Why I Don’t Teach

I started drafting this blog post in 2018, but didn’t have the heart to share it. I’ve revisited, revised, and updated it to tell my story a little more clearly for those of you who have been following my career. 

IMG_8211
A little deflated as I plastered posters of my Fall 2017 career-readiness courses around Eureka in hopes I could keep enrollment high enough to keep myself employed.

A teacher is all I ever wanted to be. My childhood bedroom was decked out like a classroom, complete with a vintage desk, chalkboard, and carefully arranged grading area. I wrote tests for my family over concepts I learned in school and on PBS (what fun for them) and taught lessons to a very engaged audience of stuffed animals. As I grew older I considered other careers, but teaching seemed like the surest bet. I knew I would be good at it and that there was a need for passionate educators. I knew that I had the patience and creativity necessary to reach students. And perhaps most importantly, I didn’t care about being rich.

I did everything right. Well, I did everything I was told was right by my uneducated family. I went to college and studied what interested me most: English Literary Criticism with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life!” my mother told me.*

I went to grad school in English Literature (slightly more practical than criticism or women’s studies, I thought). I considered a PhD, but heard horror stories of a market overrun with English doctoral candidates, fighting for positions in far-flung locales where they would then spend their days in a harried fever writing and researching during every moment not in the classroom. I didn’t want that. I’m not that competitive. I just wanted to teach. So I went to grad school again in an even more practical field: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). With a terminal M.A., I thought, I’ll definitely be able to continue doing what I love. And I did. My time at CMU was incredible. I taught and researched (as much or little as I wanted), presenting at conferences and learning more each day about my craft. I traveled to China and taught students in a university. I was happy.

Then I moved. I moved to California, throwing away my relatively steady lectureship in Michigan to follow my partner to Eureka. When I settled into this tiny corner of the coast, I found something I had heard endless rumors about before: the routine exploitation of adjunct labor. In Michigan I had been lucky. My office was full of full-timers with benefits. We had one-year or two-year contracts. We got yearly raises. Our conference travel was paid. My experience in California could not have been more different.

I began at a community college where adjuncts were given a cap on the number of hours they taught (to ensure that no benefits could ever be provided). Pay was based on literal hours in the classroom. If a class was cancelled for a holiday, that was a $0 day. Christmas break? Better save up! If students stopped showing up to your free classes (something common and completely outside the teacher’s control), the classes got cancelled — mid-semester with little to no notice. After a suite of my classes got cancelled all at once (the ones I marketed so cheerfully in the above photo), I started with the local CSU English Language Institute, which thankfully operated on a quarter system and could hire me on the following month. Somehow this unit functioned completely outside of union representation or requirements, and treated its teachers in a similar way. Pay was again hourly (and about half the rate of the community college, but with a few hours of prep paid each week). This was a great job, but the pay was worse than the community college and our enrollment dwindled, leaving the future of the unit up in the air.

Even after teaching multiple intensive English courses, tutoring at night, picking up a part-time job at the local yarn shop, and doing remote work for a number of companies (see my previous blog post), I was still far below the poverty level, making the equivalent of $12.50/hr (assuming I put in 40 hours/week of work, which is a low estimate). I did not have the support system to make this workable. I had to stop teaching for my survival.

Sidenote: These issues are systemic and not isolated to these institutions. I sincerely felt that both schools were doing the best they could with their resources, and I felt supported by my direct leadership. I didn’t take either job loss personally (but they did inspire me politically).

Next, I found a state job at the technician level that didn’t suit my skills or account for my education, but gave me pay, stability, and benefits that I had never had as an educator utilizing my three degrees. Shortly after I left the institute where I had been teaching, they lost their funding and closed down, leaving both teachers and students without a home. Although my new job was not a good fit, it was stable and I was grateful. My agency wanted to invest in my career development. They cared about what I wanted to do next. As a teacher, I would keep crossing my fingers for increased enrollment and in the case of my TESOL gigs, geopolitical favor. With state work, I could finally breathe easy. I knew I would have a paycheck next month. Despite all of my hard work and constant hustling, two master’s degrees, and aptitude in my field, this was a completely novel feeling.

When I first left the classroom, my friends and colleagues in academia asked in horror how I could possibly stop teaching. They were shocked that someone so driven and hardworking would quit something they were good at and had invested so much in. “Just try another semester,” they would say. “It’s all cyclical. Things will turn around,” they would reassure. But have things turned around? Across the country institutions are eagerly cutting humanities courses and English language institutes because they aren’t marketable or outwardly valuable. Of course, you could get lucky and work somewhere where you are valued. You could. Or you could lose it all, like I did, and start over. Either way, I’m here to say, you’ll be okay.

