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As We Speak: The Difference Between Job and Role

Posted on: March 21st, 2013 by Stephen Hurley  12 Comments »


I love words. I love thinking about them, and I love listening to them. I get excited when they are used in new and interesting ways, and I get frustrated when I find myself at a loss for them.

Last evening, after spending an hour with five education colleagues on TV Ontario’s Public Affairs program The Agenda with Steve Paikin, I came away with a better appreciation of just how important the ​right ​words are and how messages can become somewhat murky when our words are not precise enough.

When I was invited to be part of last night’s panel, I was told by producer Sandra Gionas that they were looking to have a discussion about the role of teachers in light of the recent tensions between Ontario teachers and the provincial government. But if you listen to Steve Paikin’s introduction to the episode you’ll hear him ask whether extracurricular activities should be part of a teacher’s job.

So, prompted by a couple of tweets and emails, I’ve found myself carrying the two words, job and role, with me today.

In consulting with dictionary.com, I found that the two words have both quantitative and qualitative differences. There are 23 different usages for the word job, yet only 3 for role. And when you examine the definitions carefully, you begin to notice just how different the two words are.

From my reading, jobs are discrete, defined and, in a sense, limited. There is an understanding that jobs are bound by time and space and have a clear and recognizable set of criteria that allow us to proclaim, “A job well done,” or “You did a sh^#$y job!”

Jobs, despite their complexity, can be described.

Roles, I sense, are generally understood to be different.  Perhaps the best explanation of the difference came to me in the idea that, while jobs are the content, roles are the context. While it’s possible to assign a number of jobs to a particular role, a hard and fast definition of what, precisely, it means to play that role is somewhat more confounding.

So how do these meanderings—and that’s what they are at this point—apply to teaching. Well, perhaps I’ll pose a few questions to you first. Is teaching a job, or is it a role? Has this understanding changed over the years? Is it possible to define the work of a teacher, in the same way that one would define the work of, say, an appliance repair person, or an accountant? Is this a conversation that is unique to those working in education?

I intend to follow up on this initial thinking with some specific thoughts on how language can affect the way we perceive the role of teacher and the future of the profession! But if you missed last night’s conversation, here is a direct link to the video feed along with the text of Steve Paikin’s introduction. Looking forward to the conversation!

A Teacher’s Work is Never Done?The fight over extra-curriculars drew attention to a teacher’s work day and what parents – and school boards – have come to expect. From coaching, to field trips, to maintaining curriculum standards, what should teachers really be doing in their jobs?

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12 Responses to “As We Speak: The Difference Between Job and Role”

  1. Nancy says:

    Very interesting. As a parent, teacher and parent engagement advocate, I would be crushed if teaching ever became just a job. When positions were few, I left looking for another job. But I came back. Then I had kids and stayed home with them. But I eventually returned to teaching. Why? Because I AM a teacher. It’s my role.

    • Thanks for the response Nancy! I think that the phrase, I AM a teacher, goes to the heart of what I’m currently pondering. What does this mean, both inside and outside the schoolhouse? Is it different than saying, “I AM an accountant” or “I am a researcher”? I’m not sure, but I sense that many would agree that it’s closer to saying, “I AM a parent.”

      • Nancy says:

        Perhaps, but if we take the latter are we saying we are beyond criticism or putting ourselves on a pedestal that annoys others? We can’t drink holier-than-thou kool-aid.

        Having said that, I understand your struggle with your original question. Because the teachers who have made the biggest difference in our lives, or who astound us with their talent, have done so because of something that goes beyond ‘job’. They know that their role goes beyond 9-3, beyond covering the curriculum, beyond testing and Board requirements. It’s about making a difference in a child’s life; about wanting to fill each student with knowledge; about driving your own children mad because every day brings ‘teachable moments’. Perhaps a better comparison is to a doctor who sees themselves as a healer at all times.

  2. Hi Stephen,

    I just viewed the web cast, “The Agenda with Steve Paikin: A Teacher’s Work is Never Done?” in which you were a guest. I found the web cast very educational and thought provoking.

    The first thought I had was that there should have been a clarification in the use of the word ‘teacher’ when talking about the removal of extra curricular activities.

    The Ontario English Catholic Teacher Association teachers continued to offer extra curricular activities, while it was the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario and Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federations that did not offer extra curricular activities this year.

    As you know I am the Principal of PIS Canada, in Anyang, South Korea. Educators in South Korea work from 8:20-5:30. These hours are broken down as follows:

    • Instructional Time – 8:35 am to 3:10;
    • Extracurricular Time 3:30 to 5:20.

    As I write this out loud, I am telling myself that this reflect what 90% of teachers work in Ontario, and throughout Canada, so what is the problem.

    Administrators and teacher here are ‘paid’ and ‘expected’ to work these hours. The contract they sign clearly outlines these expectations, and the compensation they receive for these hours.

    Last night during your discussion about ‘A Teacher’s Work is Never Done?’ I believe there was consensus around the table that teachers and school boards did not support Bill 115.

    I have always believed that groups should have the right to assemble, and that unions are an important part of our society. Certainly history demonstrates that ‘big business’ will, and has taken advantage of employees if they do not have unions.

    I do believe extracurricular activities was the only vehicle that teachers had at their disposal to leverage their concerns for Bill 115. Having said that, I strongly disagree with their action.

    When I first saw Earl Manner introduced I was surprised with his perspective on the issue, given he was a strong ‘union’ leader for so many years. How one can change when the job changes! He did although make a excellent point in highlighting the contradiction between how teachers want to protect their democratic right to assemble and strike, but at the same time taking undemocratic steps to address the problem by removing extra curricular activities.

