Picture you’re a manager. Your boss has assigned a series of projects to get done on tight timelines. You’ve got a team of twenty-three to make this happen. The problem is, none of them have the skills they need to realize the defined goals; more than a few of them don’t want to be there or don’t understand the value of the work. You are strictly not permitted to fire any of them; you have no option but to pull every trick in your book and any other book you can find to motivate your troops and get the work done on time.
Adding to your pressure, your boss is a big fan of all the latest business management fads; you have to attend pretty much each and every seminar that comes along. Some might be helpful (while others, not so much), but regardless, the more time you spend away from your team the less engaged they are – and the less plugged-in you are to their progress. The boss also has an endless stream of innovations he/she wants you to implement; new office configurations, new terminology, tieless Tuesdays and pizza Fridays.
You’ve tried to explain to the boss that these new bits he/she keeps throwing at you might sound nice, but they’re really taking away from your true purpose – complete the projects. As deadlines approach and you can see that the work is falling behind, you become increasingly stressed about the never-ending stream of seminars.
On top of this, the company’s Board of Directors is offering mixed messages; you’re not sure whether the priority is timelines or results, process or product. The shareholders are getting antsy; they don’t understand the work you do and only have vague, conflicting notions of what the end product should be. Some of the shareholders actively resent that your salary and benefits are costing them money.
Do some word replacement and add yard-duty, crisis counselor, breaker-upper-of-fights, mentor, stand-in-parent and social worker and you’re starting to look at the job of teacher.
Stone In the Soup
I have several family members who are teachers. I also have a son who is in full-day day care (paid for by us parents, not the taxpayer). Over the years, I have done the odd stint of teaching English as a Second Language both in foreign countries and here in Canada to newcomers. I can tell you this – it’s one of the most cognitively challenging jobs there are. In other fields, you might might be faced with a series of candle problems requiring out-of-the-box solutions (this is true of politics). In social work, there are front-line service providers trained to help people with problems that are largely personal and often heartbreaking. You have role-defined resource managers, security officers, communications specialists, human resource managers and project managers. In the classroom, they’re all hats worn by one person.
Yes, teaching pays a decent salary and yes, teachers get the summer off (though many of them would be comfortable with longer seasons of training, so long as sufficient breaks were built in). Firefighters and police officers get paid decently, too, but it is recognized that to do the job effectively, these folk need the right supports. Since there is little consensus on what defines a good education, the support piece is a real challenge.
Think about this for a second. The service teachers provide is preparing our youth (tomorrow's doctors, entrepreneurs, community leaders and front-line service providers) for the future. That means ensuring they have the knowledge and experience necessary to apply themselves to society. It's a job description shared in part by parents or guardians, spiritual advisors, coaches and peers. There’s no clear distinction between these roles – meaning kids are faced with all kinds of conflicts (or, as you’d call them in a business setting, duplication, gaps and overlaps):
- Parents and guardians are ultimately responsible for their children’s well-being, but are they responsible for their long-term success? Most parents aren’t trained in parenting techniques, nor are they familiar with the variable cognitive/physical/social development models that exist. They likely don’t have general expertise in math, reading and writing comprehension, social skills, language, creative development or team management, either.
- Spiritual advisors are often responsible for educating children about a specific theology as well as related morality, overlapping with parents. As we live in an increasingly multicultural society and because spiritual teaching methods haven’t necessarily adapted with the times – AND because not every kid goes to church/mosque/temple/etc – this is a role with little accepted definition or parameters.
- Coaches are responsible for niche activities – piano lessons, hockey practice, homework help. Not everyone can afford coaches for their kids, nor is every coach properly trained to offer the service they do. What are the pros and cons of coaching?
- Peers are not seen as teachers; most frequently they’re seen as “good” or “bad” influences. Research (and lived experience, which we can all relate to) has demonstrated how fundamentally important peer peer relations are for the social development of our youth.
