Teachers As Working Class
Debates abound in sociology amongst scholars attempting to distill the essence of class. Claims range from an inappreciable denial state to bombastic claiming that every individual other than a CEO of a Fortune 500 company can be considered working class simply based on the fact that they do not own the largest means of production. While I do not believe that a universal definition exists, I do contend that defining the terms of class in the US is an extremely useful way to promote justice, to analyze social problems, and to simply view the world.
In this way, I think it is imperative for teachers to consider their position in the class system of the United States. When we begin to think of teachers’ roles in the lives of their students, it becomes critical to ponder the role they play in class politics and in power in society if we are to create a more equitable and just world--a goal I assert we strive toward.
Though I will not ascribe to a particular sociologist, economist, or philosopher, my perspectives are deeply rooted in Marxist critiques of economics and politics and closely aligned with many modern progressive thinkers. To this end, a useful definition of class for teachers to initially approach the subject relates to positions of power. Beyond identity, these positions relate to the ownership of the means of production, which in the 21st century drastically differ from Marx’s Prussia and London. When we examine the world through power, we will notice that teachers are, indeed, much closer to many of their students than to a bourgeoisie owning class, even if they are highly educated and owners of a slightly large piece of the economic pie themselves.
When we think traditionally about the ownership of the means of production we conjure images of foreman, of bosses, of elite CEOs wearing business suits and cruing along in a third yacht. While this image certainly holds true, we can nuance this image tremendously. Property, at least in the form of real estate, land, or equity made from those, is a tremendous asset and has been historical, though significantly less today for use in agriculture compared to other historical periods. Nevertheless, ownership of landed estates and the associated wealth demands a type of owning class. Surely there are numerous teachers, especially in smaller towns across America, that step into this category that we would traditionally associate with a middle class. This pervasive myth of middle-class politics, though, clouds our vision.
In reality, when compared on a larger scale, we can begin to see the dissolution of the middle class, especially when dwarfed dynamically by the immense wealth of the upper echelons. Truly, power is held in wealth, generational wealth, but also in political purchasing power, monopolistic business power, and the continued upward concentration of true power in the form of capital. The gulf continues to widen and we begin to glance teachers solidly huddled on one side.
Where our story complicates, though, is in this Bardo, this inner state between the working-class--those who work for wages and sell their labor--and an owning class that consistently distances itself, form workers, either physically or ontologically. For if a working-class is any individual or group of individuals that sell their labor for wages to be spent on goods and services, teachers unquestionably fall into the former. The creation of a middle class that separates itself from others that also sell their labor, either by becoming marginally wealthier, owning their own small businesses, or simply obtaining a small fortune is an interesting phenomenon, as it is clear that, even though they may obtain some level of privilege and distance from the lower classes, they tend to, holistically at least, rely directly upon the owners of the means of production for their existence. The difference being, of course, that their entire existence is not wholly dependent on it, as they have a measure of power and authority not granted to the average wage earner. In this way, they can begin to distance themselves culturally from the lower classes, establishing what, to them, is declared a separate state, even though, ironically, they are still closer in measure to the working class. This divide, though, has a tremendous impact, not only because many teachers consider themselves in this special unit but because the very practice of imagining this unit is horizontal hostility.
For example, if there exists a class apart from the working-class that is not a true owning class, their begins to perpetuate a myth that they must somehow be severed from either class, a unique specimen separate and distant from either class, generally innocent, well-to-do, honorable. This tends to further be exacerbated in recent politics because many who fall into this category--a new educated upper-middle-class elite that includes everything from professors and doctors to nonprofit managers with masters degrees in social justice-related work--find themselves at direct odds with the working-class, preferring instead to be distinct, rather than acknowledge solidarity, choosing instead apathy or silent applause for class comrades. On the flip side, many of these folks are also the most well-meaning, critical comrades for workers because they acknowledge themselves as workers, even if they know they have important privileges.
Regarding privilege, there can be no denying that this cohort, whether truly apart from the working-class or not, does have access, both economically and politically, to a world that many working-class folks do not, especially the growing class of working poor. In a world where the division continues sliding further, grasping for these advantages has become a dog fight. Teaching as a profession occupies a void somewhere in the middle of this challenge. Not only do teachers possess educational privilege and at least in some places a more marginally secure position and benefits, but they also rest on a shaky foundation.
Teachers find themselves in this middle in a different way, too. Given such immense powers in the impact of the lives of young people, teachers posses both class and cultural capital that many students need to succeed. They are the ultimate gatekeepers, though they are not the sole gatekeeper, of course. This is critical for class consciousness and for building class solidarity. In acknowledging this power, teachers can begin to connect with their students across class lines. Indeed, teachers may be the best-equipped profession to hold this middle ground of class solidarity. And it is certainly a tedious balance.
As has been proven across educational research, teachers and schools perpetuate a middle class (usually white) culture that can be harmful to students' own identities, values, and traditions. Though this should not be viewed as simplistically as either good or bad, it is essential to dissect this a little more. What I mean is that teachers are gatekeepers in the sense that they stand at the threshold: a middle way, a space between the solidarity of the working-class--of which they are truly a part--and that of higher educational and economic privilege, at least as society currently exists. If teachers can acknowledge this, they can build solidarity across classes.
Because teachers are integral to the middle ground of class, they are working-class. Teacher's proximity, both physically and ontologically, to their students, holding, in some form, the ability to shape their lives, places them intimately close with the working class. Teachers' salaries, job security, and prestige also rest upon (literally) the shoulders, arms, and legs of working people, whose labor upholds school funding and functioning around the country, private and charter schools not withheld. In addition, nearly all the students that teachers teach in a classroom will have some connection to the working-class, whether in their communities, as workers themselves, or from their parents. Finally, many teachers also come from working-class backgrounds--like me--and have found a way to step into the fictional middle-class but have not forgotten at least aspects of their roots. This is not only something they can share with their students but is a privilege they can use to reshape society.
Within all of these interconnections of teachers intimately connecting to the working class, whether by standing in the threshold, partnering with students, or coming from working-class backgrounds themselves, we can see most clearly the urgent need for teachers to understand class consciousness and begin the work of discovering solidarity with students, with communities, and, indeed, the larger working-class. So even if we do not consider teachers truly “working-class,” it is evident that they are so clearly connected with the working-class that solidarity is imperative. In fact, I hold that teachers, when they examine closely the economic and political story they are enmeshed in, will discover their place as leaders that shape the minds of future union organizers, future solidarity activists, future young people striving for social and environmental justice and equity in our world--and as members of the working-class.
10/16/2021 11:34:16 pm
Nice blog thankss for posting
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About the Author
Ethan C Smith is an educator, adventurer, and thinker who is passionate about education, ecology, and social class. He happens to also spend a great deal of time reading and thinking about history, literature, philosophy, music, the future, and coffee.