Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Job InSecurity

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
1 Self Actualization Needs
(full potential)
 2 Esteem Needs
(self respect, personal worth, autonomy)
 3 Love and Belongingness Needs
(love, friendship, comradeship)
4 Safety Needs
(security; protection from harm)
5 Physiological Needs
(food, sleep, stimulation, activity)
I am now at a school where I taught many years ago, a religious school, where the hours are way more flexible, the pay commensurate, my colleagues brilliant and supportive, the students eager. I will not be asked to use class time to practice inane tactics for inane tests; I will not be asked to use class time to proctor inane tests; I will not be asked to attend meetings to discuss the bogus data generated by inane tests. 
My public school colleagues warned me that I was on the verge of giving up medical benefits for life and that I would stall my retirement contributions so that any eventual retirement income will be pitifully low. They gasped incredulously at the notion that I would give up my security. 
So, you ask, why did I even consider such a move? How could I give up such well-earned security? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe instead you should be asking why my public school colleagues stay. 
In his “Hierarchy of Needs” Abraham Maslow describes what we all need in order to survive. Here is his list from the most basic and physical to the most cerebral and emotional of needs. 
5. Physiological Motivation: Provide ample breaks for lunch and recuperation and pay salaries that allow workers to buy life's essentials.
Ample breaks? At my public school we had 20 minutes free at about 9:30 am (much of that time was spent in a bathroom line) and a half an hour for lunch at around 1pm. Ample pay? Teachers in my district have started to face serious pay and health benefit cuts, but even with a full salary, it was only with a second job that I could afford to buy a house. 
At my new school, I teach in what amount to 2 or 3-hour blocks and have large gaps of time for myself in my day. I take dance classes and go to doctors and deal with phone trees and run errands, and I still have plenty of time to grade and prepare and confer with my colleagues. My salary is also  commensurate with what I was earning in public school. 
4. Safety Needs: Provide a working environment which is safe, relative job security, and freedom from threats.
Classrooms filled to more than capacity by threatened and, therefore, threatening children; colleagues who embrace and support, even with their silence, the limited vision of a malfunctioning bureaucracy; a system that fosters teacher isolation instead of teacher collaboration; a system where students will not be ousted for being unreasonably hostile and defiant--these characteristics suggest that safety needs are not entirely met in public school. Even though I had arguably the best kids at my school, I still had to face the occasional “SHUT THE HELL UP, BITCH!” from anonymous students around the campus who did not take well to a teacher’s asking them why they were making so much noise right outside my classroom and not in class themselves. 
At my current school, all the adults regularly meet in a central office and work together to support the shared cause: educating the kids to the best of our ability.  That philosophy leaves little room for the miscommunication and lack of accountability that can lead to an unsafe environment.
3. Social Needs: Generate a feeling of acceptance, belonging, and  community by reinforcing team dynamics.
Scott Miller, a psychologist from Illinois, says this about his profession: “The enemy of excellence is proficiency” and in public school, where proficiency is the standard, and where excellence makes proficiency look like inadequacy (which in turn inspires backbiting, resistance, and hostility), any hope for acceptance, belonging, and community evaporates. Because they are given no reason to trust the knee-jerk educational fads and trends championed by those in authority, many public school teachers strive for control of their little fiefdoms and do not respond well when their practices are questioned or challenged.
At my current school the teachers do not have classrooms in which to roost and must travel to every class. My colleagues and I gather together in an office, where we all joke, work, share ideas and strategies, and feel like a cohesive group. This means interaction and community instead of isolation and alienation.
2. Esteem Motivators: Recognize achievements, assign important projects, and provide status to make employees feel valued and appreciated.
In public school teachers can neither be praised nor punished and can sometimes get lost in a system that perpetuates the status quo by overly valuing test scores and other ostensibly objective accountability criteria. The system’s inability to understand, perpetuate, and generate the art of teaching does not build esteem in its teaching force, but instead chips away at it. For employees to feel valued, they must do valuable work. Teachers do their most valuable work in the classroom, where success usually goes unrecognized and unappreciated because determining what constitutes success is too complicated. How does one really measure the ineffable and immeasurable ART of teaching anyway?
At my current school, thank you notes from administrators, classroom observations, and parent interactions help make teachers feel valued. That future employment is not guaranteed, that there is no real job security, keeps the evaluation process and teacher practices fresh. That I was handed a new computer on my first day didn’t hurt my feelings of self worth either.
1. Self-Actualization: Offer challenging and meaningful work   assignments which enable innovation, creativity, and progress according to long-term goals.
Preparing for standardized tests, which is currently at the center of the academic enterprise, is not challenging and meaningful work. How can one fulfill one’s potential in a realm that does not understand or support innovation and imagination, creativity and progress?
At my current school, teachers get time to sit and talk about literature, politics, culture, life; teachers share rubrics, paper topics, strategies and insights; teachers are encouraged to be flexible, to take chances, and not take anything TOO seriously; teachers are observed by people who share the same vision of good teaching. These are the practices that enable the kind of self-actualization that turns the skill of teaching into the art of teaching. 

Because I had terrific students and several friends, I had not really felt the toll public school was taking on me until I had what some would call the audacity to leave it. I can only hope that the newspapers and current documentaries that have been covering the immense issues facing public schools will inspire the kind of reform that would bridge at least some of the gap between what the public and private schools offer and accomplish. In the meantime, I aim to fulfill this hierarchy of needs because if my needs are met, my students’ needs will be met. Too bad the public school system remains unheedful of this simple equation.
If you still want to ask how I can turn away from the comfort of job security, I would like to ask how the comfort of job security can possibly be worth the risk of no risk at all.