Courage, Reconciliation, and Freedom

Many days as a college teacher are uneventful — long hours of preparing, marking, and teaching, but other days are anything but. This post is about academic freedom, but it will take me a few moments to get there. I need to tell you a story from a few years ago.

One afternoon, I popped out during my lunch break for a quick walk downtown. The city I live in is rich in historical culture and a walk downtown often rejuvenates me. As I passed by McDonald’s on my walk, I noticed a homeless youth quietly asking for change. She was dressed in dirty pyjamas, no shoes or socks, and her dyed red hair was a complete matted mess with black roots 4″ long. She looked absolutely awful.

As she asked me for change for food, I looked her straight in the face and my mind starting racing. I recognized her. In my other life, I taught high school. She was one of my former students. What on earth was she doing here? She had graduated high school! She had a diploma and even some certifications in the oil and gas industry. How had she found herself here, in late November, without a winter coat, shoes, and socks. She was sitting literally 50 feet from the unmarked women’s shelter in our city!

I had to say something. I bluttered out nearly in tears, “Akira, why are you here? Do you remember me — your grade 11 math teacher?” It took her a few seconds for to recognize me. The path to youth homelessness is always a sad one. Akira was aboriginal and a crown ward. Her mother had an acquired brain injury and was unable to care for her as an infant, as was her young in-experienced biological father. CAS placed with her elderly great grandfather who cared for her for many years until he passed away. Then she moved with her great uncle, but an abusive drug-addicted boyfriend had lured her away from this kinship placement. Akira and her boyfriend had a son who had been  apprehended by the CAS. When I taught her in high school, she had dreams of becoming a veterinary assistant or early childhood educator. She was so happy then, but now she told a sad story of how she had lost custody of her son, had lost her family, and was stuck in an abusive relationship. Her dream of going to college seemed so far away.

I told her, “There’s a women’s shelter right over there! You can stay there, get your life together, and go to college!”

She agreed to go but not until she picked up her things. She was staying with her boyfriend in an abandoned building behind the taxi dispatch centre in a rough part of town. I walked with her a few blocks (she had no shoes) to a damp, dark building with broken out windows and doors. There was no electricity, running water, bathrooms, or heat. The floor was littered with drug pajrphenilia. Inside were five or so tents, but no one seemed to be there. She collected her things quickly which consisted of some rusted cans of food from the local food bank, a ratty blanket, and a pillow. She had to get these things before her boyfriend came back. I saw a rat run across the floor and water drip off the ceiling.

We walked back to the homeless shelter. They accepted her. I left feeling good about myself for taking her there. We made plans to meet at the college the next day to start the enrolment process for academic upgrading at college. Akira had taken grade 11 workplace level math and needed the college level for entrance.

Akira arrived at the college and looked much better. She had a shower and clean clothes. I sat with her in a meeting with a caring manager who oversaw supports for crown wards. I also took her to our aboriginal centre who could offer her many supports. After positive meetings with both managers, I then left Akira in academic upgrading thinking the enrolment process would be straightforward. She had a high school diploma and was only lacking 1 credit for admission. It is common for students to be lacking several admission credits as their plans change from high school. She was so excited to be taking positive steps for a better future.

Akira called me from the homeless shelter later that day to tell me she had written an admission test and she thought she had done well. We waited for a few days for her results. Finally, Akira phoned me, but she was in tears. She told me she didn’t qualify for upgrading and couldn’t go to college. She said she received a letter stating she needed to go to a local literacy centre. She had called them and found out that they had a wait time of at least four weeks before an intake interview. I thought to myself – how could our upgrading deny her? She had taken grade 11 math with me and got a good grade. She had  a high school diploma. I taught her!

I was upset and demanded to the see the admission test. With great reluctance, a manager pulled out a grainy, photocopied math test consisting of exactly four questions. One was a long division question with decimals, one with money, one with fractions, and another involved area and perimeter. I was shocked they were using this test as the gateway to our academic upgrading program. Had this test been validated by any math teachers on the campus? Why hadn’t I been consulted – I was enrolled in a PHd focusing on the validation of testing tools. Was she given a calculator? Did anyone even ask her if she had a learning disability and needed a caluclator? What math teachers at our colleges even looked at this test? The manager admitted no math teacher had ever been consulted on this gateway test. The gateway test did not reflect the current high school math curriculum or focus at all.

After I contacted the manager overseeing our crown ward program, upgrading wrote a letter to Akira apologizing for denying her entry.

