The local news story begins: “Ms. Barbara Murphy is a teacher at St. Michael’s Special School who puts in extra time and miles to make sure the pandemic did not get in the way of her students’ learning.” This is just one of many feel-good news bits, repeated at the local and national level, usually at the start and end of each school year. The gist of them all is as follows:
Here’s a great teacher; she’s making a difference in her students’ lives; she’s the best; her students love her. All of this because of unpaid labor, and only because she works beyond her required duties. She “goes above and beyond.”
The awards have many different names, but where I live the news segment and its corresponding teaching trophy is a symbolic golden apple. What does it mean to get the Golden Apple?
Among other things, it fundamentally means that our awarded teacher is working with an inaccurate job description. Her job requires many hours beyond her stated commitment, the one in the contract that she signed, written by someone in administration keeping up the ruse while maintaining the profession’s low labor value. In education, what is a job description? Something to be disrupted, challenged, added to….
In many other fields, labor is something to be rewarded. The harder and longer one works, the more one makes. With teaching, labor is assumed, imagined, elf-like: three hours of work yield one hour of pay; a Wednesday evening or Sunday afternoon does not belong to the worker, but to grading, prepping, and answering emails. Recently, my sister recounted a PTA meeting during which a veteran teacher dedicated 20 minutes to repeatedly telling parents that he DOES NOT ANSWER EMAILS. He is my hero.
Last week, McDonald’s offered free breakfast to educators (with a valid school ID, limit one per customer) served in a “classic Happy Meal box” — because teachers aren’t infantilized enough these days, I suppose. The tradition started in the early days of Covid 2020, part of a larger trend of thank you meals offered to “essential” workers. This is the name given to those who put themselves at risk for such low reward that a free salt-and-fat-filled, food science-generated meal actually seems like a reasonable prize to advertising audiences.
Unfortunately for students and the future of the world, it’s not enough. After years of subpar, increasingly insufficient salaries, and facing overwork, teachers right now are leaving the profession en masse. And it’s not just the elementary schools that are taking the hit. My old profession has been facing a teaching crisis for years, as the adjunctification of the university has maintained already-low teaching salaries while education costs rise for students.
In my own experience, I found that going above and beyond was not just financially draining; I look back on my overstretched, overworked days in the classroom as the unhealthiest time in my life. Symbolic awards and recognitions, and simple thank-yous, while mildly heartwarming, did not improve my situation. When I had the choice to take on a bigger workload for a very slight salary increase, I decided to move on from academia. When I told my then-supervisor, they seemed shocked, and promised to eventually get me a better contract. But by then, I knew better.
Moving on meant leaving behind the feeling of constantly being unprepared. It meant letting go of that nagging feeling that I should figure out a way to routinize grading and lecture prep, but never having the time or headspace to actually make things easier on myself. It meant no longer fretting at three in the morning about how I could improve a lecture for my students, all the while knowing most of them weren’t listening to the lecture anyway. It ultimately meant finding different work — even if it was work that did not even require a high school diploma — in which I earned money when I was working, and rested when I wasn’t.
The story about Ms. Barbara Murphy aired last spring multiple times during National Teacher Appreciation Week. It made me wonder about the apple as a symbol for education, and I did a little exploring. It turns out that the connection is rooted in Western symbolism, but also in material necessity: it has been cited as a common offering from students to teachers in early U.S. education.
In contemporary capitalism, the line between gift and payment can get pretty fuzzy. While some forms of workplace compensation only have symbolic value, others, like the original apple-for-a-teacher, do have actual monetary value: a gift certificate, a free meal, or coffee and snacks in the break room. To paraphrase a recent McSweeney’s article: a lot of companies will offer just about anything to workers but a fair salary.
I can’t say for sure if teachers in the 19th and early 20th centuries enjoyed the apple as a workplace “perk.” But in a world where average wages continue to fall behind the rising cost of living, free snacks aren’t going to cut it. An actual golden apple given to a teacher would go above and beyond what most teachers receive in their paychecks. But it is fiction. A more accurate award title for teaching excellence would be The Wooden Apple: carved by elves in a fantastical workshop, lacking in any exchange or use value, and anachronistic, like a fully funded educational system.
[Note: This essay is part of our Mythologie Monday Series. To learn more about the method and history of mythologie, see the first piece in the series.]Become a Patron!
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