02 November 2016


Many people feel that once they get a certain job, that's it--there's nothing more to learn that can't be learned while they're working.  They might have taken two or four years of college courses to earn a certain degree, but now that they're earning a paycheck, the days of spending time studying the field are long gone.  "If I don't learn it at work," they seem to think, "then I don't need to know it."

And perhaps they're right.  It's possible that there are many things about their careers that they don't necessarily need to know.  But why is it that we so often choose not to learn more about the very work that we're getting paid for, while we were so willing to study as much as was asked for us while we were hoping and praying to find work in the first place?

The truth is that most people don't push themselves very hard even when they're taking the courses necessary to get the jobs they want.  Most people are satisfied with meeting the minimum requirements in order to get by, get their diploma or certificate, and move on with their lives.  This is one of the reasons for which it's often so difficult to find well qualified people to promote into important leadership roles:  very few people have distinguished themselves as leaders in their fields, preferring instead simply to get along with doing what's required of them, and little else.
There are a few very interesting truths, though, about striving to be more than just competent in our work.  First of all, it seems that the more we learn about our work, the easier and the more interesting it becomes to us.  Tasks that used to be tedious now make sense, and we see how they're related to other elements of our jobs.  Plus, they're easier to take care of now, so they don't bother us nearly as much when we need to do them.  When we know more about our work and its ramifications, we can see the connections between what we do and the effects that those things have on other people.

Secondly, as we become more competent, we accomplish more and we're able to branch out and include other things in our work.  As a teacher, for example, I find that the more I know about the topic I'm teaching, the more I'm able to pull in material from other realms.  As I become more competent at teaching Speech classes, I find it easier to relate material from other fields, such as Biology or History, to the material that we're studying in Speech.  I no longer have to stick to the base material, for I'm able to bring more to my students.

Thirdly, when we take the time to learn more about what we're doing, we're putting ourselves in the position of being more qualified than others when it comes time for promotions or advancement.  Very often, pay raises are based on job performance, and it's almost impossible to raise our knowledge level about our work without also raising the level of our performance.

Of course, there are some jobs that may not require competence above certain levels.  When I worked at the front desk of two hotels, my job was clearly defined and I didn't need to know much more than what I did.  However, there were other areas of the hotel that ran independently of the front desk, and I always had opportunities to learn about those.  Also, there were always new things to learn about the area surrounding the hotel, so if someone were looking for things to do or places to visit, there was always more to learn, and I could be much more helpful to the guests when I took the time to learn about the area.

Our culture doesn't seem to value competence as much as it used to.  Now we seem to want to do and get everything as quickly as possible, which often leads to mediocre work and products.  It seems to be the exception to find people at stores and businesses who are actually able to help us thoroughly with whatever problems we may have.  We accept poor service and poor workmanship as if we deserve it--and when we decide to make a stand about something, it usually has to do with price or rudeness, but not about competence.

Nowhere have I seen this as strongly as I have in our schools.  There are many, many wonderful teachers out there, but there are also a lot of people who are not at all competent in their jobs, yet they keep getting rehired and even rewarded for making it through a certain number of years, whether or not they've made any effort at all to address their own lack of competence.  I've known quite a few teachers who do little teaching at all--they simply hand out packets to their students and have them work on their own while the teacher works at his or her desk, often searching the Internet for this or that, but certainly not engaged actively with the students.

Competence is a choice, purely and simply.  And it's a choice made over and over again--the choice to read another book this week about my career field, to register for a course related to my work, to spend some extra time researching a topic that will help me to be better at what I do.  And it's a choice that may not show immediate dividends--it may take years to see the results of my efforts to be really good at what I do.  Even after more than twenty years of teaching, I took two courses this past year and went to several seminars of three days each over the summer, simply because I need to add to my knowledge, even after all this time.  I simply want to be good at what I do because I know that the people I work for--in my case, high school students--will be the ones who benefit from my abilities.  And they deserve me to be the best I can be at what I do.  I'll never be the best teacher ever, of course, but I can certainly try to be better this year than I was last year.

I am, as I've said, merely competent. But in an age
of incompetence, that makes me extraordinary.

Billy Joel

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