Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why Do I Teach? I'll Tell You Why

Well, it's Sunday and I can finally catch a breath after reading a bunch of diagnostic essays and homework assignments. The first week back to school turned out okay--at least I have only one prep since I'm teaching two sections of the same course. Each is a four-hour course, so I round out my schedule with 2.5 hours in the writing labs. 10.5 to 11 hours is all a part-timer can be given in the district because California law states that any adjunct faculty teaching more than that for (I think it's three semesters) in a row must be hired full-time. I believe the law was put into place to prevent the abuse of part-timers. Silly politicians. The solution has simply been for colleges to hire more part time faculty. We can be hired on the cheap.

This is because we aren't paid anything close to an equitable salary to full timers. We aren't paid for summers (unless we work, which I do); we aren't paid for holidays; we aren't paid even for Thanksgiving or Christmas Break. We are actually paid only for the actual hours we are in the classroom or labs. We don't get health insurance. And we certainly don't get a paid sabbatical every seven years.

Even worse is the situation for "freeway flyers," those adjunct faculty who cobble together a full-time job by teaching in two or more school districts.

It's higher education's nasty little secret. Part-timers (adjuncts or contingent faculty) and, at larger universities, teaching assistants, are the ones who teach a good many of the "grunt" courses (developmental courses, composition courses, basic skills courses), while the full-time faculty take the "yummy" courses (in English, many of the lit classes and all of the creative writing classes).

So why do I do it?

Because I can. For me, it is a choice. I had a full-time teaching position for five years, and that was about enough. Fifteen hours of class time per week perhaps doesn't sound like much, but when you teach a bunch of writing courses, that works out to NO LIFE. All I did was grade essays. At least, that's how it felt. And I found myself, after five years, doing things like rushing through papers, winging it sometimes in the classroom, getting lazy about updating material because there just wasn't time leftover to make the extra effort, unless I was willing to work an 80-hour week. I started to feel like I was a lousy teacher--burned out already, not the kind of teacher I wanted to be. Add committee work on top of that. I hated the departmental politics, the sniping, and the drama. I also found myself getting mad at those of my colleagues whose idea of "grading essays" meant reading the paper and sticking a grade on it with maybe a one word comment. I knew one professor who would actually boast that she spent no more than one hour on any single batch of papers. It was no wonder she could take on two extra courses as overload every semester, adding a few thousand to her annual salary. Yeah, I was starting to get bitter.

Ah, but peeps, I am a lucky duck. I have a wife who makes a decent salary, so we don't need me to work full-time. I get health insurance on her policy. I make enough to help pay part of the rent and pay some household expenses and even have some money leftover for fun. (Unlike many part timers, who have children, I really don't have a lot of expenses. My car is paid for.) Yup, I'm lucky. I get to spend more time being the kind of teacher I want to be. I always prep fully for classes. I take two weeks with essays at the minimum, splitting them into 2-3 per day from any single class so I don't get too braindead grading them (my only "rule" is to return one batch of papers before the next batch is due) When a paper is a mess, I've been known to spend an hour one a single one. (Thankfully that is rare! I give most papers about thirty minutes, depending on the length.) I change texts more often and change or tweak assignments frequently. I answer emails from students all day long, sometimes into the evening and even on weekends. I get to know my students. In any given semester, I will adapt teaching methods to better accommodate those who are sitting in the room--even if it is a course I've taught a hundred times. I'm content that I'm doing a good job and serving my students well.

Several full-time faculty have said to me over the years, when a full-time position has opened up, "I wish you'd apply!" And I have just thanked them, chuckled, and shaken my head "no thanks."

Fact is, I'm in the luxurious position of being able to work for shit pay for about (on average) what works out to be around thirty hours a week BUT be good at what I do. This, to me, is better than working for a decent salary with benefits while being overextended and continually stressed and to watch things I care about sometimes having to slip through the cracks.

It is my choice. I may bitch and moan about grading papers and all that when I'm knee-deep in them, but the truth is, I love what I do and I care about my students. The ones who don't care--well, meh, but for the ones that do care and are trying with their whole heart? I'll give them all the time in the world. And I like having the time to do that.

It is my choice. Unfortunately, for one of the most valuable service positions in the world, teachers are grossly undervalued. They are overworked, underpaid--considering their expertise--and unappreciated. What other profession is insulted by sayings like, "Those who can do, do; those who can't do, teach"? I'm a published writer and have also worked as an editor; thank you very much. I can do, and I have. Teachers are routinely insulted in the press or by educrats who have never even set foot in a classroom. Yet in many cases, we spend more time with some kids than their own parents do. We are helpers, coaches, cheerleaders, and counselors in addition to being that person who stands in front of a room lecturing about thesis statements or how to make a coherent argument--or how to correct a run-on sentence.  This is a job for a person with knowledge, empathy, and compassion, yet who is honest enough and has guts enough to be sure standards are met at the same time. This is a job for a person with a sharp mind and a huge heart.

I feel for both the full-timers, and I feel for the part-time "freeway flyers" trying to make a living. I wonder how excellent they'd actually be if they, too, like me, had more time. To me, it's a wonder any of them are good at all. Then again, those who stick with it, despite it all, teach because it's a calling, not just a job. We teach because we want to help other people succeed.


Eileen Pennington said...

tis good to be able to do the things you love the way you like. :)

Joyce said...

I'm blessed. It's good for me to remind myself of that from time to time. :)