January 24, 2011

An Intersection Between Personal & Professional

Nothing like a winter break and a visit-all-sides-of-the-family fest to reacquaint myself with why I want my classes to not only address appropriate content and skills, but also highlight things that "People-Should-Know-[But-For-Some-Reason-Don't-Seem-To.]" This is risky for a college teacher. People can argue that we overstep our bounds by including things that we think are important, rather than simply teaching what we are hired/asked/qualified to teach. But if our students are adults and still don't know some of these basics, we have a problem. A multicausal and incredibly multisolution problem, but one I feel ethically compelled to address in some small way.

Before I list some of the "People-Should-Know [...if you live/grew up in the US.]" I would like to take this moment to thank my wacky dads (and mom) for helping me out. My fathers are both important parts of my life. One was in the starring role of my mom's partner at conception and my alternating weekend guide during my childhood. The other was in the role of raising me since before I remember.** Both are workaholics and tend to be self employed. But their styles contrast phenomenally. One evangelizes about being self-employed and not dealing with The Man. He expects his kids to know how to "flip-a-buck." He values street smarts over book smarts. He has no idea why I went to grad school, became a psychologist, and then didn't open my own practice. My other dad is much more conservative in his business venture. He has a practice (not in psychology) and employs 5 or so people. I'm watching him work himself in the ground just to keep his practice a float and make sure him employees have jobs and insurance. Being around them and their different styles of self-employment and educational histories I formed some my perspective. One, I know that being self-employed sounds lovely, but in reality it means many more responsibilities (and skills). Whenever I grouse about my job I remind myself I have (paid) vacations and don't have to be responsible for employees payroll and benefits, taxes, maintaining my books, and keeping the lights on. Trade-offs folk. It's all about trade-offs, but you need to be informed to make a decent decision. You want to be an artist? Great, make sure you know how to run a business. You want to a therapist? Great, make sure somewhere in your psych major and grad school year some teaches you how teachers you how to run a business... or at least understand the complex payment system that sort out who you can help and who can't and for how long.

So that list. Here it is. The list of those things which aren't necessarily traditionally part of course content, but I am compelled to add as public service.

1) How much money do you require each month to live as you do?

2) How health insurance works (or for that matter, how car insurance works)

3) How to respond to an exploitative employer who is pressuring them to take extra shifts regularly despite that fact that they are only hiring your for 20 hours a week (with no benefits.) 

4) Credit. How it works. How you establish it, diminish it, and why/when it matters.

1) In Sociology we talk about how a society defines poverty. As an exercise, each student writes an list of their monthly expenses, hands it in anonymously, and I clump the data so the class can hear what sort of things are part of people's monthly expenses and roughly how much each costs. [Please note we are not in an affluent part of the country. We are in one of the poorest counties in the state.] The response is unfailingly, "Oh, I forgot my phone bill..." or "Oh, you want me to include car insurance?" The point of the lesson is to try to figure out what is essential in US society. For instance, is a phone a luxury expense? Or do you need it in the US to be part of the workforce? What about a car? [We live in a really rural place. The 2009 census estimates are 13.2 people per square mile in this county. If you want to work, you need a car.] Once we negotiate a list of what someone in the US needs to participate in society rather than simply stay alive. This is my introduction to the poverty guidelines and discussing attitudes toward the poor and systemic barriers that contribute to maintaining poverty. Inevitably, prior to introducing the actual poverty guidelines, students come up with a higher guideline based one their estimations of what is necessary to function. Surprise family of four, your 2011 poverty guideline is $22,350. So the exercise brings us around to a discussion of poverty, but it is also good for student (trad alongside nontrad) to thinking about expenses and - even is it if wildly off-base -- consider their monthly expenses.

