always a teacher

Yesterday, we drove by the college where I taught as a new adjunct instructor last fall, and I began thinking about teaching again, which brings me to a few of the questions some of you asked last month.

Ash wrote,

What about continuing to teach higher ed…curious on your thoughts there, especially in this struggling economy? What about teaching online? (I have some suggestions if y’all are interested.) That’s our plan when we actually start TTC/have kids.

Cindyhoo also asked,

What is your ultimate vocational goal?

First, let me give you a little history. I have long thought that I would eventually have a stable career in academia. That has not been the case. I began teaching at a university as an adjunct in 2000. For those of you unfamiliar with the term “adjunct,” it refers to those of us who teach on a “part-time” basis. We are not tenure track, and we have no job security. Essentially, we are permitted at most community colleges to teach 60% of full-time. At state universities here in California, we can teach full-time, but we are temporary, seasonal, transient (as we were once called by administrators at a school where I taught), and without any sort of job security or (usually) much pay or any sort of health benefits. Yeah, it’s a great deal.

I have taught for a state university and two different community colleges. I used to teach at both simultaneously while also working at my online job at an educational support company. I was one of those “lucky” Americans with three jobs. Sometimes I loved it, and sometimes I hated it. But it certainly isn’t the three jobs at a time that I miss. In fact, there are a lot of things about teaching that I don’t miss in the least.

For example, as an adjunct, few people typically know who I am. I am a ghost of sorts, arriving to teach right before class begins, leaving soon after class is over without leaving so much as a streak on the whiteboard. It’s gets fairly lonely having little to no camaraderie with my colleagues; it’s uncomfortable to always exist on the fringes. This I don’t miss.

Because I teach writing, I bring home a lot of papers, journals, responses to readings, and I spend countless hours responding to these things. These I do not miss.

I often have to teach at multiple colleges or at least multiple campuses at once. Last fall, I taught at two separate campuses at opposite ends of the day–one class at 7am, one class at 5pm. I had two separate offices (each shared with at least five other people), two separate mailboxes, two separate sets of office staff to charm, two separate campuses to learn, but just one puny paycheck. The confusion, the commute, the miniscule pay–these things I do not miss.

But I do miss the students. There is something so electric about the first day of class. I typically come in wearing a suit, heels, toting my welll-worn black leather professor bag. I place the papers to be handed out in stacks on the desk, write my name on the board along with “English 100” or “English 1A.” I examine the roster and freak out a little about the hard-to-pronounce names. I look up at the students coming in and smile, take a few deep breaths as I watch the clock, and as soon as the top of the hour strikes, I begin. I’m always a little nervous the first day of a class, but as soon as class begins, that fades away, and I’m on. I do my best to charm each new group, to strike a little fear in them while also working to sell them on the class I’m teaching, and by the end of the hour, after I’ve spoken with the stragglers who want to impress me from day one, I float on this little bit of a high for an hour or so.

And then there are those days in class when I’m so on, when all of my synapses are firing properly, and I’m explaining things well and engaging my students in great activities and actually getting them to participate. These are the days I live for–the days when students leave talking about the class content for the day, or they stay behind to talk with me about it. These are the days I miss. I  miss the connections with the students, the fact that I am in some way changing how they think or how they view the written word, that I am, indeed, making a difference in someone’s life (as cliché as that may sound).

I guess I have known for a long time that I would teach, and despite some extreme shyness that I suffered throughout childhood and early adulthood, I really found myself in the classroom. I’m a good teacher. What I’m not so good at are the politics of teaching in higher education. I’m also not good at working sixty or eighty hours a week for what amounts to less than minimum wage when one considers the many hours of prep work and grading we must do in my field (we’re usually either paid by the unit/credit or paid by hour spent in the classroom). I’m not good at the lack of job security. I haven’t had a class offered to me since last fall, and I won’t likely get another class until–maybe–next fall, and that is only if California’s economy turns around and schools actually want to offer more classes.

