Other Duties as Assigned (Part IV)
Some thoughts about "unemployment" and anti-labor sentiment.
The labor of love, in short, is a con.
-Sarah Jaffe, Work Won’t Love You Back
According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the US unemployment rate is currently 3.8%. BLS defines this rate as “the percentage of the labor force that is unemployed—receive wide coverage in the media”.
The word “employment” contains an implicit value judgment. To employ means to put to use, to utilize. An employee, in this framing, is a useful tool; to be unemployed is to be neglected or possibly rejected from use, to be unused or useless.
And to be employed is a passive-voice construction, with who or what is employing you (and for what purpose) left unstated. The fact that BLS and other official government sources use and formally define the term unemployment suggests that our society has a set of powerful preconceptions about the nature of work, one that implicitly makes workers the object and those who pay and manage workers the unseen subject.
To be self-employed, in this framing, might project a kind of hubris: without your betters to determine your use and worth, how would you know how best to use your own skills and abilities?
Certainly, this attitude saturated much of my work experience as a teacher, and never more so than in the pandemic era. I once worked for a superintendent who told me that he wasn’t concerned about teacher retention during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic because “people need insurance”. After initially allowing employees to work from home, that district— like many others— required employees to come into school buildings even when there were no students in the building. This was when we still knew almost nothing about the virus and the way it was transmitted, before a vaccination was available, and while many in the community were sick and dying. When a teacher asked about this in a Facebook Live event, the superintendent merely laughed; later, after apparent pushback, the district communications director told me that the reason teachers had been required to work form the building is that there was a perception among district office staff that parents might think we weren’t really working if we were working remotely.
To be fair, I can buy that parents might have felt this way, because American work culture seems to view compensation as tradeoff for suffering. Work has to be difficult, and compensation isn’t merely a trade for goods or services, but a reward for that suffering.
(It should be noted, of course, than many workers, including those with the most dangerous proximity to many people, never had any opportunity to work from home; they either had to risk contracting a potentially deadly virus, or lose their jobs.)
The same district, like others, denied work-from-home accommodations to people with high-risk conditions, including advanced-stage cancer. The superintendent later quipped, in a livestream from the district office that was viewed by all certified staff in the district, that year that employees had “gotten too casual” during that year. (Meanwhile, my understanding is that many district office workers continued to work remotely on a regular basis, even into the next year.)
I don’t think this superintendent was that much of an outlier in American work culture. As Sarah Jaffe writes in the preface to the paperback edition of her book Work Won’t Love You Back,
Precious Cole, a McDonald’s employee in Durham, North Carolina, shrugged off the idea that expanded unemployment benefits were some kind of problem. “Why would people go back to a job that doesn’t treat them fairly, that’s paying them poverty wages, that doesn’t want to hear anything they have to say?” she asked. She and so many other workers, deemed “essential” while their managers retreated behind office doors, had continued to show up to serve food. They were the ones who ran the business and who had been briefly lauded for their courage during the terrifying early pandemic days.
The idea that employment is a gift bestowed by your superiors is one that certainly benefits management, whether they are consciously creating that mythology or just passively receiving it (and I think most are passively receiving it, with little or no reflection or skepticism). It suggests that you should be grateful to have a job at all, not matter what that job is. It suggests that to do otherwise is shameful.
And as Jaffe points out, the profession of teaching complicates this idea of work even further:
Teachers… have long been expected to treat their job as more than just as job. From the beginning of publicly funded schooling in the United States (and Europe), teachers have been pressed to treat their work as a calling, to dedicate long hours outside of the classroom to it, and to do this out of care for their students. Yet such expectations have existed in tension with the idea that teachers’ skills are little more than a “natural” inclination to care for children, rooted in a love that is simultaneously too big and too important to be fairly remunerated. Like the work done in the home— paid or unpaid— teachers’ work is considered both necessary and not really work at all.
This attitude is part and parcel of most of the anti-union and anti-labor sentiment I see online. A ridiculous narrative that “teacher’s unions” (which don’t even have to be actual unions in this context: I’ve seen the term applied to many local associations without collective bargaining rights in “right to work” states like Texas and South Carolina, even to those which are not affiliated with a national union) exist to absorb resources that “should be going to children”. Teachers who belong to “teacher’s unions” have replaced the love they should feel for children with a kind of selfishness. Of course, educators fund their own unions and associations by paying dues, and in many states those dues are optional.
