Why contract teaching hurts

Those of us who chose to teach do so because we are passionate about it. We believe in forging connections with our students so that they can develop and grow into happier, more successful people. We want what’s best for them. We are driven and determined to prepare them for whatever they will face in the industry of their choosing.

We are also considered to be experts in our field. We are not only highly educated; we have real-world, practical experience. We have been selected to teach both because we have mastery of our skills and the passion and ability to impart that knowledge to others.

However, for us to teach, 80% of college faculty must settle with teaching part time. This is the story of a partial-load employee submitted to me anonymously for this blog:

I have been a college faculty professor in the GTA for four years. During that time, I have varied between part-time, partial-load and sessional employment.

I currently work three contracts at a campus an hour drive from where I live. I live a ten-minute walk from the main campus, but three days a week I am up at 5:00 a.m. to battle traffic through rain, sun and snow for an hour on the freeway to reach my students at another location in the GTA to teach them a groggy 8:30 class. Opportunities near home are sporadic at best: this is what I have to do to be able to teach.

My car has 400,000 km on it. I fill up on gas once every two or three days. My check engine light has been on for a year. My maintenance light reminds me every time I turn on my engine that I can’t afford to do basic upkeep of my vehicle. This is the car that protects my life every day for two hours on my daily commute.

There is no subsidy for gas or mileage available to me from my employer.

My two other jobs help me to pay my rent. Those, and the monthly stipend my grandmother sends me, help me to saddle my debt and buy my Kraft Dinner.

Unfortunately, those two other jobs, my exceptionally long commute, the constant financial stress, all prevent me from being able to devote quality time to my students. I don’t even have an office where I can hold office hours to meet with them and discuss their needs.

I am not employable in my field. Employers in my industry are unwilling to accommodate my teaching schedule. I have lost jobs because of it. To stay current in my field, it is therefore incumbent on me to pursue professional development on my own time and with my own money. The college reimburses me, a contract employee, a mere $200 a year for professional development.

I am paid $80.89 for every hour I teach in the classroom. I teach 12 hours a week. I spend an additional 35-40 hours a week in preparation for class, marking assignments, meeting with colleagues and emailing students. This works out to $19.41 an hour. For eight months of the year. However, my paystub will only say that I worked 12 hours a week, meaning that during the four months of the year when I am unemployed I do not qualify for EI.

When I started teaching I was brought on at the $80.89/hour rate. This, Step 5, was the lowest step of payment for partial-load employees as of September 1, 2015. On September 1, 2016 the amount for Step 5 went up to $82.35. I have been teaching since 2014. I continue to earn only $80.89 per teaching hour.

Occasionally, I can get contracts in the summer months. Very often, I cannot. For a while, I was unable to find even part-time minimum wage work to at least pay for groceries. I have run up a staggering amount of debt trying to pay the bills in those months, and in the fall, when I am able to get back to work, I am often playing catch up on bills well into mid-November. Then I must save to support myself for the three weeks in December when I will not be earning anything. “Christmas” is not a word in my vocabulary; my family do not receive gifts from me. I also have no credit left to speak of.

Benefits are sporadic because they are only available when I am teaching partial-load. I am not always teaching partial-load. I have had to forego taking medication that would vastly improve my quality of life and potentially cure a medical condition because I cannot afford it when I do not have benefits. Even when I do have coverage, it does not include dental. I have not been to the dentist in over three years.

With three jobs I have next to no time for relationships or self-care. If I choose to go to the gym, interact with friends or enjoy a quiet afternoon with my partner, it means I will not be able to mark my students’ assignments or thoroughly prepare for an upcoming lesson. Gym memberships are a luxury that I cannot afford, as is the time necessary to actually attend the gym. My pantry is stocked with Kraft Dinner and ramen; I ate better when I was in university.

The rate of burnout in this profession is incredibly high. Seeing colleagues come and go is like watching an endless parade; contract staff generally only stay on for one or two semesters. They realize that they cannot have children if they stay because they cannot get maternity leave. They realize that they cannot qualify for a mortgage; they cannot support themselves or their families; they realize that the chances of ever getting full-time employment are dwindling.

Due to the precarious nature of my employment I am afraid of bringing complaints forward to management. The fact that my rate has not been increased, despite the very clear language of the Collective Agreement; the incidents of sexual assault and harassment I have been subjected to, perpetrated both by other staff and by students; the concerns that I have about the precariousness of my day-to-day life; none of these are things I feel I can discuss with my employer for fear that I will simply not be asked to teach another contract. I would not even have to be fired. I simply would not receive an email asking me to teach next term.

I have a colleague who was raped by a student and was afraid to tell management.

This is the reality of our work.

We are here because we are passionate about education. We are passionate about engaging students. About teaching them the skills and tools necessary to be effective in the workplace so that they can enjoy security and happiness. We care for our students and hope that they will not have to work on a contract basis. But the reality is that in this economy, most of them will.

This strike has to be historic.

This is a snapshot of the life of merely one contract employee.

It is not the worst story. But it is not a happy story. And it is not the story of a professor who is effective at their job, or living to their potential as an educator.

We cannot allow for this, the “gig” economy, to be the workforce our students enter.

Employers must recognize the value of their employees if they want happy, productive workers.

The way to do that is not through contract work.

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