Professionals and Amateurs

I have been known to stroll around craft fairs, marveling at the clever work of others and thinking to myself "I could do that." I'd soon discover that without the vision and design sense, my version would be a pale imitation, hardly the thing that caught my eye when made by someone else. My husband, a lifelong woodworker, makes musically perfect Native American flutes. He used to do high-end art shows around the west and always had a few Georges come by. The Georges were the guys who weren't interested in how to play but only in how to make a flute. They'd take a good deal of his time, had lots of questions, and inevitably their wives would whisper, "you could make one of those, George."

We're probably Georges too. In the 1970s, many of us left the city to get back to the land. Part of the big John Denver migration to the back woods. We designed and built our own homes. There was no architect, no contractor. I'm proud of our home, of the painstaking labor and building decisions we made. Plans were drawn on graph paper and accommodations made along the way. Nowhere for the upstairs bathroom plumbing to go if I wanted to keep the open-beamed ceilings downstairs? Raise the tub and toilet a foot.

I like to think I can do nearly anything on my own. Build anything, fix anything, handle any problem. It's not true, of course. But in our do-it-yourself world, it's no wonder that Pinterest is one of the most popular sites on the web. No need to pay an expensive professional when I can handle it myself.

As a professional educator though, I see things differently. There are many non-educators who believe they have the answers to what ails schools -- from Bill Gates to Arne Duncan to every reporter and columnist I read. We have a system where elected school boards oversee our schools, rarely with any experience in schools other than as a student or parent. As an administrator, I was quite accustomed to listening to parents' and students' ideas about how to make our school better. 

I had to come to terms though with my own amateurish efforts a few months ago. My 90-year old mother-in-law recently lost her husband of 71 years. I had promised to come down and stay a few weeks to help her out. Pauline worked outside of the home only a short while during her life, mostly caring for their immaculate home and raising four children. She has a stack of magazine and newspaper clippings she shares freely with us, advice on everything from taking care of your skin to how to properly burp a baby or tips for removing burnt-on grime from pots and pans. While I was there, she patiently corrected several of my faults.

"Always put the cover on the toilet before you flush. Otherwise particles of your potty float into the air and land on your toothbrush."
"You should bake that fish so it doesn't cook in all that oil."

"Don't you want walnuts on your cereal? Eat a handful of nuts every day."

"We need to keep these lights off when you leave a room."

"This towel is for hands; the other one is only for drying dishes."

It didn't bother me much at first.  After all, I love my mother-in-law. She's always been very good to me. But after a week or so, I started resenting all the corrections. 

It was in the midst of complaining over the phone to my husband that it hit me. I was an amateur homemaker and she was the professional.  She had educated herself through Good Housekeeping and the daily newspaper, by watching Dr. Phil and Oprah, and by many decades of conversations with friends, family and hairdressers about the fine points of taking care of one's home, family and own health. For me, all of these were mere tedium. I could cook a meal and my kids didn't starve. The health department had not come to condemn the filth in my house. And the pets were still alive. But expertise? I had none of it.  How long had it been since I'd clipped a coupon? 

My attitude changed when I realized that just as I was a professional educator, with experience, training and insights that most lay people lacked, she was a professional homemaker, far better trained in her field than me.

The difference between professionals and amateurs was driven home again this holiday season.  We order online occasionally and the delivery trucks have to venture a half mile off the paved road to bring ourpackages. Our mail carrier is wonderful about it and somehow still manages to keep to her schedule. The UPS and FedEx trucks arrive too and are friendly though less predictable about when they'll come. But last December, FedEx's seasonal drivers twice left our packages with a neighbor a half-mile away -- a neighbor we'd never met. There was snow on the ground and perhaps they didn't want to come find us. I tried to call the local FedEx office to let them know but there is no local number. Nothing in the phone book, nothing listed online. Only an 800 number -- the nice man in El Salvador had decent English and tried to be helpful. But his computer readout said the packages were left on my porch, based presumably on the driver's input.

I decided to turn my frustration with the low-paid, part-time seasonal workforce that is UPS and FedEx into a trip to the Post Office just to thank them profusely for being professionals. It makes a difference. 

So educators, stand proud. I know what lousy homemakers most of you are. I've seen your living rooms and front yards. But you are the professionals who know education and what kids need. Let's stop letting the pundits, politicians and journalists decide what's best for our students.  Speak up. Remind them that being a professional is worth something.

You may not be surprised to know I recently hired a professional designer to plan a bathroom remodel. She looked at the tiled steps leading up to the shower and was horrified. "How many people have slipped and fallen here?" She's expensive but maybe cheaper than DIY.

Thanks for the lesson, Mom.