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.

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College Awkwardness Continues

You’d think that once I graduated from college I wouldn’t have to deal with any awkwardness on a college campus, right? Well, wrong.  I am a professor at a community college, so even 7 years after I graduated from my undergraduate school I am still making an awkward mess of myself.

“Pancakes”

Whenever I get to my class I usually stand at the teacher’s station getting everything ready for class. I am also avoiding eye contact with all of my students because I get stage fright if I watch them come in. Luckily many of the students aren’t that interested in chatting with me before class (after all, they have a whole hour and 20 mins to do that) so I am able to mentally prepare myself.

However, sometimes I’ll hear a bit of what they are talking about and I’ll randomly jump into the conversation. Usually the students are good sports about it, especially if I can give them information about what they were talking about.

Once, while I was getting ready I overheard one of the student’s conversation:”….pancakes-“

“Pancakes?” I immediately said, my head popping up from behind the computer I was working on.

The student stared at me. “Um, yeah…I had pancakes for breakfast…Do you like pancakes?”

“Love them,” I cheerfully answered and then went back to what I was doing. I heard snickers from the classroom.

Now if I am working on something and don’t see that a student has their hand raised, a student will say “Pancakes” to get my attention.

They are smart students.

“Talkin’ Shit”

Recently while walking on campus a student came up to me, looked at me, and asked “Do you know who’s been talkin’ shit about me?”

I stopped and looked at him, “What? Who are you?”

He gave me a weird look and then I heard someone behind me say, “I don’t know man.”

The guy was talking to his friend who was walking right behind me. You know when you think someone is looking at you and waving or talking to you, so you respond, and it turns out they were actually looking at the person directly behind you?

I live in fear of those situations, for obvious reasons.

“Wrong Classroom”

Every student’s first-day fear is going into the wrong classroom and having to decide either leave the classroom (amidst giggles) or just stick it out and miss the class they are actually enrolled in. Luckily I have never walked into the wrong classroom and started teaching Freshman English to a Statistics class (yet).

However, a while back (in the middle of the semester) I was walking back with a student to our classroom. We had been to a computer lab to print off something and we talking about her assignment. I turned into our classroom, looked up at the board and saw equations written on it. One of the math teachers was lecturing the class and glanced at me before continuing on.

I could have just backed up slowly, but instead I decided to announce “This is not my classroom” as I left (scaring a few of the math students in the back row).

The student, who had apparently not followed me into the wrong classroom, was silent for a second. “That was embarrassing,” she finally remarked.

I’m pretty sure she was talking about embarrassing for me. Thank you, child.

“We’re Talking About Poop”

Thankfully the community college I work at does not have a cafeteria – I say thankfully because I’d probably gain back the Freshman 20 lbs again. I do hope that my students get to experience a college dinning hall one day after they’ve left, because it is there that your education on food really begins.

One of the students was thinking about transferring to my Alma Mater and I was telling the class about how much I enjoyed it there. The student cafeteria came up mainly because that is where my friends and I did most of our socializing (which is also why I gained so much weight in college).

“The food was not good,” I said, “but many cafeterias aren’t. It was there I learned how to figure out what to eat if I had a class right after lunch or dinner. For example, the grilled cheese sandwich. It was so good, but was a God damned colon cleanser. After you ate that you’d better be near a bathroom for the next 15mins, because when it hit – it hit. And not genitally either. It was a damn tsunami. I made that mistake in class once. It hit in the middle of a quiz and I failed that quiz. I turned it in half down, sweat running down my face, and dashed out of the room. Luckily the teacher realized my rookie mistake in regards to the grilled cheese sandwich and let me retake it after class.”

“If it made you have to go to the bathroom,” one hesitant/curious student asked, “then why’d you eat it?”

“Cause it was freaking amazing. What, you’ve never eaten something so delicious that the aftermath was totally worth it?”

He nodded wisely. “Taco Bell,” he added.

I didn’t agree, but okay. As we discussed Taco Bell a student came in late. She mouthed a “sorry”, but I (without thinking) reassured her, “Oh we haven’t started class yet. We’re talking about poop.”

She stared at me in amazement and glanced at her friend.

“It’s true,” he said.

“Awkward or Funny”

On one of my elevations a student wrote just that: “I don’t know if she’s very awkward or very funny.”

I don’t know either.