2) During a time of healthcare reform debates, there is a lot of politicized yelling about healthcare. Someone is yelling anything and everything at someone else. I can see why it's an issue that student may want to avoid just like other highly contentious, divisive subjects. Walking through how health insurance works (generally) is a real eye opener for me and the students. This is genuinely part of class content for a Introduction to Mental Health Systems class... especially the year that the last parity bill was passed. Having has this conversation many times now students genuinely seem to struggle with the concept of pooled risk. It seems they expect dollar-for-dollar situation, as if insurance worked like a mandatory savings account. The attitude that often crops up as a result is, "I'm healthy and don't even use services, why should I have to support others?" Why can't those people take care of themselves? Explaining that it is a group phenomenon where we share risk with assumption that the money will be there when any of us need to draw off and that is because their is a large, varied group of people paying in at any one time paying in to maintain the pool doesn't clear things up immediately. It takes awhile. At some point, many students are shocked at the "fine print," such as lifetime caps and preexisting diseases exclusions. This is one of those times I really appreciate having nontrads in class because someone always has a story of how they learned the limits of their health insurance when someone in their family got sick.

3) This state is an "at will" state in terms of leaving your job or being fired. I talk a lot about professional issues in social sciences fields as part of course content and an attempt to get students ready for the jobs and careers in which they are interested. Burn out is issue number one. Students who want to help people for a career get hired at agencies where the caseloads are hirer than they are supposed to be and the pay is horrible. Plus, our fields are always finding ways to staff using people with less training, lower credential, and smaller salaries (or better yet -- part time employment!) An enormous pet peeve of mine is that a local social services company that frequently hires our students has a pattern of bullying them into working nearly full time while paying them for part time with no benefits. They also have a pattern of firing students. [Some of which I may have fired too, but others I could not conceive of a reason for firing.] This is the pattern: the student will start sliding in their classes or disappearing at some point. When I see them and ask what's up the story has been the same. Each started working at the agency fro 20 hours a week (no benefits), but started to get offered extra shifts. At first this is awesome... more money, but as the term ramps up and assignments are due they are in a pattern when they feel they can't refuse a shift. In fact, one supervisor allegedly said, "Your job comes first."  Some students report being verbally reprimanded for not calling back within the hour when offered a shift. Six or seven students, trad and nontrad have reported that working for this agency has them stressed and failing at some other life obligation. Now regularly, shameless coach the students on the basics of labor rights and on how to respond politely and firmly to a pushy supervisor's offer -- yet they still have to deal with the possibility that acting less exploitable may mean they will be fired as minimum-ish wage line staff workers are easy to find. [To this end I try to build relationships with competing companies and agencies that hire students and interns and treat them reasonably. I will funnel them students as long as the students maintain that it is a reasonable, not-exploitative workplace. ] Here is how I do it: I hold my hand to my head as if holding a phone and say, "Thank you. Unfortunately, I already have plans. I'll see you [next scheduled shift here.] I appreciate you thinking of me." I have them practice.   

4) When I was younger my mom got me a credit card, gave it to me occasionally, let me charge $25 or so dollars, and made sure it was paid off monthly. Eventually (and I was young) I asked why she was doing this because most of the time she paid with her own credit card. She said I am building up your credit. For years I had no idea what that meant. Eventually I read about it. Fast forward twelve or so years, I'm taking my Intro Sociology class to a talk on Identity Theft given by a lady from a local bank. She did a wonderful job presenting. I learned a lot. At the end of the talk she took questions, and one of the students raised her hand and asked a very important question: "What's credit?" A pretty fundamental concept if you want to understand how identity theft works and how it impacts people. You could watch the lady from the bank silently estimate what the questions meant in terms of whether or not the student understood any of her talk. The lady from the bank rebounded and spent the next hour explaining how credit works and how you build it. [One of those weird corollaries to, "How do I get a job if all jobs require previous employment experience?"] Student started asking some really wonderful questions about borrowing against their money to develop credit and how mortgages work. At the end of Intro Soc, students reported that class was the best of the course because the information was so important.

** For any of you TV folks, see if you get these references. Some of my friends distinguish "dad" when I talk by asking "Colonel Tigh" or "Lovejoy"? It works. I feel compelled to add this detail even though I am not sure if many people will get it or care. :)