    The removal of extra-curricular activities, the concern of teacher’s democratic rights, and the positioning of teaching unions as the ‘savior’ of the democratic rights of all unions and society, was a way for them to position their challenge, but I do not believe these were their real concerns.

    In fact I thought Misha Abarbanel demonstrated great courage in articulating his concern about Bill 115, and clearly articulated the real concern of teachers, and teacher unions. Society, political parties, school board together are continuing to increase its expectations of teachers outside the regular school day, and in doing so decrease the ‘real’ or ‘actualized’ compensation of teachers.

    The compensation of educators needs to be addressed, as well as a review of their ‘role’. Unfortunately with large boards of education, contract lawyers, and unions, the ambiguous duties of teachers in the education act can no longer be accepted. The days of teaching being a ‘vocation’ has long passed, and teacher compensation must be directly related to their role.

    Now is the time to align the teacher’s role with a teacher’s compensation plan that is just and ethical.

    Here is the challenge for us as a society – teachers are well paid and deserved to paid well as a professional. Presently teachers are being compensated for the instructional time they spend with students, and the related activities such as assessment and evaluation, reporting, ‘one hour’ staff meetings, etc.

    As Zoe Rangoon Pile commented during the show, teachers that participate in extracurricular, do so in large part because they get fulfillment for sharing their experiences and knowledge with students through these activities – but it still is considered ‘extra’ curricular.

    It is time for society and educators to include extracurricular into what I will call the ‘instructional learning day’. If we are life long learners, and want our students to be life long learners, and we recognize the importance of holistic learning, then it should be part of the ‘whole’ learning day.

    Yes that means a redefinition of the ‘role’ of the teacher and a ‘fair and just’ realignment of teacher’s compensation. If we are to increase the ‘instructional learning day’, we must recognize that we must increase teaching salaries.

    Do we pay teachers a ‘just wage’, or do we continue down the road of paying taxes for services not rendered in education system. (Extra curriculum activities) I would suggest that there are many entrepreneurs ready to jump on this opportunity and start their own extra curricular companies and make it a very profitable enterprise.

    The question then becomes are we ready to increase the compensation (salary) of educators?

    Here as video that may help you in your discernment of you answer.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/petermansbridge/2013/03/those-who-can-teach.html

    Gerry Cockburn

    http://gerrycockburn.wordpress.com/

    • HI Gerry,

      I very appeciate your comments and the perspective that you bring to this conversation. You make many valid and interesting points that, I’m sure, resonate with many. I think that my fellow panelists pointed to some very interesting ground in the TVO conversation, including the integration of some of what is now considered “extra” into what you refer to as instructional time.

      I happen to think that this particular issue could help us to reimagine what schools could be. I look forward to continuing the conversation with you, and others.

    • Interesting perspective, which I followed until a curve in the road threw me. There’s a leap in logic somehow. The question, then, comes down to “what is curriculum” since we can only define extracurricular in relation to curricular time. Some think of curriculum as the aggregate of courses taught in an educational institution. Or perhaps a course of study. It is both formal (that which is given by the Ministry) and informal (whose faces hang in frames in the school entrance. I think it’s everything that happens during the school day. All of it – whether I arrive hungry, whether I have friends, the compassion of my teachers, my interest focus, the tone of voice on the intercom … all of it including the resources. It all plays a part in what I’m learning.

      But I’m not responsible for the food in the cafeteria.

      I’m not responsible for plowing the parking lot in winter.

      I don’t ensure that the school is well stocked and maintained.

      Instructional time is clearly defined; that – plus prescribed time before and after – are the requirements of a job. The basic requirements. Meets the provincial standard.

      I gave the rest (softball teams to choirs to newspapers to chess club) when I could (not so much with young kids of my own to raise, much more in later years when I could come early and/or stay later. Because this is bother way to connect with students and the connection is what nourishes the learning.

      I always thought of myself as being a teacher, not working as a teacher.

      From that perspective I think there might be good reason to talk about the life of schools outside of teaching time and continue to develop places – called schools – where children not only learn how to make a living, but also how to live a life.

  3. [...] thinking more deeply about the difference between role and job. I began thinking out loud about it here. The entry below is a continuation of that [...]

  4. I’ve talked about our role as teachers and the stage we act on. Perhaps in this sense, the job is the stage direction. The Education Act blurs the line between role and job I think.

  5. It’s a variation on who I am vs what I do isn’t it?

  6. Thanks for helping us to unpack this Sylvia! There has been some talk about expanding the job description of “teacher” to include additional requirements around what happens outside of traditional instructional time. While this approach may ensure that the things that we now consider “extra” are actually inscribed into the life of the school, I don’t think that it helps us get to the distinction that I have found myself thinking about here.

    Your last comment that points to the difference between “doing teaching” and “being a teacher” is more along the lines of what has been going through my mind. I think about the popular list of Rules for Teachers, 1872 that has been circulating for many years. I’m not sure if the list is real or fictional, but it does point to the fact that, from the beginning of public schooling, teachers have been held to a higher standard than some other members of the community.

    As recently as last week, I heard the Ontario College of Teachers inform teacher candidates that they are teachers 24/7. There is no turning off their role as teacher. Our duties and responsibilities clearer extend beyond the traditional school day, and travel with us in other aspects of our lives. And these expectations extend well beyond interactions with members of our school community.

    It’s not possible to inscribe that set of expectations in a job description. We need anotherI way of thinking about it, and I think that the concept of “role” might come close to acting as a thinking tool to consider what that is all about.

    I’m enjoying the pushes and pulls of this conversation.

  7. Glad a read this piece as I was losing a little bit of motivation today!

    What is my job? But more importantly, what is my role?

    Sometimes it is great to take a step back in what your defined tasks are and see the larger picture of what your role is in doing certain things. It brings a purpose to what you are doing amidst the hum drum daily routines…

    Thanks!

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