Ultimately, leaving the academy taught me that I’m worth more than a question mark at the end of each semester.

This isn’t the end of my story, and thankfully, I landed not only on my feet, but upright and upwardly mobile. I now have a career in California state government that I adore, where I use my skills, work with incredible people, and sleep easy knowing I’ll have a job tomorrow.

I will detail my transition out of academia and into civil service in my next blog post, where I will also discuss the endless transferrable skills current and former educators have that they may not realize they can unlock and apply outside the classroom. You’re worth money. You’re worth work-life balance. You deserve more, teacher friends.**

*K-12 education wasn’t immediately appealing to me, so I didn’t go the credential route as an undergraduate. This would haunt me for the rest of my career, as attaining a K-12 credential after finishing school requires that even an experienced teacher return to the classroom and do an entire unpaid year of student teaching, which I could never afford to do.

**If you’re in a wonderfully stable university teaching position with no fear of a budget cut or hateful dean, WONDERFUL! I am legitimately happy for you and wish you a joyful life. You deserve that in whatever form it takes. ūüėĄ

MITESOL 2016: Radical Tolerance

This conference was one of my most memorable. Jolene Jaquays did an incredible job organizing this year. Everywhere I turned I heard people remarking on her attention to detail and the way things came together. The theme, The Changing Faces of Diversity, was so timely and challenging. I was happy to see how so many in our membership were able to think critically about our field through this lens. Diane Larsen-Freeman was the keynote speaker and her talk was fabulous. She planned her presentation especially for our conference theme and collected evidence for diversity as it benefits those within an organization (or complex system). As expected, she spoke well and captivated the audience, but what struck me most was how personable and kind she was throughout the reset of the conference. Diane attended all of the sessions. She was even present during mine!

img_4097

My presentation was on a topic I have long hoped to discuss at a TESOL conference: feminist pedagogy. I started my academic career with a women’s studies focus, so the move to teaching English language learners felt like a step away from that path. I assumed that in TESOL I would have to¬†depoliticize my¬†teaching¬†and that I would never be able to tie together all of my teaching and research interests. Fortunately, I was quite wrong.

Presentation Slides

Handout

Thank you to everyone who attended my session. You were all so engaged and wonderful to talk with. Here are the results of our post-presentation survey:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I hope to see you at TESOL 2017 where I will be speaking on the IC/ITA/ILGBT Intersection panel about radical acceptance. Our panel title is How to Manage, Facilitate, and Teach about Culturally Sensitive Issues. 

2014 Quarter Report

Some student, Jason, and I at our Origami Conversation Hour.
Some students, Jason, and I at our Origami Conversation Hour.

Wowza. This has been some year. To keep this manageable, I’ll just list some of the major events.

Conferences:

  • Accepted to Michigan Academy of Arts, Science, and Letters to present my work on the Green Golden Age¬†of spinsters in American regionalist fiction in March (couldn’t attend due to scheduling conflicts).
  • Accepted to present a chapter of my thesis at the International Virginia Woolf Conference in Chicago this June.
  • Accepted to present on the use of contact zones to facilitate reading/writing instruction at the Great Lakes Conference on Teaching and Learning here at CMU in May.
  • Although technically not a conference, I presented some work on L2 writing feedback at a faculty meeting that my co-presenters and I plan to adapt into a conference presentation for MITESOL and TESOL next year.

Travel:

  • I’ve seen a good chunk of the mitten this year. Traverse City for my birthday, several trips to Grand Rapids for records/yarn,¬†and many planned trips to the beach this summer.
  • Going home for a bit in April. I’ll get the chance to see friends and family and reconnect with the people I care about the most.
  • Chicago in June for the Woolf conference. This trip is extremely exciting for me. I’m going to spend the time attending the conference, touring museums, visiting sites I haven’t seen during my other trips to Chicago, and taking in the more intellectual side of the city.
  • My family is taking a trip to England and Wales this summer. My grandmother has kindly decided to fund this trip so we can enjoy some quality time together. She has spent very little time outside of Laclede county, so my grandmother is more excited about this trip than anything else in her life. I’m so happy for her.¬†We’re touring the Raglan castle in Wales which is said to be where my Grandmother’s family came from.

