Sunday, December 15, 2013

What 'Work' Means

When applying for a job, the typical CV includes a number of details that effectively break down as a simple introduction to who you are and how you see yourself. Let's look at my CV briefly, leaving out the details like where I live, and the specifics of where I work. Safety first online.

Hi there. My name is Paul Carroll, I'm twenty two, and I'm a recent college graduate. I have six and a half years' experience as a bookseller, I write books and plays, I consider myself quite empathetic towards others, and I took part in Drama while in college. I'm technically a qualified teacher, a detail I include to indicate that I have developed skills in communication, organisation and working with large groups of people in sometimes stressful situations.

Looking at that, it's not a bad introduction. However, if I had this in in the form of a CV, what it looks like is:

Hi there. My name is Paul Carroll, I'm twenty two, and I'm a recent college graduate. I have six and a half years' experience as a bookseller, in a shop where my time is valued at minimum wage. I write books and plays, but I haven't ventured into the world of traditional publishing. As the current understanding of what it means to be published is still changing, you might think I'm either afraid of failure, or that I am a failure. I consider myself quite empathetic towards others, which is my way of saying I'm sensitive to others and their needs; while this is useful when working with the public, as a personality trait it's underestimated. I took part in Drama while in college, something I can point out to show that I had a balanced work-and-social life, but that might also suggest I could bring the theatrics with me. That is not always the case. I'm technically a qualified teacher, a detail I include to indicate that I have developed skills in communication, organisation and working with large groups of people in sometimes stressful situations. My lack of a teaching position might indicate that I never bothered, or no school would hire me. The former makes it look like I changed my mind, which makes me look fickle.

With the added cynicism, my CV doesn't look too great. It indicates that I am undervalued but not willing to take drastic measures to change that. It suggests I chose self-publication for reasons other than the challenge of doing it all myself. It doesn't say much about what it really means to pay attention to how others are feeling, or how Drama helps to develop a sense of belonging to a group about which I was passionate. Furthermore, it doesn't say much about how I feel about the teaching world right now, or my position in it.

On the latter, I'll be brief. Teaching in Ireland is tricky at the moment. There are union problems. There's a new Junior Cycle programme on its way in. At least, that was the plan. These are all adding to the workload and food for thought for teachers, who must still prepare lessons for pupils, grade work, prepare exams, and - when industrial action isn't taking place - arrange meetings and out-of-school trips. It's all quite headache inducing at the moment, and I'm barely four years older than the sixth year students.

I'm not on a sub list for teaching at the moment as a result of a combination of the above paragraph and, more significantly with regards timing and scheduling my life, the time I spend working in the bookshop and minding my niece. The sub list is not a guarantee for work. Few people on it will work every week, fewer of them every day of every week, and fewer still will be lucky enough to find sub work as maternity leave cover. I'm not currently in a position to drop everything with an hour's notice Monday to Friday. Social obligations are less of an issue - friends would understand. It's the days I could be working in the bookshop, or the days I'm minding my niece, that would cause problems.

So, that's that. That's why I'm not currently working as a teacher.

However, even that represents only a limited understanding of what it means to be a teacher. Looking at my CV again, we can see a few key points jumping out: I'm a writer, with speaking practice, trained as a teacher. Those three points actually go together remarkably well.

You see, my college experience has helped shape me into someone who is quite capable of doing something I wouldn't have thought possible fifteen years ago - when I didn't know what it meant to be a published writer, when writing books wasn't even an option because I had never found a book for my age that told a story I really loved. (That came later.) What's changed is that I'm in a position to make my own work as a teacher.

Classrooms are important for group teaching. That said, they're only vital when the group is consistently larger than a dozen - at least on the class list. Nowadays, technology allows for group discussions through video conferencing (and conversing) software. Google Hangouts make talking to a group of people an easy to manage environment. But even with that in mind, the Internet and the advent of digital publishing and the decreased requirement for a "gatekeeper" allows for someone like me to redefine what 'work' means.

I've spoken about this already, but this is what I'm planning in 2014. I'll be back to working barely any hours in the week, still on minimum wage. I'll have plenty of time to myself during the week, time which I can use to revalue myself publicly. Lets face it, I have nothing to lose in trying to work on things I'm actually passionate about - not magazines and newspapers and stationery, not someone's problem with a book they received, or the finer details that arise from working under a brand name, but in a different company altogether.

Work shouldn't have to be about doing things at a pay-rate that belittles the trouble you go to for people, or the effort you put in to make sure everything runs smoothly. Work shouldn't have to involve doing something that doesn't make you happy.

Yes, I'm grateful to have a job. But it's not good work. Retail, especially at Christmas, is difficult. I'm at the end of six days working full time, leaving me exhausted and exasperated, and the closest thing I get to a Christmas bonus is €20 under my name for a Christmas party that hasn't even been arranged yet. This is after restocking and re-merchandising the shop for six days in a row. This is after customer complaints over transactions I wasn't involved in - too often not even from my shop. This is after customers failing to observe the store's opening hours. This is after recommending and/or locating books at least a dozen times a day - most likely more than that. That, for minimum wage.

I'd like to clarify: I understand the company's financial situation. I understand the rush at Christmas. This isn't about the job itself. It's about how much value is placed on the work I do, from where I'm sitting. I know that come January, things will go back to what could loosely be described as normal. I know I'll be back to working just weekends, despite having proved myself as being able to handle more than just the few hours I receive with the responsibility that's placed on me.

Having a job and being valued for your work are two different things. I know what it would take when I control my work to indicate that I am valued. I know the difference between the job I have in the bookshop and the work I'm putting into place for next year. I know what work means to me, and what I ought to be valued at, and I know how it looks from the outside. All I have to do now is make sure it's clear from the point of view of others when I'm working and when I'm not. (Here's a hint: if I'm typing a lot on my laptop, writing a lot on notepad, or looking intently at a screen - sometimes with a tablet and a pen in my hand - then I'm probably working. Even if you hear music blaring at the same time. It's called a 'working environment'.)

No comments: