2/09/2014

Being a Member of the Language Police is Not My Job


I know it annoys the heck out of my brother-in-law, a doctor, when any member of our extended family asks him for medical advice. "My advice is, see your own personal physician. S/he knows you and your personal medical history best," is always his terse reply. Yes, I realize: people just want to be reassured, people want to know if it's serious enough to go to the doctor, people want help in the middle of the night when the baby is crying with a fever. I suppose many professions suffer versions of this syndrome: accountants or stock brokers who are queried for financial advice, attorneys for legal advice, plumbers for advice about drains and toilets. There was an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry was dating a masseuse, and kept trying to get her to give him a neck rub, but she wouldn't. "Let me make you an appointment," she'd say. The message was : When I do that, I am at work, and I get paid. I am not at work now, and I am not getting paid. I will not do it.

When I am introduced to someone new, my profession often garners a variety of strong reactions.  Upon first hearing that I am an English teacher, and an AP senior English teacher at that, many people often react nervously, and say things like "Ooooh an English teacher. I'd better be careful with my grammar around you!" My physical therapist says this every single time I walk in the door - 3 times a week for the past 6 weeks - but he is not alone. My thought is always - is there ever anyone actually rude enough to go around correcting people's grammar? If so, then call them on it. It's none of their business - just as it's rude to go around telling people they need to lose weight, floss, or stop smoking. You will not change strangers' behavior by doing this, folk. I always wonder what English teacher, somewhere back in time, put fear into people's hearts this way. Do we worry, upon meeting an algebra teacher, that s/he might ask to review our checkbook balancing or tip calculating skills?

The next reaction I get is a hyper-vigilant critique of my own grammatical skills. If I make a typo, if I am using regional dialect (for rhetorical effect), if I don't know the answer to something minute about my subject, people enjoy feeling superior and correcting me. I just let them, because I know that I am human, too, and everyone makes mistakes. I am confident in my professional skills and know that they transcend minor spelling errors. Yes, I get annoyed when I read a work email that is so horribly mis-spelled as to be incomprehensible. The difference is in scale.

Another type of reaction I encounter frequently is more like what my brother-in-law experiences- a request for free advice or services. People will often learn that I am an English teacher and then want me to teach them or use my skills for free in some capacity. I hear all this and more on a near daily basis: "I just wrote a novel about dragons, it's 1000 pages long, and I'm going to self publish it on the internet. Could you proofread it for me, edit and correct it, make suggestions as to how I can improve it- by tomorrow?.... Could you spend several hours a week prepping me for the SAT ? ....Could you proofread and edit our non-profit newsletter? ....Could you help us design some brochures-signs-ads?....  Could you help my neighbor's friend's niece apply to college, and teach her how to write and proofread all her essays? .....Could you tutor my friend's child in reading in your spare time? ....Could you teach each month's selection to our book club? Oh, ok, how about just prepare some questions and background on the author then?"

For the record: I spend 50+ hours a week doing all of these things- for my students. I bring home papers to be graded most nights and weekends, am constantly attending seminars, meetings, and lesson planning / curriculum writing sessions outside the school day, work extra duties before and after school, on weekends, and in the summers. Any additional work you ask of me won't be undertaken gratis, just as your dentist won't come over and clean your uncle's teeth for free, either. I've already spent 20 years volunteering and donating my time and talents for various organizations when my children were little- scouts and VBS and many other activities. There have been periods of my life when I tutored on the side, mostly when still in grad school. Like any professional service, be prepared to pay for services rendered outside my workplace.

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