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. 

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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

When’s Your Next Gig?

When I was a wee girl in the Ozarks, I would often crawl onto my papa’s lap and ask him when his next gig was. My grandpa picked and grinned in a bluegrass band, and I loved accompanying him so I could dance (a jig, probably) for the folks he entertained with his renditions of bluegrass standards. When the show concluded, I would often run up to him and ask for his autograph, something that delighted him as much as it did me.

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I purchased that skirt at Hillbilly Days in my hometown and remember feeling like owning this outfit was an absolute necessity after moving to Missouri from California (cultural camouflage). 

Playing these gigs was one way my grandpa kept himself busy in retirement, and it even paid on occasion. Most of the time he just played for fun or at the bequest of an assisted living home. My grandpa certainly did not make his primary income off of music (he owned a gas station and later in life became a car salesman), but that’s exactly what his son does. His son/my uncle teaches piano and also travels to play music for assisted living homes where he brightens the residents’ days by playing any tune they want. Tonight he’s playing accordion in an Oktoberfest in Kansas City. Occasionally he books performances in other states. These are paying gigs. They don’t all pay him a lot, but my uncle keeps track of his mileage and writes it off his taxes. He also keeps track of the upgrades (new piano, entryway rug, etc.) he has to provide to keep his home studio attractive and welcoming for students and parents alike. He’s been self-employed for as long as I can remember and delights in discovering a new self-employed cost he can deduct. I always thought this was him being cheap and a little shady, but now that I’m partially self-employed, I understand how necessary and legitimate these deductions are.

Remote work seems like a dream to the lowly highway flying adjunct, speeding up and down the interstate between 3-5 colleges and universities each semester. It was enchanting to me after losing my most recent job mid-semester. If nothing else, it seemed like a simple way to make some supplemental income between teaching jobs. What I failed to realize before I jumped in head-first was that if I’m an independent contractor, I’m not paying taxes year-round like I did as an adjunct. And that means I might owe the government money instead of getting a fat refund come April. I’ve never made much money (I repeat, adjunct), so I have sincerely counted on this influx of cash in April to help me pay down debts, upgrade my laptop, or finance a well-earned vacation. The idea of not only losing my return, but OWING money has kept me up at night.

When I first started tutoring online, my teaching colleagues told me horror stories of tutoring for some side cash and then owing 1/3 of what they earned to Uncle Sam. Of course, that money earned tutoring is long spent on the¬†school supplies, coffee, and pricey work clothes necessary to keep our day jobs as teachers (precarious as they may be). So what can we do? There has to be a better way, right? There must be a way to actually make money off of your side-hustle and not just borrow against the government May-March. Yes, I know we can pay quarterly taxes, but that doesn’t work when your gigs are short-term and unpredictable. My side-hustle income varies so much from month-to-month that I’m too nervous to count on it, budget as if it doesn’t exist, and perpetually search for more gigs.

So I started reading about deductions and how to make your taxes a¬†little less cruel.¬†One awesome discovery I made was that all of those expenses K-12 teachers think of as necessary evils that are often just paid out of pocket [pencils for students, kleenexes, hand sanitizer (SO MUCH HAND SANITIZER), conference registration and travel, research tomes to inform the presentations we give at those conferences] all fall under the Educator Deduction (up to $250).¬†Of course, I’m not a K-12 teacher. I’m an adjunct at colleges and universities, make waaaaaaaaay less than a K-12 teacher, get laid off at a moment’s notice, and buy all of the aforementioned things, yet I cannot take advantage of that deduction.

This is where my self-employment becomes an asset instead of a detriment. I tutor ELLs online for TakeLessons.com, rate essays for ETS*, and am currently designing a course about ELLs for mainstream K-12 teachers with CE Credits Online. I also spend a chunk of each day hunting down more gigs on Freelancer (where I have had no luck at all), Upwork (where I got my gig with CE Credits Online), and FlexJobs (which requires a monthly fee, but is outrageously worth it for the curated, easily searchable, not at all spammy array of jobs it provides). These consistent gigs (TakeLessons.com since March and ETS March-September) classify me as an independent contractor.

I complete these gigs at home and for the online tutoring job (where I video chat with language learners across the country), I have to maintain a presentable home office in order to build ethos with my client base. This is where things get good. My internet costs are a requirement for both gigs, so beginning in March, I can deduct the cost of my internet service up to the percentage that is used for business ($600 * .3 = $180, in my case). I use the internet at home ALL DAY (and some nights) for work, but Clint and I both also use the internet for entertainment, which is unfortunately not tax deductible, so I have to be realistic about what percentage overall has been used for business. To my surprise, the cost of my health insurance, which as an adjunct I was not offered from my employer, becomes deductible in full as an independent contractor.

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Presenting at conferences is just one way I build my CV and keep myself apprised to the happenings of my field.

I attended a conference this spring that enabled me to get the job I currently have doing online course design. That cost me $1,350, which I can deduct. I pay for this domain in order to increase traffic to my site and drum up business (to the tune of $99/year) which I will absolutely deduct. I maintain memberships to many online tools that help me with my tutees (total $500 per year deducted). These are all costs that I’ve been eating in the name of my career as a teacher, but as an independent contractor, I can re-envision them as what they really are: the costs necessary to maintain my own business. Indeed, an actual brick-and-mortar business gets to write-off the overheads that would otherwise negate their profits. Independent contractors get to do the same.

I plan to write more posts about adjuncting + freelancing (for many of us, a necessary combination for self-sufficiency). Let me know your story in the comments! I would love to hear about other people’s experiences with freelance academia¬†as I continue to explore it myself and write about the topic here.

*As of Friday September 29th, the California State University system no longer administers the English Placement Test, so this job no longer exists, sadly.

