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Teaching. A miserable job?

On the surface, thinking about teaching as a miserable job seems ludicrous. You have all heard it from your non-teaching friends and relatives:

  1. Teachers get full-time pay for part-time work (180 days)
  2. Summers off
  3. In many cases, tenure, guaranteeing continued employment
  4. Assurance of annual incremental pay increases

Although the teachers among us might point out flaws in the statements above, when compared to other ways to make a living, teaching is a pretty good gig.

Upon closer examination, I am prepared to argue that teaching in public schools might fit at least one definition of a miserable job. Michael Lencioni, author of the well-known tome Five Dysfunctions of a Team, has written a book called The Three Signs of a Miserable Job. In this book, Lencioni identifies the conditions that lead to a job being characterized as miserable. The three conditions are anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurability.

Anonymity: As a characteristic of teaching, anonymity is overlooked. After all, we conduct our work in the presence of others, the students. We work in a public institution and meet with parents and other staff members. Think about anonymity differently. Our certification and licensure is predicated on the notion that we are interchangeable. Our district’s can move us around (under negotiated conditions) as is we are replacement parts in a repair shop. Further, I have heard it said that teaching in the public schools is the most private job a person can have. Once the students arrive, the door closes and teachers are alone. Teachers are left alone to resolve classroom issues, figure out how to manage new accountability requirements, and implement new initiatives. One educational observer got it right when he stated that teachers are a group of independent contractors that share a parking lot.

Irrelevance: Employees have to know how their efforts impact the larger organization. Bumper sticker slogans like “If you can read this, thank a teacher” do not begin to strike at the heart at irrelevance. An assembly line worker might get to know the transmission assembly very well, but still have little understanding of how cars are assembled. Similarly, teachers get to know the curriculum of their grade level or subject very well, yet do not get insight into the part it plays in the overall education of a student. Perhaps the biggest blow to relevance comes from the increased deployment of “managed curriculum.” These pre-packaged instructional programs rely upon scripted instructions followed by activities and assessments created far away from the classrooms where they are to be used. More and more, we have created situations where the classroom teacher’s creativity, innovation, and skill are irrelevant.

Immeasurability: Perhaps the most paradoxical of all of signs of miserable jobs, increased accountability demands have not led to increased measurability of our craft. The link between quality instruction and student achievement is complex, to try to measure it with a single metric (student performance on high stakes tests) is extremely unwise. Being left to your own devices to determine how well you are doing your job is a recipe for disaster. Current evaluation and assessment structures do little to provide effective feedback about teaching performance. Similarly, the supervision structure in public schools is ill-suited to promote teacher growth. Finally, the profession of teaching provides little incentive for members to continually increase their skills.

I think that I have laid out a decent case for how the profession of teaching meets the three signs identified by Lencioni. Even though they meet the criterion, I still do not believe teaching to be a miserable job. I offer this post in hopes that we can raise awareness of the dangers of disengaging, and perhaps losing, the very people that can cause schools to improve--the teachers.

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