Bare Minimums

I’ve had a go at professionalism a number of times on Dusty World.  You might even call it a recurring theme.  Here I go again…

“Wha’dyou care?  You get paid whether we learn anything or not.”

In one simple sentence a kid in my son’s grade 10 applied math class might have just summed up everything that’s wrong with Ontario and much of the Western world these days.  For the vast majority of people work is hourly wage labour, even when they’re salaried.  They aim to do the bare minimum – as little as possible – and only what they’re explicitly told to do in order to make as much money as they possibly can.  It’s only in a world predominantly driven by this kind of thinking that a failed businessman can convince people to let him run a province like a business.


The conversations that kid hears around his home must be brutal and simplistic; take all that you can and give as little back as possible.  Capit
alism likes to play the Darwin card where it describes itself as the engine of competition that develops excellence by rewarding strength and destroying the weak.  You’re poor because you’re lazy or stupid.  You’re rich because you’re driven and smart, but that isn’t the way of things…


Teaching is a profoundly challenging profession that demands
a lot from you because you’re dealing with complex people.
If you don’t like people, you’ll struggle to do the job.

Where does professionalism stand in all of this?  When I told people about that comment at the recent ECOO Conference, the teachers there rolled their eyes.  There may be a tiny percentage of teachers who mail it in, but I can only think of one or two in my school, the rest consistently go above and beyond in order to try and reach their students in as many ways as possible.  Teaching is the kind of job that you make too difficult for yourself if you’re not dedicated to doing it as well as you can.  The most miserable teachers I know are the ones with that minimalist approach who aren’t very good at it as a result.


Learning isn’t a linear production line where you can find economic efficiencies by grossly simplifying things.  It’s a complex interaction between many people at once.  A good teacher is always going to be looking for ways to reach as many of their students as they can, partly because doing the job any other way makes it nearly impossible and partly because doing it well feels fantastic.  It’s one of the reasons that class sizes really do matter; there is only so far you can stretch before you break when you’re trying to differentiate and reach dozens of students at once.  An profession has this level of complexity, but many of them are being managed by accountants with little or no understanding of that complexity.


A recent article by the Washington Post chases down much of the success enjoyed by certain education systems (our’s included) in the world…


“We have learned a lot about why some education systems — such as Alberta, Ontario, Japan and Finland — perform better year after year than others in terms of quality and equity of student outcomes.


Among these important lessons are:

  • Education systems and schools shouldn’t be managed like business corporations… successful education systems rely on collaboration, trust, and collegial responsibility in and between schools.
  • The teaching profession shouldn’t be perceived as a technical, temporary craft that anyone with a little guidance can do. Successful education systems rely on continuous professionalization of teaching and school leadership that requires advanced academic education, solid scientific and practical knowledge, and continuous on-the-job training.”



Collegial responsibility, trust, collaboration and rational direction in management seems foreign (and probably a bit frightening) to that majority of money minimalists in the world.  Work is work, you do as little of it as possible to make as much as you can.  If you’re managing, you rip apart complexity and simplify the job at hand into something so abstract and simple that it doesn’t actually work, but you’ve maximized profit.  If you’re in business (or modern politics) you put on the blinkers and aim at the next quarter; this myopia is called called efficiency.  If you’re in a classroom this kind of management is a disaster because you leave most of the class behind.  You save a little money now to spend much more later.  Mr ‘what-d’you-care’ in my son’s math class is going to be costing us all a lot of money for years to come thanks to the values he has internalized.


The concept of professionalism can seem nebulous to the money focused minimalist majority.  It’s important to recognize that this money fixation isn’t necessarily a rich/poor distinction but an addiction shared by both extremes of the socio-economic spectrum.  The people who most idolize the wealthy are the poor and uneducated.  Even with that adoration, the gulf between rich and poor continues to expand as people struggling with money fantasize about joining their heroes in the one percent (the same people who are causing them to struggle).


How do you get wealthy?  By focusing on money beyond all else – as much as you can get while giving as little as you can, but what really matters is if you’re already minted.  That’s when you get into politics to protect your economic advantage.  Amazingly, it takes very little to convince people struggling in the system who idolize your wealth to then vote you into power.


Your place in this socio-economic spectrum largely depends on your circumstances, not on your plucky attitude.  The rich retain more and more wealth even as it moves further away from the rest of us because the system is designed to make money out of money more than it is to make money out of work.  Professionalism can act as a cure to this disease, but so few people are able to access it in a 21st Century where automation and overpopulation conspire to minimize human value that the idea of doing a job as well as you can without money as the primary goal seems antiquated.


What’s left?  Do as little as you can for as much as you can.  A 50 in grade 10 applied maths is a fantastic return on investment if you have to do almost nothing to get it.  You’ve learned your parents’ value theory well kid, they’ll define you for the rest of your life.

Watch the middle class and professionalism melt away before your eyes.  Your arms are indeed getting shorter as your pockets get deeper – unless you’re one of the ultra-rich who have gamed the system for your own benefit, and then gamed politics to convince that burgeoning majority of undereducated poor people to support your obscene wealth.

Professionalism still lurks out there in the corners, and you better hope it survives.  The professional doing the brakes on your car is (you’d better hope) doing the job to the best of her ability, not as fast as she can in order to maximize a pay cheque.  The professional nursing you in hospital is (you really hope) doing the best job he can in ensuring your care, not the cheapest one possible.  The teacher in your child’s class (you sincerely hope) is doing the very best they possibly can to reach your alienated, confused and profoundly ignorant child so that they don’t have a future dictated to them by your money myopia.


Professionalism is a way of looking past the blinkered and culturally emaciated world of money for work that the very rich and the very poor on both sides of a vanishing middle class are fixated on.  When you’re a professional you do the very best job you can and society recognizes that value by looking after you because you give back much more than you take.  In any professional practice you’re going to spend your own time and money improving your craft, that’s what makes it professional.  To the ‘training is what happens to me when I’m at work’ crowd, that grade 10 math student’s comment echoes their own experience.


The most frustrating thing is that anyone in pretty much any job could be a professional.  When I worked in an oil change shop in university, I quickly found my way into the role of service manager because I took the technical work very seriously and was always looking for ways to improve.  I read technical manuals on my own time and did more advanced work after hours in and out of the shop in order to improve my skills, and as a result had a perfect technical record.  When I was in IT it was the same thing – spending my own time and money to improve my craft.  I’ve always had trouble separating work from who I am because if the work is worth doing, it’s worth doing as well as I can.  For too many Ontarians that sounds like a sucker’s game, and that thinking has turned us all into suckers.


For the vast majority of teachers in Ontario there is no start and finish time, there are no weekends or holidays.  You’ll find teachers spending their holidays and weekends at conferences and training, and you’ll often find them working on a Sunday morning or Thursday night, marking or prepping lessons, not because they’re on the clock, but because what they’re doing matters much more than that.


I’ve gotten on planes and seen flight attendants who obviously take their jobs professionally and as a result I’ve had a wonderful flight that would have been misery otherwise.  I’ve seen mechanics who take the time to do a job right, even as their employers and customers whine about every penny they just spent to be safe in their vehicles.  I’ve seen professional drivers who take pride in their efficiency and effectiveness who you’d never see texting behind the wheel.  Professionalism should be something we’re all able to access in order to find our best selves, but to make that happen we have to get off this insane money train we’re on before it burns the world down.


Wouldn’t it be something if everyone were a professional in whatever they did, and they were respected financially for that effort by society instead of being driven to do less for less to make a tiny percentage of us pointlessly wealthy?

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