But it was too late. Later that night, Akira’s boyfriend sexually assaulted her in a pubic park  while on a “meth binge”. He was waiting in the bushes watching for her outside the shelter. As she exited the women’s shelter to buy a chocolate bar from a nearby convenience store, he attacked her in broad daylight. I am thankful to the passerby who called the police.

I only saw Akira once after this when I received a phone call from the Attorney General’s office to talk about my safety. Her boyfriend had apparently issued me some sort of threats because I had encouraged her to go the women’s shelter and upgrade at the college. We both ended up at a meeting with a detective and prosecution as they planned the case against her ex-boyfriend.

Akira never came back to college. She never regained any custody or visitations with her son. Will she ever come back to college to fulfil her dream of becoming an ECE or veterinary assistant? It would take a miracle to bring her back. She now raises additional children as a single mother on social assistance.

Something so simple…a gateway math test….needed our feedback as math teachers. Why didn’t a manager take a few minutes to email us and ask for feedback? Our upgrading department now uses an Ontario-government approved Basic Skills Assessment as the gateway test. The new entrance test gives detailed feedback about the student’s literacy and numeracy. I wonder how Akira would have scored on this test, but I will never know. Her bad experience with the four-question math test changed her life path.

Academic freedom means we faculty have some input, not elusive input. Leadership theory tells us that we have a stronger system when faculty and administrators work together collaboratively, not against each other. We owe it to students like Akira to work together. This is what academic freedom means to me.

*Some details have been changed to protect anonymity.


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.

Why full-time teachers are important

As the college strike enters its twelfth day with no talks scheduled, I continue to defend the teachers’ position and hope for a fair resolution.

The College Council (responsible for running Ontario’s community college system) claims thousands contract jobs will be lost if more full-time teachers are hired. I respond: What happened to the thousands of full-time college teaching jobs that have disappeared over the past 15 years? These full-time jobs have been converted into precarious part-time jobs with no security, no sustained benefits, and unfair pay.  The number of college managers increased 77% between 2002 and 2015. How often do these managers deal directly with students on a deep level?

I will give you an example…

Over my fifteen year teaching career, I have experienced four student suicides. Two of these students were my current students.

I was working late one Friday night, and I heard a knock at the door. It was one of my top students, “Sam” looking to see his exam after April finals. My office is located near a bathroom, so students often stop in to say a quick “hello” before using the facilities. Very few students come to pick up their final exams. Sam knocked on the open door, and I spun around  from my computer. I gave Sam his final exam paper, but he didn’t seem to want to leave. He started a conversation by praising me for my academic accomplishments, and then softly he asked me if my parents were proud of me. I told him they were, but I wished my mom would remove a DREADFUL 11 x 17″ grade 8 graduation photo of me from their living room. Sam told me he thought his parents were disappointed in him for leaving a university engineering program to come to college to study accounting; they thought he was capable of “more”.

Sam asked me if my parents were ever disappointed in me for giving up on something. I wasn’t quite sure what to say, but I told him that BOTH my parents “dropped out” of university before finding their niche at college. My mom left teacher’s college in Peterborough twice because she missed her family. My father left Mount Allison University because he was home sick and didn’t know what to do with his life. My dad flip-flopped from military training, to an undergrad in History, and to pre-med for dentistry school, before he settled into a 3-year Marketing Diploma with a minor in accounting at an Ontario community college. My mom went on to do Office Administration Bookkeeping. I also told Sam I dropped out of History at Queen’s to take Computer Science.

Sam listened to me intently and smiled. He seemed happy. He had finished his final April exams, and he wanted to know about possible degree options after college. We chatted for a while. I turned to go back to writing a test on the computer, but Sam was still standing there. He told me I was a wonderful teacher and person, and he told me not to give up until I obtained my PHd. He said he knew I was capable of going as far as I wanted to. He left with a happy wave, and he was gone. Then, he popped his head back in and told me that I was the ONLY teacher he could find in the hallway. I told him that many teachers are part-time and don’t have an office. The only way to get a look at his exam paper was to possibly reach them by email. He agreed he might try.

A day later, Sam shot himself at home at his parents’ house in the country. He died instantely. I realized afterwards that he came to say goodbye to me (and his other teachers). I was the only teacher he could find that night. Part-time teachers are not paid to prep and often work multiple jobs; so many are not available to meet with students outside of class. He couldn’t find any of them. I don’t expect them to be there if they’re working two or three jobs, but there’s needs to be more full-time teachers, counsellors, and librarians. Fewer than 1 in 5 teachers being full-time is too few.

