Thinking about "life-technology" — how the old job has changed

I’ve been thinking about my work–what it is, what good it is to society, and what it’s worth to me.  That is why I’m tagging this post “life technology,” since a career/job may be seen as the device/tool by which a life’s purpose is fulfilled.

I dedicated myself to the noble ends of education–service to my fellow humans through improving the next generation. I didn’t do it entirely as a saint, though. I expected to get something out of it for my children and myself. At my Catholic school, and later at the public district I’m in, it always seemed a good bargain:  I devote the main part of my earning years (much of my adulthood) to nurturing the growth of the next crop of citizens. And in repayment society makes sure I don’t have to worry about a job, allows me the occasional sabbatical, and secures for me a decent retirement (backed by the state treasury, no less). To me it seemed like social justice.  

I, and I bet most Americans, feel the same way about retired military, police, or firemen:  they’ve given their good years for all of us. Let’s give them something back. It just seemed just, that deal.

Well, in tough times, the deal changes, apparently.

Now there are plenty of stories of public pensions under attack–check out this Steve Klingaman piece in Salon that claims, “we can expect outright assaults on public pensions.” In a time of diminishing public revenues, new ideas of social justice arise. Why should any worker be guaranteed something that every worker is not?  Why are my years of service for the welfare of others more important than a nurse’s, or a maid’s, or a truck driver’s?  I get that.  But now my plans for a life-plan are disrupted, and so I start to think twice about the meaning of my work–what it means today to me on a personal level is not what it has meant.

And part of my feelings of job-anomie is the changing material conditions of the job–the basic physics and energy of the work. I’m one teacher, but now instead of 125 English students to work with, I’ve got 140. And now instead of four big papers a term, I’m required to give and grade six to eight. And in addition each of these kids needs to be prepped more frequently for high stakes tests, and the curriculum has to include more common (and thus less creative/divergent) assessments, and although there is no more time given to plan or meet, the teacher is required to plan and meet more often. It’s maddening, and draining. I’m noticing more sickness and long faces in the department, lower morale and more venting against the kids.

And that’s the worst of it for me–this feeling of distancing that’s growing between me and the kids, to where I’m not remembering names even one year after I’ve had a kid in my class. Two years after they’ve graduated, I can see them, and know I should know them, but fail to recall their names. In the hallway, when I’d like to address my former students with a, “Hey, Mike!” or a, “What’s up Jane?” I can muster only a “Hey!” and a feeling of self-recrimination grows with each failed connection.  These thousands of kids I won’t keep in my heart?  I can’t keep them in my heart (long-term memory).  I only have room for so many, says Dunbar’s Law  And that disjunction–I used to be a much better name-rememberer and connector with my kids–also makes me feel a bit alienated from the job I’ve held so long. If it weren’t for some of these former students remembering and friend-ing me on Facebook, I’d find it increasingly harder to stay the good old teacher.

I wanted to be the good old teacher, and now it doesn’t look like that job is even going to exist anymore. Darn it.

There’s no denying that my job is changing, and my feelings change with it. With more grading of students, there is less knowing them, less time to get to know their individual, interesting stories. That has always been an interesting part of the job. You get to know interesting others. No one’s life is uninteresting; each kid’s idiosyncrasies, family situation, etc., make him/her unique. But when you’re forced to process them en masse, guess what? They become undifferentiated, un-interesting, even annoying. And it’s not them, it’s not me–it’s the physics of the job.

Then again, how much of this sense of job-alienation is the result of natural forces acting over a prolonged period on my body and spirit? Inevitably, over time, a man’s energy and enthusiasm diminish, right? And with age and experience must come a feeling of deja vu, a sense of, “I’ve seen this before. Do I want to see this movie again? Do I want to continue to play this role?”  

If you’re lucky, there’s a chance in crises to pause and consider–a chance to decide what is best to do next. Lucky for me, I’m there.  I see that I cannot work at what I had planned, so I shall work at… ?  (One must work at something, or one’s life lacks purpose, and depression brings one down…)

So to keep me out of depression, the best choice is to actively vision-eer–to actively dream a newer, better education system for the future. Yes, for the next act of my life, I shall conceive and propose (wait for it)  “the learning space of the future.”

Stay tuned for details.

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