“appreciating” secretaries, “appreciating” teachers

Last week was Administrative Professionals’ Day. On this day, you are supposed to take some time to thank your secretary and/or other support staff, usually with a gift or lunch or whatever. A Facebook friend who shall remain nameless expressed bafflement at the existence of said holiday, claiming that administrative professionals should not get extra recognition just for “doing their jobs.”

Of course, my mind immediately snapped to Teachers’ Appreciation Day/Week, which is coming up soon, actually. Would the Facebook friend be as quick to reject that holiday, on the grounds that teachers are also merely doing their jobs? Fully expecting to get flamed, I made a comment to this effect on the Facebook thread. Oh no, she replied, teachers deserve the extra recognition because they are so badly underappreciated, underpaid, and they “make us who we are today.”

Well this is where I almost spat my drink at my monitor. I have no doubt that these sentiments are very, very widely held. But they are unjustified, or at least are very hasty generalizations. Contrary to popular belief, teachers on the whole are not in fact paid badly at all. The Cato Institute has done research in this area; see especially this report and this post. And teachers do “make us who we are today” – but “who we are today” is unfortunately a population whose members often don’t read, write, or do math sufficiently well even to carry out basic life activities, and “who we are today” is a country that spends more on education than ever before – with no apparent payoff, except to teachers and other bureaucrats.

And, just on a personal note,  I think I’d rather be the person who I would have been in the absence of about 1/3 of the teachers I had in K-12. Surprisingly many of them were not only incompetent, but petty, power-hungry, and even vindictive. I remain angry and bitter about those damaging years, and it’s part of why I’m so interested in education now (Maybe I’ll write a whole post on my anger and bitterness another time). But, because it was a wealthy area, most of the students did just fine academically – despite these bad teachers, not because of them. And, every year, the parents were coughing up expensive gifts and gift certificates for the poor, underappreciated teachers. I reckon that many of the teachers who truly deserve some extra appreciation – those who work with severely underprivileged students, those whose schools are unsafe, those who don’t make a decent living – are those who are, sadly, the least likely to receive it, holiday or not.

So I don’t know what to make of this situation. Obviously, I’m not a big fan of Teachers’ Appreciation Day (in fact, it makes me stabby). But, then, are both Administrative Professionals’ Day and Teachers’ Appreciation Day unjustified? Or is there some important difference between the two professions that I’m overlooking? The intentions are probably good – to draw attention and recognition to female-gendered, often marginalized lines of work. But perhaps these holidays are now past their prime. If you know an administrative professional or a teacher who is genuinely exceptional, you should thank him or her on your own time and on your own way. To suggest that all of these professionals are worthy of recognition and rewards just for existing is not fair to the ones who truly are.

11 Comments

  • I think all “appreciation” and “awareness” days are pointless, but mostly harmless.

    But since you fully expected to be flamed, let me just say that questioning the merit of (any) teachers makes you Hitler.

  • And what about all the appreciation showered on veterans, who freely decided to join the military at the prevailing pay rates?

    On the other hand, maybe we’d have to pay teachers or soldiers more if it weren’t for the recognition, since they receive so much of their “pay” on nonmonetary margins, such as respect and reverence.

  • Greg,
    I suspect that these appreciation days are less about benefitting the people that are supposedly being singled out for appreciation, and more about some politician or anyone else who champions the day signaling how much they care about that particular group.

  • Good point. I guess it’s one of those things you can vote for that can’t possibly make you look bad.

  • Yep – and if you even so much as hint that teachers don’t deserve it, people think you are Hitler (chuckle, which is why a link to this post is not going on facebook). And you are probably not getting re-elected, in no small part due to teachers unions. Teachers, like most humans of course, will get defensive. But surely each of them has at least one colleague who they think is not doing a good job?

  • Once I was at an astrology museum up in New York with my family. We watched a film that described black holes as “infinitely dense”.

    “I don’t even know what that means” my dad commented.

    “I have some colleagues like that,” my Uncle, a teacher, replied :)

  • Veterans’ Day is maybe a little different, because you’re not supposed to actually go buy a veteran a gift, and the events to commemorate it (benefits, fundraisers, concerts) are truly voluntary.

    Gifts and cards for teachers, which would otherwise be symbols of approval and affection, are often rendered meaningless by the contexts in which they are given. Parents have kids who get stuck in a school with a teacher who they didn’t choose. With some frequency, they disapprove of these teachers. But, just to add insult to injury, the room mom keeps calling you for donations of cash and food for a whole week-long festival of teacher appreciation. And if you don’t do it, you and your kid will be pushed even further to the margins of the community than you already are, as dissenters. Nice.

    The respect for teachers part is interesting. I don’t know what to make of the current state of affairs – some people seem to have a blind reverence for them, and some have contempt for them. I read some social theory-ish work pertinent to that recently, I will try to remember to post about it in the future.

  • I definitely agree that I grew up to have some degree of intellectual accomplishment despite teachers and a flawed school system (in Sweden)—not thanks to them. Good teachers exist and should be recognized; the majority is barely adequate to down-right harmful.

    In my impressionteachers are no longer considered a high-status group, but are correctly recognized for (on average, I stress) being less than brilliant. That they long held considerable status is likely a remnant of times when higher education was rare, sometimes to the point that the local village had a teacher, a medical doctor, and a priest—and then no-one else with a non-practical education above the junior-high level.

    As for the appreciation days, I do see a greater justification for the “administrative professional”, considering that they often are unrightfully looked down upon in the office. They may be easier to replace than many other office workers (e.g. an engineer with a masters degree), and they may have a different intellectual horizon, but even so they deserve a basic respect—which is often lacking. (Not to be forgotten is that the spread in intellect can be quite large within the group, say between a trainee receptionist and the personal secretary of a Fortune 500 CEO.)

  • Forgot to say thanks for stopping by and expressing your agreement! I am sad to know, however, that Sweden is similarly screwed up :-/

  • Caitlin wrote:

    I also saw this comment on Fb from said friend and chose to simply ignore rather then get in a heated discussion.

    What’s wrong with giving a bit of appreciation to an occupation that probably doesn’t receive much anyways? I know that’s a bit of a generalization, but I don’t understand the differentiation between teachers and secretaries. Teachers are looked at as life changers and yet I as well have memories of teachers not allowing me to use the restroom until I peed my pants and was then tortured by fellow students…that’s life changing alright!

    I’d love to hear your bitterness towards teachers and education.

  • You mean this about the admins, right – “What’s wrong with giving a bit of appreciation to an occupation that probably doesn’t receive much anyways?”

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, really. It’s just if you want to approve of admins day and disapprove of teachers day, you have to find some *relevant difference* between the two groups that justifies the differing treatment of them.

    Maybe one of the differences is that teachers make us pee our pants and admins don’t! I almost had the same thing happen a number of times – made my mother furious. She said to just go to the bathroom anyway, and she’d deal with the consequences later. So ridiculous.

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