Work, Pay, Power

I have never asked for a raise. At least not a raise in salary. I work in a state with a weak union and “at will” employment. My contract is symbolic more than anything; my first year of teaching, we laid off ten staff members as we faced three separate budget holdbacks of two percent each. I actually took a pay cut on my contract for the following year. I was just happy to get a contract. My base pay is still roughly the same as it was my first year of teaching, although I make more because of extra-duty contracts. Teacher pay in this state is abysmal. We deserve to make a better salary. But I’ve never asked for a raise.

A few times in college, I negotiated for a higher grade. I didn’t really deserve a better grade based on my performance. It was my sophomore year. My anxiety and depression were out of control. My meds were maxed out. I was hardly capable of showering, let alone doing any of my work. I explained my situation and my professor gave me an extension to complete the work. Not only that, she did it twice–for ASL III and ASL IV. I eked by with a C instead of an F two semesters in a row. A couple friends were really angry because I hardly showed up for class, still passed, and then scored high enough on my proficiency interview to continue in the program and student teach as scheduled. I don’t blame them. The teacher had the power to let me fail and did not use it.

There is a very common habit among teachers, administrators, and school reformers to refer to schooling and learning as students’ jobs. To compare the grades they earn to a wage or a salary. This paradigm is used to justify dress codes, “no excuses” styles of discipline, and draconian grading practices. It’s used to make arguments in favor of homework and grade point averages. I’ve met a lot of people who are miserable in their jobs. Why would we want to push that same economic misery down onto younger and younger students? Do Kindergartners really need to think about being career ready?

I conversed with a friend recently about work. He said he hates asking for a raise, even though he thinks the work he does and the increasing cost of living warrants an increase in salary. We talked a bit, and like nearly every conversation I have these days, our conversation turned to issues of power.

In school, the teachers have the power and the students do not. The students do the work, the teachers give the grades. Often, participation, homework, and attendance are incorporated into those grades, which may seem arbitrarily decided. What is the difference between an 85 and a 90 anyway? And why is an A- better than a B+? I served on a committee at ISDB to overhaul our grading system. We delved into the work of Ken O’Connor and developed a standards-based system. We ditched letter grades and replaced it with a numeric system–0, 1, 2, 3, 4, with 3 being the target achievement of mastering the learning goal. We separated behavior reporting from the academic reporting, so attendance and homework no longer factor in to final grades but are reported separately. I say all that so I can say this: changing the power dynamic upset the hierarchy, and it was a tough transition. Not all the teachers liked giving up that power over their grades. They didn’t like the transparency. We quibbled over the wording of the rubrics that explained the numbering system, but that was just a distraction from the fear of giving up too much power.

If the purpose of schooling is to prepare our future drones, grades are a good way to prep them for the power of the paycheck. We are so conditioned to work hard and harder and even harder to prove ourselves and earn a grade that we automatically do the same for our paychecks. Homework is training for overtime. Extracurricular activities are preparation for “other duties as assigned.” And the untouchable grading scale posted on the wall? Or the stress of waiting to find out if someone “blew the curve”? All part of the power game.

I know plenty of people who have asked for a raise. But I know far more who have sweated and stressed and agonized about how to ask, and when to ask, and even if they should ask because it involved breaching that division of power. And the divisions get deeper when issues of gender, race, language, or disability get thrown into the mix. How does a black woman effectively ask for a raise from a white man when they are both entrenched in the system? Or a white disabled woman ask from a Latino man? Power overlaps, intersects, multiplies and divides. And we all have varying degrees of internalized Patriarchy left in us. Everything is about power. And the more I see it and try to dismantle it in my tiny corner of this tiny building, the deeper the divisions seem to run. I need more minions. I mean, I’ll start with the four I have. And I’ll be a co-minion instead of the overlord. But still: I need more minions. We have a lot of work to do.

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