People often say to me, “What do you do outside of the 15 to 18 hours you teach each week?” Usually I don’t have the energy to respond, but when I do, I tell them I am tutoring, preparing lessons, marking tests, arranging guest speakers and supplies, and meeting with students. What I really want to say … is that I am waiting to try and help students like Sam. I had no idea Sam would take his own life less than 24 hours after he visited me, but I am thankful he found me that night. A couple days later, Sam’s college girlfriend came and found me at school, and asked me if I would be at Sam’s funeral. We attended together. I am glad she found me in my office.

There needs to be more full-time teachers and counsellors to meet and help students like Sam. When students home lives are rough, teachers might be their only positive lifeline. I have walked students in crisis to our counselling department – I am thankful everyday I have a full-time teaching position that allows me to the time to get to know my students and connect them with the help and resources they need. I don’t speak much about Sam, but I have said, I am glad I had a desk at the college and I am glad I didn’t rush him away to get to another job. Sam didn’t come to say goodbye to a manager. He came to say goodbye to his teachers.




A little bit about me first


My name is Melanie, and I am a full-time professor at a small college in Southeastern Ontario. This is my fifteen year teaching. I am starting this blog to show support for the Ontario College Strike and to shed light on college teaching and the issues we currently face. This is my first blog post – EVER. I thought I would give you a little bit of background about myself and then share some of my feelings about the strike. I usually teach math and am shy, so here goes.

Fifteen years ago, I graduated teacher’s college with high school math and computer science teaching credentials. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. My grandmother gave me a small chalkboard at the age of 3, and I used it to teach my dolls. I even gave them hand-written report cards (which were sometimes not very flattering) and made each of them desks out of cardboard boxes. When I got older and went to school, I used to pick discarded textbooks out of recycling bins to take home for my “school”. I learned from these textbooks and used them to tutor neighbourhood friends.

When I graduated university in the early 2000’s, the education climate was different from today. The local school board was “pool hiring” teachers; they hired over 100 new elementary teachers the year before I graduated. The year after they hired 80, and the year after that 40. There is no pool hiring anymore. Bill 274 has made it nearly impossible for new elementary and secondary teachers to be hired without first being on supply teacher lists.

I didn’t make the cut for a full-time elementary teaching job because I was only qualified at the time to teach grade 7/8 and high school. My dad spotted a college hiring advertisement in our local newspaper for math and computer teachers. The ad asked for PHd candidates to apply. I told my father that I hadn’t even started a Master’s degree yet. He told me to apply anyway.

To my complete surprise, I landed two interviews at the local community college. I prepared my teaching portfolio and headed to the interviews. They went well. To my astonishment, I was offered four courses – two sections of business math, one section of statistics, and one section of an operating systems course. I was thrilled and went home to tell my dad that I’d been hired for a full-time load!

After looking over the paperwork, my dad broke the bad news to me. The job offered was “sessional” at the college. The lab component of one course pushed the number of student contact hours over 12. Sessional professors are those that teach over 12 hours, but they have no benefits, no pension, no union protections on workloads, and a very low rate of pay. Part-time, partial load, and sessional teachers are only paid for the hours they spend in front of the class. They are not paid to prep, mark, or meet with students outside of class. The sessional rate of pay is actually worse than the part-time and partial-load rate. And to make matters worse – I couldn’t stay as sessional for longer than 1 year or the college would be forced to either let me go (more likely) or hire me permanently full-time. I would also have to re-compete for my temporary contract again in 15 weeks – with no guarantee I’d ever teach these courses again after putting in so many unpaid “prep” hours. The courses came with no “pre-prepared” resources, just a bare bones list of topics to cover in a non-standardized syllabus.

I was gutted and my father advised me not to take the full load offered. So I set out to supply teach during the day in the elementary/high school panel and teach two of the college courses at night. I also started a Master’s degree and took three additional qualification courses to broaden my teaching credentials. Life as a part-time college teacher not easy. I had to turn down long-term occasional contracts with the school board because of my college teaching commitments. It was hard to balance schedules for two jobs and extra qualification courses.

When I first started teaching, there were maybe 4 or 5 part-time and partial load instructors in my department. Now, most of the department is part-time or partial load. New programs are created and full-time teachers retire, but they are not replaced with full-time teaching staff. Approximately 20 non-full-time teaching staff share the part-time office in our department. There are only two desks in this office and only two desktop computers. Students hired to assist our department also use this office. There is nowhere  for part-time and partial-load teachers to talk with privately with students about grades or personal issues; some are forced to meet with the students in the hall and stairwells. This isn’t right.

In the fifteen years I’ve been here, I’ve seen part-time offices replaced with manager’s offices over and over again. This strike is not about wages. It is about hiring more full-time teachers. In my next post, I will talk about why having more full-time college teachers is important.