This particular anti-labor narrative also rests on the untested assumption that organizations that advocate on behalf of education employees cannot also have the best interests of children at heart. But, again, this neglects to take into account that if the organizations are financed and, in the case of elected union leadership, run by, educators, there’s a very good chance they institutionally value what educators believe is good for children, too. Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions is not only a truism, but a piece of common sense.
And, in leaving the profession, I am not much of an outlier among teachers. In it’s most recent data, South Carolina’s Center for Educator Retention and Recruitment (CERRA) reported a 39% increase in teacher vacancies for the 2022-23 school year, up from a recorded high the previous year. And this is despite the fact that the overall number of teacher positions had shrunk (probably because districts combined and/ or did away with positions, often resulting in higher class sizes, fewer choices of electives and other courses, and fewer services for students). CERRA also reported that there were 22% fewer new hires than in the previous year from our state colleges of education, part of an ongoing trend: not surprisingly, fewer and fewer people want to go into the education profession.
South Carolina, like many states, has addressed this historic shortage of people willing to teach by… not really doing anything productive. In fact, state legislators have significantly ramped up the anti-teacher rhetoric. As in Washington, the Republican party in SC is being dragged to the right by a bunch of inexperienced lawmakers calling themselves the “Freedom Caucus,” and pretty clearly receiving aid and talking points from the national Freedom Caucus Network. Pay increases haven’t caught up with the cost of living, the teacher wage penalty is at an all-time high, and our State Superintendent of Education has weaponized the testimony of educators to the state Recruitment and Retention Taskforce (which, as required by a state budget proviso, was convened by her own department) as an excuse to cut ties with the state’s school librarian association.
All of this is to say that it’s not especially noteworthy that I didn’t go back to my teaching job this year.
Technically, I’m not unemployed; I have arrogantly put myself to use. I’ve been writing a lot, and getting paid a small amount for some of it. Thanks to generous subscribers (many of them teachers who, like me, probably don’t have a ton of extra money to spend), I have been able to continue writing this newsletter each week. I’ve been recording music for myself and others, and at some point streamers will pay me fractions of a penny for each stream. I’ve been playing shows with my band and making decent money for original instrumental music (which is to say, it won’t become my main source of income any time soon).
I’ve worked formal jobs pretty regularly since I was fifteen or sixteen. The first time I was truly “unemployed” for a few months was when I was laid off from a teaching job during the last recession. That was a very difficult time. At that age, having that job was such a central part of my developing identity that I felt totally unmoored. I didn’t know what to do with the hours in the day. I was overcome with anxiety about what to do next. After applying for a series of jobs for which my masters in teaching seemed to make me either under- or overqualified, I defaulted into becoming a long-term substitute teacher after about a month.
This bout with unemployment has been different in many ways, though it has also been difficult at times. I was very depressed at the beginning of the summer, as various promising job opportunities fell through and I wondered if I had made the right choice. I was overcome by an anxiety that I wouldn’t ever find something, that my savings would run out, that I wouldn’t be able to contribute enough to our mortgage payment or bills, that we would have to sell our house. Given the relatively large amount I had been able to save over the years, always planning a possible exit from the profession, these were irrational fears, but I imagine they weren’t unusual.
But I also soon felt a sense of peace around the decision I didn’t expect. And it wasn’t about whether or not I “loved” being a teacher. It just seemed obvious that something had to give, and if it wasn’t the job, it was going to be something more important. On Christmas, I was sick with COVID (not sick enough to be hospitalized, but sick enough to be miserable). A few months later, I was still having long bouts of extreme fatigue and other likely symptoms of “long COVID”. I found myself sitting in a doctor’s office contemplating possible long-term heart issues. Thankfully, further tests would show that my heart seemed to be okay. The fatigue mostly went away with time, rest, lots of leafy green vegetables, medication, and the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to go back to school this year.
