What Works at Work
On teaching (and other jobs)
This is another post on the world of labor from “Twilight’s Last Gleaming: Everyday Life in the Late American Empire.” —Jim
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about a million people who were high school teachers in 2020. Their median salary was approximately $62,000 annually. That makes it an above-average occupation (per capita income is somewhere in the range of $38,000 according to the U.S. Census), but somewhere pretty squarely in the middle between low-wage hourly workers and the dividend-collecting elite. Teaching is a profession, but it’s a relatively low rung on that ladder when compared with others like law or medicine. By most reckonings, it furnishes the foundation of what has long been considered a nice middle-class life: a secure income, an attractive schedule (both in terms of the length of the workday and vacation time), and working conditions which, while varying considerably, are generally civilized. Though sometimes exhausting, it’s not particularly dangerous or physical work. And after you’ve done it for a while, there’s usually something resembling a decent retirement at the end of the rainbow. It would not be absurd to consider it a dream job, even if I never did, and even if my situation was advantageous in just about every respect one might consider.
Virtually all high school teachers are teachers of something—they are presumably masters of a particular subject that furnishes the basis of their legitimacy, whether or not they happen to hold a professional credential in a field. But one of the surprising things about the profession is how little disciplinary mastery matters in terms of one’s ultimate success in the job. To be sure, you’re lost without some real expertise in an academic subject. But that’s a point of departure, not a guarantee of excellence. My guess is that’s true of a great many jobs. For that very reason, it’s worth walking through a few of the things that really do matter, regardless of what work you do, though I’ll use my own job as a point of reference.
One is organization. Like any work product, a teacher’s curriculum needs to be segmented in ways that are logistically practical as well as developmentally appropriate. You have to exercise discrimination in terms of what will be included—and make conscious choices about what won’t. To a great degree, that’s a matter of time: what you can fit into a class period, into a semester, into an academic calendar that’s a veritable Swiss cheese of shortened workweeks, holiday breaks, professional days, and any number of other disrupters of your flow. Managing this is one of the biggest challenges of the job, and the failure to stay on top of it will result in a crash of rushed classes, unfinished objectives, and a dearth of the kind of assessments you need to evaluate your charges with anything resembling clarity.
Another important dimension of success in teaching, as in many other jobs, involves relating to co-workers—peers, bosses, and those who occupy a lower rung on the occupational ladder than you do. Though it may not always be as obvious as other indicators of status, the workplace is the setting where the American class system is most unapologetically in place in terms of who does what and for how much. Yet despite this—or, perhaps more accurately, because of this—the workplace is a setting where an egalitarian ethos in social interaction is often most useful and valuable. Common courtesy and an ability to see other people as people can avoid any manner of trouble. Which is good, because as likely as not there will be office politics raging around you. I’m in no position to be dispensing advice here, except to note that notwithstanding your best efforts you often have little control over your social circumstances. Still, a little patience and intelligence can go a long way, even if both require real exertion. This is the frontier of most of the real learning I’ve done in middle age, rueful that many of the people I admire have mastered the skills I’ve come to value a lot earlier, and a lot better, than I have.
The final, and most important, consideration in one success in the world of work involves how skillfully you understand and respond to the people served by your labors. Sometimes such people are known as customers; sometimes they’re entirely invisible. But most of the paid work you perform in your life is directly or indirectly for somebody else’s benefit. The interests of such people are not necessarily congruent with yours; indeed, there are times and ways they can be actively at odds. But even there, it tends to be easier to parry an opponent whose motives and tactics you understand.
My “customers” are adolescents. I’ll have more to say about them in my next post.