“My Mom’s Job is Important”

When Children Study Work

By Matt Witt

My mother is a cashier. She works at Zayre’s.

My mom said to be a good cashier you should be punctual, courteous, broad-minded, honest and accurate.

So begins fifth grader Antonia Guzman’s account of her mother’s job. But Antonia’s account does not stop with the usual recitation of the skills and attitudes people need to fit in to the world of work which so often emerge from classroom units on employment. Instead, Antonia goes on to explore her mother’s dreams and reflects on the importance of her mother’s contribution:

My mom said that the job she wants if she could change her job right away is to become an entrepreneur. She would like to own a retail business like a gift shop. She would like to be an entrepreneur because she would like to be her own boss, and your income is not limited and you can work at your own pace.

I think my mom’s job is important because if there’s no cashier no one would keep track of the prices when a customer buys an item or a product.

Antonia is a student at Oyster Bilingual Elementary School in Washington, D.C., a public school whose students come from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Parents and teachers at Oyster organized a year-long “Program on Work” which demonstrated some exciting approaches to teaching and learning about work.

In the Oyster program, children critically examined slides of work situations, interviewed their parents, explored probing questions, entertained controversy, invited parents and other adults into the classroom to talk (and in one case, sing) about work, and constructed a display for parents featuring stories, poems, and drawings they had created. An understanding and respect for their parents’ jobs was combined in the unit with the exploration of legal and historical issues. Slides and a discussion guide developed in the program are available to teachers or parents interested in adapting any of the ideas.

Why study work? First, because it is a central aspect of our lives and our society. If a goal of education is to teach students to think critically about how our society is organized, their study of work-related issues cannot be limited to repeating by rote the difference between “goods” and “services,” memorizing a few names like Samuel Gompers or George Meany, or soaking up donated corporate propaganda materials that paint an incomplete picture of the country’s economic life.

Second, studying work is a good way to encourage interaction between students, parents, community residents, and teachers—either by bringing people from the community into the classroom to talk about their work or by sending students out to investigate.

Third, studying work provides stimulating subject matter with which to develop skills such as writing, interviewing, debating, drawing, or singing.

“What are these children doing?”

The program at Oyster School began with discussions about work in each class from second grade through sixth, conducted by teachers and parent volunteers. To begin with a subject students could relate to easily, they were shown slides of child labor taken in the U.S. in the early years of this century.

“What are these children doing?” students were asked. When they established that they were working—in coal mines, cotton fields, textile mills, and other industries—students were asked, “Why are they working and not in school?”

Through further discussion, students discovered that as recently as when their grandparents were children, many young people were employed in child labor. This led to many questions…” Why did child labor exist? Who benefited from it, and who opposed it? What did working people do to get it outlawed?”

Slides of modern day child labor in other countries provoked comments from students from recent immigrant families. “They still don’t have any laws against children having to work,” said a student who came to the U.S. from Guatemala. “Children have to do a lot of hard work, especially on the farms.”

Students were then asked whether children have a “right” to get an education instead of going to work, which provoked a discussion about who decides what is a “right” and what is not.

They were shown slides of people of different races, ages, and genders, and asked whether they thought it would be legal for an employer looking to hire someone to pick among those people based on those differences. They saw a slide of a pregnant woman and were asked whether it would be legal to fire them if they refused to do the job without proper protection.

After students gave their views, they learned that laws establishing what they considered to be obvious rights in each of these situations had been passed just since their parents were born. Asked how they thought workers got those laws passed, students drew on what they learned during a school-wide program honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement.

“Boycotts,” they suggested. “Sit-ins. Strikes. Marches.”

Historical slides showed some of these tactics being used, including sit-down strikes in the 1930s and equal rights rallies in the 1960s. Rights, students learned, are not given but won, and change with time as new social movements emerge.

Is job segregation “natural”?

Next, students saw slides of men doing traditionally “male” jobs—doctor, factory worker, coal miner—and women doing traditionally “female” jobs such as secretary, flight attendant, and homemaker. That prompted a discussion about whether both men and women could do those jobs.

The next slides showed men and women doing the jobs that are stereotyped as being only for the opposite sex. Discussion followed on whether all people should be able to choose jobs that suit them, or whether, as a few boys in each class would argue, “the only work women should do is at home.”

Another discussion in all classes, including pre-k, kindergarten, and first grade, was based on slides of various Oyster parents doing their jobs. Certain jobs are particularly common among the school’s families—paid housekeeper, hotel and restaurant work, construction, and housework at home—but nearly every type of job in Washington is represented, including lawyer, reporter, dancer, furniture maker, cab driver, an aide to government officials.