NB: I love reading tax code. I don’t know why, but it’s extremely rewarding for me. It¬†probably isn’t for you. We should probably both hire an accountant anyway.

 

#TESOL2017 Reflections

I was unsure if I would be able to make it to TESOL this year, but I am so glad I prioritized it. I had an incredible time in Seattle seeing old friends, exploring a city that I truly love, and learning about how to better serve the populations I now teach. All of my presentation materials are available to peruse (for both my Panel and my Workshop).

I attended a number of sessions on Adult Education and Assessment topics, but these three really shined. Any more I should have attended? Care to debrief me? Let me know in the comments below!

  • Merging Health Literacy Education & ESL Instruction Among Adult Immigrants

Cesar’s talk truly inspired me. He opened his talk with this mind-blowing statistic: poor health literacy costs the U.S. up to $238 billion annually! Armed with this knowledge, Cesar¬†helped found a health literacy program in¬†multiple¬†communities in Alabama. He received a¬†grant from the Dept. of Agriculture and sponsorship from¬†the health department and Alabama Community Extension Systems. Held in Catholic churches and public libraries, these meetings merged ESL instruction with¬†teaching students how to successfully navigate the healthcare system in their community. He played some of his students’ video testimonials for us at the end of the talk and naturally, I got a little teary-eyed. I find little more exciting than helping people live longer, healthier lives through English instruction and free community programs. Bravo, Cesar!

I know very little of Alabama’s health care system, but California provides so much to those in need, including incredible healthcare options. These resources are not, however, easy to access for low-literacy individuals (in fact, I had some difficulty accessing the healthcare available to me as a low-income resident, and I have two master’s degrees in English). I would love to work with the department of health to provide a service similar to Cesar’s for Humboldt county! The need is here, we just need the partnerships and grants necessary to get it going.

This talk by three representatives of NYU: Shanghai opened my eyes to the realities of portfolio assessments on a larger scale. My undergraduate university has a senior portfolio as well, and I always wondered about the logistics of implementing such a massive requirement. Of course, the time commitment for teachers is extreme, so the speakers moved from eight multi-draft artifacts (plus reflections!) to three multi-draft artifacts with a cover letter and whole-project reflection.

Portfolios are incredible assessment tools, but teachers have to be invested in the program assessment, not just thinking of it as an afterthought to their classroom work. That buy-in is essential, and is one thing that makes Truman State’s college-wide portfolio a challenge.

One of the most valuable things I gleaned from this talk was the CRADLE-T framework (Collecting, Reflecting, Assessing, Documenting,, Linking, Evaluating, Technology) for successful portfolio projects (Gottlieb, 1995; Huang & Huang, 2010). Both authors are on my reading list!

This talk was incredibly engaging and eye-opening. The presenters teach at the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in D.C., an award-winning school with a fantastic adult education model. They prepare language learners for their GEDs, for career advancement, and for higher education, all with tuition-free classes taught by qualified multilingual instructors. This particular talk focused on how they address different literacy levels in the classroom. They do this through routines (sign in, answer a daily question, weather report, greet three people) and rotating roles (one student is a greeter, one student is a janitor, one student is a supervisor, etc.). Many of their ideas came from Vinogradov (2008), who was actually in attendance. My reading list grows! 

Until attending this talk, I had not fully understood the different levels of L1 literacy in my classes. I have a wide¬†range of students in my current classes, including some who graduated from high school in Mexico, and some elderly students for whom my English class was the first formal education they have ever received. Coming from an IEP, I was not entirely sure about how to deal with this range, but I can see how a steady, routine-based approach might improve the quality of the classroom experience for these students. The primary challenge for me, then, is creating a space where routine can exist. This is difficult because I do not teach in traditional classrooms. I drive all over the county holding classes in shared community spaces where students come and go and interruptions are commonplace. I still plan to integrate some of these ideas into tomorrow’s class.

#TESOL2017 Preview: Intersection Panel

I just arrived at TESOL 2017 and I cannot wait to connect with old friends and make some new ones. I hope you can join me¬†in the panel I am speaking on tomorrow entitled “How to Manage, Facilitate, and Teach About Culturally Sensitive Issues” at 9:30 in Room 618. My talk will be about using radical tolerance as part of¬†a feminist pedagogy. For those who do not know, radical tolerance is respect for students, even when they present ideas that challenge your own political identity.

Here is a preview of my handout:

Check back soon for my slides and notes on the presentation.

TESOL 2017 Preview: Electronic Village Workshop

This year at TESOL I was asked to give a workshop in the Electronic Village. My workshop is on the use of SeeSaw Learning Journals in the English language classroom and I have a fun-filled interactive session planned. We will be acting as students¬†by¬†joining a SeeSaw class and¬†completing three realistic, outcomes-oriented assignments that you can use in your own classroom. Once we’ve mastered the student side, I will help participants get their own SeeSaw classrooms set up and ready to go for Monday!

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This session will take place on Friday 3/24 from 2:30-4:00 in the Convention Center 608-609. I hope to see you there!

P.S. Check back after the conference for handouts, commentary, and photos from the session.

TESOL 2016 Presentation Materials

Thank you to all who attended my session! It was a full house and a great experience! Scroll down for the presentation, handout, Nearpod homework, Socrative results, and Plickers report. I hope to see you at future TESOL conventions!

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A photo a participant took and uploaded to our SeeSaw journal during my talk.

Presentation Slides

Handout

Vocabulary Nearpod

Click the link above to begin the Vocabulary Nearpod I use to introduce my students to the importance of outside vocabulary practice.

Socrative Results

SeeSaw Submissions

Here are some of my favorite SeeSaw submissions from the session.

Plickers Report

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This is the teacher view of a class report. I can also create student reports. Did you get an A?