So I am in a position where I am not sure whether or not I want to go back to teaching in higher education. Or rather, I don’t want to go back on the same terms. I don’t even know if I want that full-time, tenure-track position I have pined over for nearly ten years because I don’t think I would want all the time away from my family spent in committee meetings. I really am at a point in my career, my career that never really took off, where I want a major change, and yet my training is in one very specific field. I have a master’s degree in English with an emphasis in teaching writing. My work experience lies in teaching writing, so I’m qualified to do little else but, you guessed it, teach writing.

I don’t know what my next career will be. I would consider some online teaching, but I have to say, I think I would really miss the magic of the classroom. I have other interests too–things like nutrition education, linguistics, and more. And then there’s the lure of a doctorate, but then I have to question what field I would pursue. I really am at a crossroads with my career, and I just don’t know where I’ll go.

For now, I guess I’m just focusing on my new favorite student and taking one day at a time. My career will come later; for now, I’m way more interested in learning how to make this guy laugh.


Filed under teaching writing

7 responses to “always a teacher

  1. I think we all come to a point when the thrill of climing that corporate ladder is gone. For me it left a couple of years ago. I just want a job I really like for once with good health insurance and good pay.

  2. I had to respond to your post with a quick comment on the adjunct professor who changed my life!

    I think, as a student we rarely get the opportunity to let our professors know how much they are appreciated. I attend and will graduate in 3 weeks from an all women’s liberal arts university in MN. I am with the adult students, in the weekend program and it’s been a wonderful experience. We have mostly adjunct professors because we do primarily weekend and evening courses.

    I was in the social work department, hating it but content to be working towards social justice. On a whim I took a communications course, titled Gender and Rhetoric from a new adjunct professor. She made such an impact on me that before I knew it my career focus was evolving, my major changed and I was feeling more comfortable in my own skin.

    My wife still jokes that it’s because she was a hottie, which she was but she was also gutsy. She had less to fear because of the informality of her position. She was daring and pushed us to think outside the universities realms. Since her, I have had many other wonderful adjunct professors who, all seem to be easier to relate to as an older weekend student. They bring life back into the classroom and challenge us in more than academic ways.

    I wish you luck in your future career journey and I am so thankful to instructors like you who have made it possible for adult learners to succeed when returning to college. Take care!

  3. gypsygrrl

    T ~ i loved this post for so many reasons, but mainly because i have been so very fortunate to two really phenomenal english teachers: one in 7th and 8th grade and one in college, who i have such respect and fond memories of and gratitude for the ways they changed my life.

    you will find your place ~ enjoy learing how to make your little student laugh 🙂


  4. poppycat

    It is so frustrating to me to hear how overworked, underpaid and underappreciated our teachers are. I think of the teachers who have made immeasurable impacts on my life and it makes me sad to know how much is taken from them and how little is given back. I want you to know how much I admire you and your career and I do understand your desire to think about other options, I just wish you didn’t need to consider them for the sake of your family and your happiness.

    I hope the opportunity you long for presents itself to you soon and I hope at some point this country will wake up and realize what a valuable and depleted resource our teachers are and act accordingly.

  5. Besides teaching as an English major, what else is there? I was an English minor at the local JC (BioChem/Psych major) because I wanted to go into research and I felt the fundamentals of English would really help in writing, but when I fell in love with English and realized most scientists really never explore English as a beneficiary to research (and being a BioChem major with a minor in English as a single parent is nearly impossible) I became an English major. But, for lack of job security after graduation, I dropped that and am now working on my BSN (Nursing). Now, I’m completely torn between the two, although reading your blog makes me think maybe I made the right decision…

    • T

      English is a good foundation degree. I know a lot of people who have used it to springboard into copy editing and tech writing. Others have used it as a foundation degree for law school and any other number of degrees where critical thinking is important. I think it’s important going into it what you want to do with it because if you feel your calling is to be a literary critic or a writer, well, that’s less likely to make you a living, since that seems to be everyone who enters the English major. I don’t mean to squash dreams here, but I’ve still not published anything. I haven’t tried either, but that’s another story…

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