When I was a kid, I used to enjoy hanging out with my dad as we did fix-it projects around the house. Sometimes as we were putting the finishing touches on a project, my dad would hammer in the last nail, step back to examine the final product and say, “Good enough for government work.”
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I looked up the meaning of this phrase online and found this: “Originated in World War II. When something was ‘good enough for government work’ it meant it could pass the most rigorous of standards. Over the years it took on an ironic meaning that is now the primary sense, referring to poorly executed work.” (I’m not sure if my father’s declaration was a boast or a self-effacing acknowledgement of his talent as a craftsman.)
The phrase “government work,” in the post-Reagan era, conjures images of bloated contracts, wasteful spending, and paralyzing bureaucracy that prevents things from getting done. This is not without some truth, and I witnessed this attitude in the public schools throughout my 10-year teaching career. It’s not that teachers were lazy. In fact, the overwhelming majority of my teaching colleagues were incredibly dedicated, passionate people who worked evenings and weekends not because they got paid extra—they didn’t get paid extra—but because they really cared about kids. They took pride in their work.
But still, there existed a “good enough for government work” attitude that permeated the school environment.
For example, during a staff meeting a teacher has to choose between actively engaging in a conversation that includes more than 80 fellow teachers, or using that time make a dent in the 150 essays exams she has to grade. So she learns to sort of pay attention to the meeting, in between essays.
Or, a teacher is asked to donate his time after school to a committee that’s proposing a structural change in the way the school operates. But he knows that a few veteran teachers will challenge the proposal as a violation of the union contract. So he chooses to pass on the invitation. “Maybe some of the younger teachers might be interested,” he says.
Get a few years of experience teaching in schools and teachers quickly learn when to dedicate themselves with energy and enthusiasm, and when to say, “It’s good enough for government work.” Trying to enact institutional change from the inside is really hard. Schools are too big, the bureaucracy is too paralyzing. So teachers tend to focus their passion for kids in their own classroom, a micro-environment in which they can see the effects of their hard work.
The institutional change, then, gets ignored. Teachers are left to work furiously in unfavorable conditions, and end up having less of an impact than they should. Some get frustrated. “Good enough for government work” starts entering their classroom practice.
This is one way that we lose talented teachers. It’s going to keep happening until we can figure out a way to either change the institution or, more realistically, build new ones to replace the old one.
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