Professional:

  • I’m now working on my M.A. TESOL at CMU. I’m trying to take two courses a semester until I graduate. I’m moving a little slower, but I think Clint and I should graduate at the same time.
  • Taking these classes is a little bit of a challenge, however, because I’m also working full-time in the ELI. I can balance the two, but it’s not a walk in the park. I keep telling myself, “You can do anything, even the most awful, unimaginable, stressful craziness for two years. It’s just two years.” I hope I’m right!
  • This is hard to categorize, but this year I feel like I’ve become exponentially better at teaching. I’m creating a large portion of my materials myself, I’m juggling three different levels successfully, and I’m experimenting with methods to find what works for me. I think my students are benefiting from my dedication, and I’m doing a much better job maintaining the standards my department holds. Language teaching is infinitely different from teaching composition or literature to native speakers. I’ve had to reinvent the wheel, but now it’s rolling smoothly.
  • This might seem silly, but I’m finally financially stable enough to buy a Macbook Pro. I used to be a strict Linux fangirl, but I’ve changed my ways (due to certain software restrictions and the ease of grading) and want something reliable that just works. I knew the iPhone would be a gateway drug!

Whew! I wonder what other incredible things will happen this year?

 

Lessons Learned in a Tortuous Job Search

I began searching for jobs in late February, as soon as I was certain of my next zip code. I applied to a handful of positions in my future town that perfectly fit the degree I was working toward. Adjunct Composition jobs are so stigmatized by some in the academy that we are led to believe that they are, in fact, easy to acquire. I assumed that I could just breeze into one of these jobs. It’s just an adjunct job, right? How wrong I was. Jobs are not plentiful right now and everyone is clamoring for them as desperately as you are. You have to stand out among an applicant pool with nearly identical qualifications.

I have learned volumes about applying for jobs during the course of my search and have volumes more to learn before I land that ideal job. Since I started my search, my cover letters have become more fine-tuned, my CV has become more transparent and informative, and my applications are not being thrown out immediately after I submit them. I am waiting to hear from nine employers at the moment and the delay can be excruciating. In the meantime,¬†I’ve compiled a list of things that I think have helped and hurt me in my job search. Feel free to use this as a guide to help you start out a stronger applicant than I did.

Things that have worked against me in my job search (and how to combat them):

  • My youth
    • I am completely qualified on paper for many jobs that I will never get simply because I am too young. One glance at my CV and some quick math will tell potential employers that I’m only 24 and to them that translates to careless, green, and flighty. I am none of those things, but not everyone will take the time to find that out.
    • This isn’t something I can adjust in my CV, but I can respond to this concern in my cover letters by emphasizing my youthful passion and excitement for my work. I can highlight the positive side of youth and the energy that a candidate like me would bring to a workplace.
  • My recent graduation date
    • Nothing spells “inexperienced” quite like a 2013 graduation date. Yes, I have ample and impressive experience for my age and my position, but few employers want to take a chance by giving someone their first job out of college. Nevermind the teaching I did in and out of my M.A. program, this will still technically be my first “real” job out of my graduate program.
    • There’s no real way to work around this. I just have to hope for an employer who is willing to take a risk on me. I do, however, make sure to mention in my cover letters how recently coming from a graduate program makes me fresher and more up-to-date on pedagogical theories and practices.
  • My address
    • Some employers will not take the time to read applications from out-of-state applicants. They often assume that you are wildly applying to jobs across the nation hoping something will stick. Why hire someone who might not move to the job?
    • If you are in my situation and are applying to ¬†jobs in a very small geographical area, be sure to mention that in your cover letter. I always begin with a casual “I recently acquired my Master’s of Arts in English Literature from Washington State University and will be moving to Mount Pleasant, MI this summer.” If you can, use your future address in your application materials.
  • Shooting too high
    • This is a sad point to make, but an important one.¬†Don’t limit yourself only to jobs that spell out the highest degree you have.¬†Having the required qualifications does not make you a good candidate for a job. Consider the market. Often hundreds of people in the area are as qualified or more qualified for the position than you. I recently applied for a ¬†job in the small town I’m moving to in which 108 other applicants were notified of the position closing. 108! I knew that I was at the low-end of the requirements for this job, so I began branching out.
    • Look for jobs for which you might be not just a suitable candidate, but a stellar candidate. I was probably among the least qualified applicants for that job with 108 applicants, but I may be the most qualified applicant for a job that only requires a Bachelor’s or a high school diploma. Try to be someone’s star applicant.

