Inspired to a Higher Calling

Teachers. You know, possibly one or two of whom we will forever recall, the ones who somewhere along the educational pathway, made a special impression. From kindergarten to graduate school, or whatever level of formal education one completes, most everyone has at least one such memorable, even inspirational Mr. or Mrs. Somebody they recall fondly.

 Of course. Why? Because many (certainly not all) teachers truly love what they do. The cliché of teaching as a calling, is quite the matter of fact for that person who takes up the profession and clearly understands it’s what he or she was meant to become. Not that being an educator is “easy” because they have a passion for what they endeavor to accomplish with those seated in front of them. Teaching can be  as much a grind as the rest of the various jobs one can possibly take up. Adversity is a likely inevitability in almost every part of the workforce. However, the teacher who loves the job, who intrinsically feels that calling, with its peaks and valleys, fulfilling and frustrating outcomes, is going to keep trying to connect with the students, getting them to understand the subject matter, and why it’s important in both the big and little parts of their lives. The best teachers won’t give up on those who seem  resistant or disinterested, distracted, aimless, listless, troubled, struggling with…you name it. Again, this type of educator may be anywhere in the K through graduate school classroom.

This posting is, well, inspired, by an essay that appears in the May 22nd edition of the Christian Science Monitor Weekly (don’t be fooled by the publication’s religious oriented moniker; it’s an exceptional example of objective, smart journalism, now an endangered species in our corporate controlled, biased, dumbed-down, specious and superficial age of “information/news” providers). The essay is written by a person who gives thanks to one Mrs. Peters, who apparently has that teaching mojo that can make all the difference in the world for her students. Well, in this case, Mrs. Peters, described as “a smartly dressed woman with bifocals and white hair” was the essayist’s English composition class instructor at a community college. The writer, who described himself as feeling “in over my head” with his higher education coursework, and contemplating dropping out of school (again) was fortunate to have randomly enrolled in Mrs. Peters’ section of the writing course .

Mrs. Peters gave the entire class a first day of the semester pep talk: “Look at you! Look at each and every one of you. You’re here because you want to change your lives for the better. And you’re going to make it!”  He felt, although just one of many students in the room at that moment, that she was speaking directly to him. Through her approach to explaining the coursework and how to strategize the studying and completion of her–or any class–assignments, the essayist did indeed change his attitude about his ability and his future. He took her English literature course the next semester, finished community college, and went on to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Yeah, right on Mrs. Peters! You are truly capable of inspiring your students to move on to bigger and better things. She still has the passion, in spite of the implication that she has been teaching a long time. Hey, white hair, bifocals? She hasn’t lost that energy that comes from within, a state of mind as much as any diet and exercise agenda. Bless her heart.

However, the essay ends with our once ready to drop out, lost soul in a sea of confusion and doubt, becoming–what else?!–a college teacher. And our transformed by Mrs. Peters former student states he now channels her positive attitude and commitment to students when he conducts his own classes–as an adjunct instructor at an unnamed school.

Is this a happy ending? That’s what the essay wants to convey. For myself, when I read he was now emulating Mrs. Peters as a college instructor, in the abstract I thought, good for him. But I know what it is to be an adjunct instructor in higher education. Specifically, 20 years worth of being an adjunct. I hope the grateful writer of the essay can get tenure, but I doubt he ever will. Colleges basically run their operations on the backs of adjuncts. We come cheap compared to tenured professors, although we have equal and sometimes more advanced degrees than our full-time brethren. However, many adjuncts hustle for assignments at three or four schools in a single semester to make a modest living at it. We self-deprecatingly refer to ourselves as “road scholars” or “field hands for higher education”.  We know we’re being exploited, but those of us who are willing to take assignments here or there or wherever, we accept the tradeoff because we, like Mrs. Peters, want to teach; it’s simply what we realize we were meant to do. The schools know they have us right where they want us. We’re interchangeable parts. If lucky, we may teach at an institution that has a union. Not all do. Benefits? Sure.

I’ve read about the struggles of adjuncts, written by serious investigative journalists, in studies, including Maria Maisto’s New Faculty Majority, that clearly detail the lack of job security, modest  (at best, crummy at worst) rate of composition, blah blah. We are described as professionals who are part of our economy’s working poor! Ouch!

Thus, our thankful former student of one inspirational teacher had better truly feel that calling, that passion for teaching as an adjunct. If that’s the case, it IS a happy ending that he found his calling. He, like myself and countless other adjuncts, are free to seek other employment, but willingly take those part-time assignments and make the best of it. The rewards tend to come from the occasional student who thanks their adjunct for making class interesting, or positive in outcome, in a brief encounter at semester’s end, let alone getting props in print like the Journal.  If he expects to feel appreciated by school administration, he’s completely delusional.

One way or another, I send my best wishes to another, newer, member of the “working poor” known as adjunct instructors. My guess is he’s at more than one school, or has a part-time gig working for Acme Widget for part-time pay (only if he can’t secure enough classes to avoid non-classroom means of making a buck).

 I admire, vicariously, Mrs. Peters, who is obviously enthusiastic about teaching. Me too. I tell my students that they should take studying, in each and every course in which they enroll, seriously,. I assure them that they can count on me to help them above and beyond if they should ask for such. I want them to succeed, to have a satisfying career, whatever part of the workforce that might be. Well, almost “whatever” part…

…I also explain to them, that should they want to become an educator, stick to primary and secondary education classrooms, assuring them that they should not  become an adjunct, like their instructor. Seriously. Why would I encourage them into this cheap labor structured adjunct existence?  I’m not wanting to inspire anyone else to join the working poor (!) in a capacity that requires a minimum of a master’s degree.

Acme Widget likely pays better, and might even have some decent benefits. Maybe an Associate degree would suffice to impress the HR manager there. If even that.

But if one has that calling…that passion…

About jharrin4

mass communication/speech instructor at College of DuPage and Triton College in suburban Chicago. Army veteran of the Viet Nam era.
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