come from the blessed position of a math professor—someone who has neither labs (for which professors typically get only one hour's credit for three hours' work) nor heavy equipment (go see my auto-tech colleagues) to manage. I'm in the sweet spot of higher education and yet I work like crazy. A stack of 300 pages of calculus exam awaits my attention on the coffee table. Good thing I plowed through half of those pages on Friday night. The other half will occupy a good chunk of Saturday. Then I'll move on to the quizzes from my other three classes (another hundred pages or so).

The example of my idiot uncle and my colleague's disapproving neighbors shows us that we teachers have an additional educational burden. We have to instruct people about what we do. Although we take home as much work as any overachieving young lawyer hoping to make partner, most people just see us as being at home, not working at home. I'll be working all weekend, thank you very much. Would it help if I built a glass office on my front porch so the neighbors could see how much time I put in? Ugh. (That would leach a lot of the fun out of working in your bathrobe.)

In closing, I'd like you to notice that I've not said a word about elementary school teachers like my sister, who work longer hours for less pay—the heroes of public education. No doubt they'll just get fat and lazy if we don't trim their retirement packages and force them to work several more years to qualify for even that.

Reform? Hell! Go there, Keith Richman. Go there now.


Megan said...

This is so true. I am currently part time at a University, my husband is full time at a community college. Between us, there's only one day we absolutely have to have our child in daycare, but we have her in 4 half days total just so we can get some work done. I work after she's asleep (napping, or at night) on lab reports, papers, exams/quizzes (which some people forget have to be written *and* graded! Often, writing good questions takes as much time as grading the essays). My husband spends much of his weekend days preparing lectures, grading lab reports, creating new lab reports as new labs are designed (by him, in his "free" time), and writing/grading exams. Just because we're taking the baby for a walk at 3pm doesn't mean we're lazy. I really do appreciate the flexibility, but sometimes I really envy people who have jobs that don't follow them home every day.

Anonymous said...

"... teaching was a profession for lazybones, many people deduce from meager data that teachers have it easy and don't deserve much in the way of salary or retirement benefits..." This is an ignorant statement. I too thought teaching would be easy. I was teaching at the junior college and it was one of the toughest jobs I've ever had. Sure, if you're a lazy ass and don't want to work or make a difference with these kids you can skate for a couple of years, but if you want to be a good teacher that takes a lot of constant work and training. The acquisition of a masters degree does not qualify one to be a teacher. I have a lot of respect for the profession and I think teachers deserve better treatment and higher wages.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, and what about "teachers", or faculty as we're known, at big public universities. How about managing a group of 15-20 graduate students, the associated NIH grants, service (committees, NIH study sections), teaching (300 students/quarter), AND trying to mow your lawn.

We get paid so much! There hasn't been one year where the amount of grant money has not exceeded my salary, and recently, the indirect costs (i.e., overhead) is typically two to three times my salary.

It's a great job, so let the morons rage. They are morons, afterall.


Big-10 University