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How Schools Are Like Sweatshops


The rhetoric surrounding "children first" is powerful and needed stuff, I'd argue, but not to the point of disregarding the needs of classroom teachers whose needs are often not being met by schools, either. Sherman Dorn makes this point eloquently in a recent post: "Elementary and secondary schools are environments that are about the least adult-friendly you can imagine, outside sweatshops," writes Dorn (The adults v. children meme). "Where else can adults be vulnerable to being hit by children, be told when they can go to the bathroom, and be told that their own intellectual development does not serve the organization's interests?" I guess that leaves only administrators to gang up on. Yeah, it's all the administrators' fault. Faceless bureaucrats, etc. Get 'em!


While I don't think an us vs them mentality is generally useful, it is true that the "powers that be" in schools are only secondarily on the side of the children. Teachers unions are one of the last strongholds of organized labor in this country. And, while they all may be very nice, passionate, concerned people, their mission is not to improve the lot of students.

But the piece that gets really tiresome is the litany of "what we have to put up with." Pay attention at the check-out next time you are in a big box retail. Do you think that the cashiers can go to the bathroom whenever they want? Are they even allowed to sit down to run the cash register? Think about all of the other professions that work with children: health care, mental health, child care, bus drivers, parents. Do you think that they aren't equally vulnerable to being hit by children? Some of them even more.
In some professions adults are vulnerable to being hit (or worse) by adults--consider law enforcement, mental health, but also pizza delivery, night cashier, bar personnel.

In most cases these vulnerable workers are less unionized and lower paid than teachers. Some work longer or less regular hours. Most of them include parents.

I don't begrudge teachers their right to organize--in fact, I wish there was greater curriculum inclusion of the role of organized labor--but let's be aware and realistic of where the power lies and who it represents. It's not the children.

Teachers Unions and Teachers Working Conditions

If a professional can shape his or her working conditions, teachers are not professionals in the United States. Teachers' schedules are wrong. Year after year, high school teachers face 150-165 students a day, making grading writing assignments difficult to impossible. In Horace's Compromise, Ted Sizer suggested alternatives to this insane scheduling, but his reforms have not been widely implemented.

And pigs will fly in the United States before teachers gain the power to order the biographies and novels that would build the habit of reading in teenagers.

It is unfortunate that teachers unions have been silent so often about the conditions that make their members ineffective.

Pay attention next time you're in a big box store-cashiers don't have multiple degrees nor are they working at a profession. Nor are bus drivers, pizza guys or bar personnel.

Hey Guy:

Sorry--I didn't realize that bladder control was negatively impacted by education.

Let me rework my comments for the classists. Pay attention the next time you are scheduled for surgery. Do you think the doctor or any of the other highly trained personnel in the OR can scrub out and go to the bathroom whenever they want?

Do you think that mental health professionals, any health care professional working in pediatrics, pediatric dentists or others are not vulnerable to a poke or jab at times from their young clientele? Have a few conversations some times with the professional social workers that work at your local children's services agency. Many of them are required to make home visits to settings that are dangerous to children and other living things. Ask them how many degrees they have, and what their pay scale is.

You might also talk to some health care professionals who work in ERs, or health clinics with low-income clientele. The pay scale is low, the risks high and the comforts few.

I don't begrudge teachers a living wage or decent working conditions. But if the profession wants understanding of the conditions inside the classroom, it is a very poor strategy to refuse understanding of the conditions of workers who are outside.

The topic, BTW, was whether adults needs are better served than childrens' in schools. Again--I gotta look at where the power lies. I think the teachers have more on their side.

I can play nice and agree that there are a lot of degreed professionals who have difficult working environments. To the topic of whether the adults are better served than the children I would, as a teacher in an inner city elementary school, say this: I don't think the teachers or the children have much power. The parents have way more power than they realize they have (at least in the inner city). They could get a lot more for their kids (and their kids' teachers) if they collected their power instead of complaining separately. Administrators have the rest of the power. In my school the administrators and the parents have give the children the power to hit the teachers, for example. I have no right to think that that shouldn't be part of my job? If you become union rep in my school my principal makes your life so hellish the last three left one year after taking the job. If you try to use your union power to protest any decision of his he makes your life hellish until you leave. So I, as a teacher, do take umbrage that I have no decision making power- except to collectively strike for higher wages, I suppose, but that's not the kind of power I think either you or I are talking about.

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