The occupations shown in these slides were discussed from a number of points of view. “What does the person shown actually do in his or her job? What would be satisfying about the work, and what would make it difficult, stressful, or dangerous?

What makes the job important to society?”

In all classes, students were able to identify a number of reasons why each job is valuable to society. In some cases, that led to new questions, such as, “If each job is important, why are some jobs paid more than others?”

When shown slides of homemakers and asked what job these people were doing, a few students answered, “They don’t have a job. They just stay home.” This provoked lively discussions about the duties of homemakers and both the strains and satisfactions of child rearing.

“What do you do at work?”

With these classroom discussion as background, students were assigned to interview their parents or other adults about their work. “What do you do while I’m at school? What do you like about your job? What would you change if you could?”

What they learned from these interviews was as varied as the jobs parents do. Many children learned that what their parents liked most about their job was a chance to meet people or to help people, while a common complaint was that customers or employers did not treat them with respect.

Some of the recent immigrants among the parents said they wished they had jobs like they had had in their native countries, instead of the less skilled work they were confined to in the U.S.

Other parents talked about problems with shiftwork, mandatory overtime, and being denied benefits that were due them.

All classes from pre-k to sixth grade had discussions about what they had learned. In the pre-k through first grade classes, a parent brought in a guitar and sang with the children, “What does your mama (or papa, grampa, etc.) do? What does your mama do? What does your mama do when you’re in school, you’re in school?” The song would stop as a student explained what she or he had found out, and pick up again when it was time to give someone else a chance.

After all students did drawings and the second through sixth grade classes wrote reports or poems using what they had learned, their work was put on display at the school and compiled in a booklet. Parents were invited to the school one evening to see the display, get copies of the booklet, and take part in a community forum about work along with teachers, students, local union leaders, and local labor scholars.

Problems and Lessons

In carrying out the Program on Work teachers and parents at Oyster School encountered a number of problems. For example, when the program was first proposed, some of the white middle-class parents active in the PTA objected that “the poorer families are not going to want the fact that they are a housekeeper or a janitor plastered all over the walls.” As it turned out, the opposite was true: parents with lower-status jobs greatly appreciated both the recognition they received and the open discussion of issues of equity in the work world.

Another obstacle was the desire of some teachers to narrowly define the program as “career education.” It took a great deal of discussion to convince some that the role of the school was to prepare students not merely to fit into the world of work as it exists, but to be able to analyze it and critique it.

In adapting the program for other schools, certain omissions would have to be corrected and some program elements could be developed further. For example, children of the few parents at this particular school who were without work were simply told to interview them about jobs they used to have or would like to have, or to interview an older sibling, neighbor, friend, or worker at the school.

In retrospect, more time should have been spent in classroom discussion on unemployment, disability, retirement, and other issues related to people without work. Students could have been asked to think of all the reasons why someone might be unemployed or unable to work, to consider what obligation society has to such people, if any, and to discuss possible solutions.

Perhaps someone active in a community organization working to win expanded jobs programs could have been invited to talk with students about the causes of unemployment and proposed remedies.

Particularly for older students, the chance to experience or at least observe one or more jobs would be an obvious complement to discussions and interviews about adults’ views of work. Parents from a fourth grade class at Oyster demonstrated the potential for “work experience” activities by arranging for students to work as teacher’s aides in a nearby nursery school. When each had had a turn, the students had a lengthy discussion about what they had learned, and prepared an oral report which was given to the rest of the school during an assembly.

Similarly, workplace visits are an obvious program element. These visits are more fruitful if a worker visits the school first and prepares students to think about the working conditions they will see, how conditions have changed over the years, how decisions are made when problems come up, and so on. Otherwise, such visits tend to focus on how workers experience the job.

One final suggestion: schools that would need extra funds for materials, transportation, or other expenses in order to incorporate the world of work into the curriculum might consider asking local unions for help. They also may be able to help set up workplace visits.

Matt Witt, an Oyster Bilingual School parent, was coordinator of the school’s “Program on Work” and is co-director of the American Labor Education Center in Washington, D.C.

A slide/discussion guide package adapted from the Oyster School’s Program on Work, is available to interested teachers. It’s available for $10 per kit from Communications Workers of America, Education Department, 1925 K Street N.W., Washington, DC 20005 (202) 728-2405