I recently almost left the teaching profession

I’m not sure the above words can properly express how profoundly devastating the idea of leaving this career of mine is.

The cliché of teaching being my calling completely applies here. I’ve always wanted to be a mentor for all the reasons you usually hear. I had amazing mentors. From the great Floyd Tunson in HS to more recently the always positive and huggy Joe Girandola. And those are just the art mentors. Without a few key teachers at key moments in my life, I would have most certainly failed academically (I’m talking to you, Mrs. Sampson, and Mrs. Johnson).

I’m a powerfully skeptical and self-doubting creative individual (and am possibly neuro-divergent in some way). The system was not made for me, and back then, things were more standardized, rote, and uninclusive to learners like me.

I’ve had some real assholes too, and yet even they were influential. That should tell you how important mentorship is to me. Even the jerks got through to me.

One of the few, if the only, thing I’ve known for certain was that I’d be a great teacher. And let me tell you I haven’t had the greatest of self-esteem over the years, and to feel sure about anything is huge. Even art-making has been a struggle, I am in constant doubt of my abilities. But not teaching. Even when I fail or am not knowledgeable about what I’m doing, I know I’ll figure it out and eventually be good at it.

And it took me a long time to get here. One or two bad mentors, and that pesky self-esteem, led me to be in office monkey designing car and real-estate ads. Most definitely not my dream career. It took being laid off a second time for me to finally pursue the career that had been screaming for years from the deepest reaches of my mind, “fucking teach already!”

Totally how it happened
Totally how it happened

And so I began the long and arduous path through Grad School and a demoralizing job market. I got my first teaching gig in Vineland NJ. By a stroke of luck, a friend of a friend’s hairdresser’s other client was an Art Department coordinator at a tiny Community College in the most rural part of South Jersey. I imagine the conversation occurring under large chrome hairdryers from the 1950s, my soon-to-be boss mentioned to the friend of the friend that she needed an art teacher, ASAP. I was mentioned and sans one second of teaching experience I was dumped into my first Art Appreciation Class with two weeks prep time.

I busted ass and did quite well if I don’t say so myself. Looking back I definitely sucked, but I was elated and knew I had finally landed my life-long career. Of this I had no doubt, I would never quit. I wanted to be that 98-year-old Professor Emeritus that would be dragged out of the nursing home just to scare youths during critiques.

And it all almost ended.

I changed careers in my 30s. Expecting to ease into teaching and start living the dream right away, I was quickly shocked out of that dream into the reality of the current, and most problematic iteration of academia.

I realized an Adjunct Union was necessary within weeks of starting my first class. I was now a distinguished member of the majority of Educators in Higher Ed who, 75% on average, are paid a third to half what equally qualified full-time faculty earn. And that’s without any benefits. Luckily I found United Academics of Philadelphia and helped organize 2 adjunct Unions at schools in the Philadelphia region.

For some context, I was once a freelance graphic designer. When hired on as a contractor at an agency, I was paid more than an equally qualified full-timer, as I wasn’t paid benefits they were obliged to make up the difference in my hourly wage.

For some reason, adjuncts are paid less AND don’t get benefits (for some good reason I’m sure). This has resulted in roughly 1/3 of adjuncts needing public assistance. And most, if not all, need more than one job, whether that’s at another school, or elsewhere. I know folks who taught at up to 7 schools to get by.

So that’s where I found myself, working at 2 schools as well as maintaining my freelance graphic design practice. Once I started organizing I essentially had 4 jobs.

That’s when I first became burnt out. I moved back home to CO where the teaching, of course, continued. But being closer to family helped differ some of the costs and manage the stress. That being said I still need to teach at 2 schools, carrying a workload far above what any full-timer would be expected to teach.

Then came COVID. Everything moved online and we have 2 weeks to prep. my workload quickly tripled, as migrating a  normally online class and teaching takes so much more time.

After 2 semesters I was burnt out. And as I finally had someone with a second income in my life, and a baby on the way, I began planning my exit.

That’s when my boss quit and recommended me for her job. Great timing, right?

How I finally earned my full-time faculty position is a story for another long post. That being said, if not for my brand-new shiny full-time job, with all its neato benefits and actual real office (I HAVE AN OFFICE!!!).

It has been 10 years since I’ve had healthcare and made enough money to not need financial help.

I nearly left this career, this career that I deeply love, said goodbye to the students that I can’t wait to teach every single semester, gave up the job that I have worked and sacrificed for. Donzo. Buh-Bye.

I will never forget my time as an adjunct, and fully realize that I could easily be one again, as the full-time position is provisional and there is no guarantee I’ll keep it.

I can only conclude that our current gig-based economic climate, especially that of Academia, is tenuous at best and if others can only rely on blind luck and desperation to make it, it’s no wonder folks won’t return to low-paying difficult jobs.

And if I have struggled, underpaid, overworked, undervalued, and completely burnt out, me who is simply drenched in white privilege, can you imagine the struggle of those who weren’t lucky enough to be born with white skin and one of the whitest names ever.

We will continue to lose highly qualified and passionate educators. I’m one of the few, the very few, lucky ones. If you are a student, know a student, want to teach, want to get that degree, or just care about the future of our society, the failing profit-driven Higher Education system needs to change.