Confessions of an Adjunct Instructor

When I graduated from college I never thought that I would be teacher. My dream job was being a writer, either a novelist or an essayist. Both of those quickly went away quickly when I realized I didn’t have the writing skills needed to survive in that profession. I love to write and create stories, but I’m not good at presenting those ideas. I seem to be a better essayist. However,  the medieval topics I studied during grad school aren’t exactly in popular demand right now. My blogs seem to be the only place I write now, and I won’t be making a living off of being a blog writer (I am no Jenny Lawson – who is amazing and wonderful).

My mom was the one who found the posting for a community college adjunct English teacher position on the internet, and I applied halfheartedly. I still didn’t feel like I wanted to be a teacher, nor did I feel like I could be one. I still bumble over grammar rules and wondered if I was smart enough to teach. However, I had no other ideas, so I began to look up English positions. I was shocked when the school my mom found actually hired me. Right after I accepted the job my first thought was: “I have no idea how to teacher. What am I doing?”

But I took to teaching like a fish to water. It was stressful at first since I had no idea what I was doing, but my mentors at that school were always helpful and ready to give me advice. While I did complain a bit about some of the students, I was really enjoying my job and teaching what I knew to students (because, as it turned out, I was smart enough to teach!). I loved writing, and I got to show students how to be strong writers and clearly get their points across. I loved reading and literature, and I could show students how interesting these subjects could be if they gave it a chance.

I started out as an adjunct teacher. For those that don’t know, an adjunct teacher is a part-time teacher – and we’re on the lowest rung of the totem pole in the school. But that didn’t matter to me when I started teaching because I loved my job, so I focused on my work and ignored those that complained about being adjuncts and their low pay.  This “rose colored glasses” view of my job position lasted 3 years, and then my financial troubles hit so hard I could no longer ignore my small paycheck. I was getting paid unevenly throughout the year: I didn’t get paid during holidays or breaks, or in the summer since there were no classes available for me.

Remember when I said adjunct teachers were on the lowest run of the totem pole in the school? Well, here’s more information about this that slowly dawned on me as I continued to be an adjunct:

Adjuncts have the same amount of work per class that full time teachers have. While it is true that full time teachers have more classes (depending on the semester and amount of students), adjuncts still need to plan for classes, grade, and focus on their students’ needs. A lot of the times focusing on our students’ needs became difficult because we don’t have office hours, much less an office. Adjuncts are usually traveling from school to school where we have other classes, or going to another part time job.

Full time teachers have a flat salary and a requirement of how many classes they need to teach. Any extra classes they have are extra. Adjuncts get the ‘leftover classes’ that aren’t taken by full time teachers. Adjunct also aren’t paid a salary. We are paid a small amount of money per class, and when I say a small amount I mean a very small amount of money per class. Per class mind you – so that flat fee has to last you all semester (roughly 3 months because we aren’t paid on holidays).

Let me give you an example with my actual salary: For one regular class I was paid 1500$ for the semester. For a class needed as a requirement due to the student’s ACT score, I was paid 1000 for the semester. That means that the amount of money I’d made in roughly 3 months was only 2500$. That’s it. Adjuncts don’t get benefits like health insurance, so the amount of money we made had to cover all our bills. There were many months when I just didn’t eat much because I could afford it.

You may be wondering why we adjuncts just don’t get part time jobs or get another job entirely. Because after you choose a profession and have put all your heart and training into making it work, it’s hard to turn away and start anew. Many teachers feel this way. Adjuncts will break their backs just to make enough money, and sometimes that means driving from school to school. Working between schools may help the bank account, but it is exhausting. It is like have multiple part-time jobs but still having to do the work of many full time jobs after you leave work (remember: teachers have ‘homework’ just as much as students).

When it came to the point that I realized I couldn’t teach anymore with this salary, I was at a loss of what to do. I’d spent 4 years teaching and felt like that was all I knew. The thought of doing another job that wasn’t what I knew scared me. Plus, I’d been working so hard at my current school for 4 years in hopes that I would get a full time job. That may be the reason so many adjuncts stay: There is a glimmer of hope that they may get a full time job as a teacher if they keep working. That is false most of the time because colleges only hire a small amount of full time vs adjuncts – and, the harsh truth of it, adjuncts are cheaper.

So, I’d learned this nasty truth, saw myself in financial trouble if I didn’t do something, and came face-to-face with the idea of changing my career entirely away from what I knew. Renewing yourself in the professional world is really hard. For me, the fear of the unknown is really scary for me and causes most of my anxiety, and now I was throwing myself into the unknown.

It actually took about 5 months for me to find another job (after applying to about 20 different jobs, getting multiple rejection letters, and having 3 interviews). It was such an uplifting feeling knowing that I’d have a secure job with benefits and enough money to live on, but also a sad moment when I remembered I’d be leaving teaching. I’d be leaving the students I’d taught, the students I was teaching (I ended up leaving near Thanksgiving), and all my co-workers I loved. It broke my heart, and I hated telling everyone I was leaving (especially my students).

This change is one that I do not regret, nor do I regret being a teacher. However, I do wish the situation of the adjunct teacher was better. Colleges need more teachers – especially teachers who enjoy their jobs. But knowing you are dispensable, cheap labor at the university makes teaching harder. If anyone walks into a classroom hating their job, then the students will most likely leave the class hating the subject and (possibly) the teacher. Bitterness in the education field isn’t a good environment for learning. I knew that, which is why I had to leave. I knew I could not continue to love my job if I was sinking farther into financial trouble.