Things that (I believe) have worked to my advantage in my job search:

  • Reliable transportation
    • For graduation, I got a 2009 Ford Focus from my grandma. This car gets great mileage, handles well, and gets me where I need to go safely. So long as she survives the drive from WA to MI, this car opens up my application possibilities considerably. I know that not everyone has a grandmother willing to buy them a reliable car, and for that I am very privileged.
    • If you have a car or can get one affordably, use this to your advantage. If I didn’t have a car, I would only be eligible to apply for 7/16 jobs I have currently applied for. This investment will pay off.
  • Diverse experience
    • The summer between my first and second years of my M.A. program I applied for an ESL teaching ¬†job I found on a listserv. I was not traditionally qualified for this job, but the fact that they posted it on the WSU graduate student listserv only three weeks from the start date told me they might be willing to take a chance on me. I wrote a heartfelt cover letter that said something to the effect of “what I lack in experience I make up for in enthusiasm.” It’s a corny sentiment, but it made the difference between me and more qualified applicants who approached the job without the excitement I had. At the interview I demonstrated my passion and that was reflected in the administrators. They seemed as excited to give me the opportunity as I was to take it. I got the job, loved it, and was able to add five lines to my CV about the five distinct courses I taught in this program. My experience in that program got me the job I have now teaching ESL Composition at WSU. Now, I’m able to apply for ESL composition jobs, Intensive English jobs, and have a great foundation should I ever go back for a M.A. in TESOL.
    • Take every opportunity to volunteer, intern, or work in adjacent fields. The more diverse your experience, the more jobs you can justifiably apply for.

Of course, I am still unemployed so my advice is far from perfect. I just wanted to share some insights from someone currently in the throes of the application process for those of you who might soon be coming upon this momentous time yourselves. Best of luck to you, unless you happen to be applying in the Mount Pleasant, MI area. In that case, I do not wish to help you.

Teaching Technologies and Android App Feature: AndroClass – Teacher Tablet ($9.99)

Since my last blog post I’ve found an app with which I can manage my class completely. I take attendance, record grades, assign groups using a random student generator, and make notes about class period goals all in one easy to navigate app called AndroClass. It’s available in a tablet app for $9.99 and a tablet compatible¬†phone app for $5.

Image

The catch? The set up takes some time, patience, and willingness to play around with the interface. I was up to the challenge one afternoon and set the whole thing up in just a few hours. As long as you follow the well-explained format, you can import an entire class from a .csv file. You can include the students’ ID numbers, birthdays, special needs, etc. all at once. This is a major plus. Manually entering each student would be exhausting, but I simply downloaded a .csv file from my university’s course management website, made some adjustments to fit the program’s requirements, and voila!¬†I had my class ready to go.

Image

I spent the beginning of a class period playing photo booth so I could have each of my students’ photos attached to their names in AndroClass. Now I can quiz myself on my students’ names and take attendance without yelling names and interrupting their work time. This is the quickest that I’ve learned a class’s names. Now when students come in for conferences early in the semester I will be able to pull up an overview of their progress with out asking “And what’s your name again?”

Image

The very best thing about this app is its developer. German developer Andreas Schilling and I have exchanged quite a few emails with my ill-informed questions. He responds very quickly with thorough and helpful answers. For a developer who has to answer questions in multiple languages from frantic instructors worldwide, I am very impressed. This is top-rate customer service.

Conferences, Composition, and Conversation, oh my!

What a whirlwind of a semester!

Daniela, Me, Aree, Sarah, and Owen after our presentation at LSU’s Mardi Gras Conference.

Since my last update I presented at LSU’s Mardi Gras Conference with several of my colleagues. We formed a panel entitled BAM! POW! CRASH!:¬†The Under-Appreciated Power of¬†Comics¬†as Social Texts.¬†My paper was on David B.’s Epileptic and discussed his work as applied to disability studies. My paper title was “Seizures, Samurai, and Saving the Family: Epileptic‚Äôs Reappropriation of Disability Stereotypes” and I feel like the panel was well-received. I enjoyed attending this graduate level conference, but look forward to pursuing larger and more prominent conferences in the upcoming semesters.

My ENGL 101 course is going well. I have been struggling to keep up with my grading, but that pain is self-inflicted. Seven writing assignments in a semester? Never again! The students seem to have enjoyed the format of the course otherwise, so I will be integrating some of my original ideas into my next syllabus with much more sensible applications. I have loved teaching Composition this semester and cannot wait to be able to focus my energies exclusively on teaching.

I received word today that I was accepted to a position at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, ID this summer working for their Institute of Intensive English where I will be tutoring and monitoring the language lab as well as teaching a Conversation course. This will be a fantastic opportunity to work with international students and experience an ELL classroom. Wonderful professional development and well worth the hour commute.

Additionally, I will be participating in the grading positions the university offers to 101 instructors. In this position I will be reading entrance exams and placing the students into an introductory composition course. This job will be sporadic and I will only be able to attend about a session a week due to conflicts with my IIE job, but it seems like a great way to experience the testing side of college composition.

I have submitted proposals to a few semi-local conferences for next semester including but not limited to PAMLA and Sirens.

I’ll try to keep the blog updated more frequently in the future.