Leaving teaching didn’t solve all my problems, and it created some new ones. But I have more energy now, I feel more optimistic about the future, and I feel like my time and labor actually belong to me now. I may go back into the profession, because it had its own significant rewards, almost despite the best efforts of many state and district political leaders— most importantly, intellectual challenges and a confidence that I was doing something that was meaningful to me— but had I stayed this year, I’m fairly certain I would have burned out and would have left anyway, unable to come back.
American work culture in general, as far as I can tell, and the public education system in particular, rely heavily on a specific view of the meaning of work. This view isn’t a given, and it isn’t the way we’ve always done it, and it isn’t the way every culture does it.
This perspective is premised, at least in part, on fear, and on an acceptance of exploitation. The fear is that we will become useless, both practically and spiritually. The acceptance of exploitation means we will take for granted that we will only be able to afford healthcare if we are offered insurance by an employer, that we will see compensation for work— including benefits— as a kind of largesse from an employer, rather than as a fair exchange for agreed-upon services. Obviously, some of these premises are true for many people, and will remain so unless we collectively push to change our working conditions and the perspectives on work that underlie those conditions.
As I’ve written before, in my state the teacher contract is so laughably one-sided it shouldn’t be called a contract. And the codified consequences, created by the state legislature, are designed to penalize educators who in fact treat it like a contract— that is, like a document constituting an agreement between two parties. If districts fail to meet their obligations (which are almost nothing), the employee has no ability to break the context and find work elsewhere, without losing their teaching license.
And that, fundamentally, is why I am “unemployed”. Not because I didn’t like teaching— on most days, I really did— but because my mental and physical health didn’t allow me to give up any more opportunities to do something better for myself and my family by promising another 190 days of my life without any expectation of specific compensation, without any reason to think my own health and well-being would be protected, or even that applicable state and federal labor laws (the few that protected my interests) would necessarily be obeyed. (Since the people most directly involved in much of this are no longer with the district, I’m leaving this deliberately a little vague.)
As an education advocate, then, I have to wonder if there is anything useful to do with this information. The truth is that I see dark times ahead for the idea of public education, primarily because it is so fundamentally tied to the idea of representative democracy. And that idea of representative democracy seems to be objectively threatened right now, often by the same people who would like to replace public education for everyone with a selective “choice” that only benefits some. In South Carolina, Senate majority leader Shane Massey, by way of explaining his opposition to bringing up a Hate Crimes bill for a vote, said, “I’m not a lowercase ‘D’ democrat,” and suggested that anyone who disagreed with him on policy should “win some freakin’ elections”. This is an especially striking to argument to make from a leader in a party that has explicitly argued, in court, that it gerrymandered the state’s current electoral districts in order to help itself win elections (this was by way of arguing that they didn’t draw the districts in a way that unconstitutionally used race). It suggests that there is a growing willingness to nakedly admit that a will to power is the controlling motive in politics, that the will of the people can only be expressed through a narrowly controlled and restricted voting process. This, of course, fits with a view of the average person as an employee of a class of betters, rather than as an equal participant in a democratic society.
How long will the dark times last? I’m not sure. But you don’t have to believe in some kind of vast rightwing conspiracy to think that it’s in our interest to promote better electoral maps at the same time we promote more open access to information. As we speak, the Moms for Liberty-endorsed Superintendent of Education has declared war on librarians and seems to be pushing for the state Board of Education to override some of the abilities of local elected school boards and districts to determine how they select classroom reading materials. I would urge South Carolinians reading this to email comments to email@example.com by October 20, 2023, urging decision-makers to allow local districts and the experts— teachers and librarians— employed by those districts to make decisions about books and contents, and I would urge anyone reading this to pay close attention to the attacks on public educators (including school librarians) where you live. Reach out to local associations or individual advocates and ask them what you can do to help make the education profession safer for both students and staff.
One good thing about dark times is that they have a tendency to bring focus to what our most important issues are, and hopefully create a solidarity that we might have lost when things seemed to be going better.
Here’s my version of a teacher supply list:
I’m currently looking for my next full-time job, and supplementing my income through writing, including this newsletter. If you found this useful or interesting, please help me continue this work by sharing and/ or subscribing.