Teachers must share their duty with each one of these parties, being respectful to each. Ultimately, though, teachers are held accountable for the net product of all these influences. That’s a tricky balancing act, one that CEOs get paid big bucks to manage. Yet, teachers aren’t in it for the money. Much like parenting, you don’t go through that level of stress, uncertainty and aggravation for the financial reward; the pay-off is in meaning, in helping to nurture young people into self-reliant, capable adults ready to contribute their maximum potential to society.
Mind Your Training
The fiscal hawks out there will balk at this; teachers aren’t CEOs, they will say; students aren’t employees. In the world of work, it’s up to employees to prove and earn their worth with managers’ jobs being to simply provide direction. Teachers just have to teach - get the kids to listen and make sure they pass the tests. Perhaps we should add psychologist to the teacher’s collection of hats.
This is not an unusual point of view that shows just how little we value and understand the roles of training and (here it is again) peer support. The education system likes the catchphrase lifelong learning – education is a never ending process. The best of leaders understand this, but again, leadership is not something well understood by the majority of people, including leaders. Leadership isn’t about carrots and sticks; it’s about empowering your employees (or students) and providing them with the necessary training to grow in their roles.
We fail to understand this at our own peril. In an increasingly integrated society, education isn’t about learning how to compete with and better one’s peers; it’s about how to collaborate, compromise and provide value to the complex solutions required for today’s complex challenges. We get that bullying in schools is harmful, but overlook the consequences of bullying at work. Understanding how to motivate positive, collaborative behaviour and fostering active learning skills, of course, are at the very heart of teaching.
Our society is buckling under the strain of our current, dog-eat-dog model of work. Low levels of job satisfaction are negatively impacting performance; work-related health and mental health factors are exacerbating this problem, adding to the cost burden on our social and health care service costs. That bears repeating; mental illness and mental health-related strains are costing our public service system (and therefore, the taxpayer) billions of dollars.
The hawks will chirp in again, saying that we simply have a culture of wimps that have to learn to suck it up. It’s is a dog-eat-dog world out there; they need to be prepared for it. Teachers need to prepare them for it. If those teachers can’t, well, maybe they should be doing something else. To these hawks, I ask; why so bitter? How does that bitterness impact your world view and your relationships with others? Congratulations, you now have personal evidence to support my argument. Now, picture the impacts of this accumulated stress, uncertainty and public disdain often felt by teachers; care to research the social costs in productivity or health from work-related stress on teachers?
We live with a shape-up-or-ship-out mentality that doesn’t fit our social reality because, frankly, nobody is shipping out; the disenfranchised are still here, on our streets, in community housing projects, or straining to make ends meet and keep their houses (and families) in order. We’re not going to export or lock up the poor; you can’t resolve presenteeism through force. It’s our approach, not our people, that is exacerbating the problem. If you don’t believe me, go ask Don Drummond.
Whether we identify them as such or not, teachers are managers, CEOs, team-leaders. In the private sector, people in such positions get paid oodles more than public teachers do, plus have a broader range of perks. Fortunately, teachers aren’t looking for those perks; again, they’re not in the business of teaching for money, but for meaning. The problems that school boards and governments face in trying to find balance with teachers unions (and vice versa) is when they try to make negotiations about carrots and sticks; what teachers want is to be valued, to see their work valued, to have the best possible resources to do their job and to know that their peers have faith in their ability to do the job well.
In short, the approach that results in happy, effective teachers is the same one that applies to happy, engaged students. It’s not surprising, then, that this same approach is slowly creeping into the workplace with the intent of fostering happier, more engaged, more innovative employees and facilitate employee retention.
We don’t need teachers that act more like CEOs; what we really need are CEOs that act more like teachers. That, in a nice, circular way, clearly demonstrates what lifelong learning is all about.
PS – Here’s an idea worth pursuing. Reporters, particularly those who have issues with teacher unions and teacher salaries, should spend a couple days in a classroom – with the teacher there as observer, only. These reporters would be responsible for creating and implementing lesson plans on a given topic for those two days. If you’re going to write about teaching, after all, it only makes sense to roll up your sleeves and give it a try. I'll tell you now - there's nothing more challenging or rewarding than trying to build a better future.