The Invisible Work of Teachers

Experiment: Integrate feminist economics and education

Teaching is a highly visible position. As a former teacher, I was a “minor celebrity”. I would be recognized in random shopping malls by people I had never met. Every time I left the house I would see at least one student. The job itself involves presenting to a group of people all day long. As a teacher, you are seen, observed, and highly visible.

Strangely, teaching is also an incredibly invisible position. The real work of teachers is often in the hours that are unseen. The preparation time, marking, meetings, summer training and planning. The ‘care’ work of teaching is often invisible to everyone but a single student who is being counseled. The informal discussions with colleagues and the think time required to actually reflect on teaching and students is invisible, but absolutely vital to the profession.

For teachers, this is rarely an issue. The integration of visibility and invisibility are embedded in the work and negotiating the two is learned during student teaching, at the latest. The issue comes to the forefront when decisions are made about the work of teachers in a way that completely disregards the invisible and care work of teachers.

Feminist economists have made this argument for years about homemakers, child care workers, and elderly care workers. This work is often invisible and underpaid. As a culture, we are fixated on the visible work and judge the value of work based on its market value and visibility. Clear examples of this are investment banking for the former and pop stars for the latter. A comparison of years of schooling or expertise required cannot fully explain the difference in salaries between these professions and teaching. Invisible work is absolutely necessary but is costly and undervalued. The dichotomy exists because there is no way to speed up or increase the efficiency of care work except by lowering its quality. An hour of teaching will always take an hour. Only an undertrained, lower qualified, lower paid teacher or a substandard building would decrease the cost associated with delivering an hour of teaching. And this model doesn’t take into account anything but the visible work.

When policy makers look at teachers, they often do not see the invisible work that is done. They will count only the hour in front of students. To them, that is the work. Looking back on their own experience in schools, they didn’t see the preparation time, meeting time, or agonizing time that teachers needed. Their teachers were highly visible and working. Logically, we should pay teachers for the time that they work. Everyone agrees on that, but we don’t agree on what constitutes work.

So, let’s open our eyes. What care work is being done invisibly in our schools? In our workplaces? What are the invisible elements of work, even work that is highly visible? And the biggest question; how to we ensure that we value care work when it does not fit the ideal of value based on the market?

This post was highly influenced by:

Dunford, R., & Perrons, D. (2014). Power, Privilege and Precarity: The Gendered Dynamics of Contemporary Inequality. In M. Evans, C. Hemmings, M. Henry, H. Johnstone, S. Madhok, A. Polmien, & S. Wearing (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Feminist Theory (pp. 465-482): SAGE Publications.

Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing Teacher, Changing Times. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Himmelweit, S., & Polien, A. (2014). Feminist Prespectives on Care: Theory, Practice and Policy. In M. Evans, C. Hemmings, M. Henry, H. Johnstone, S. Madhok, A. Polmien, & S. Wearing (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Feminist Theory (pp. 446-464): SAGE Publications.

Lortie, D. C. (1975). Schoolteacher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


One thought on “The Invisible Work of Teachers

  1. Pingback: Planning differentiation for the classroom | winchip

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