Why Assistant Teaching Is Completely Awesome

Last year, I was feeling overwhelmed with balancing my at-home duties and my teaching duties. I’m certainly not the first person in the world to feel that tug of priorities! Everybody makes the decision that’s right for them, and for me, the right decision was to decline taking on a class that semester. I was sad but relieved.

I was then offered the opportunity to assistant teach, and it was so wonderful that I signed up to do it again this semester.

Before I gush too wildly about how much I love assistant teaching, I do want to admit that I miss lead teaching. This week the teacher spent some time going over essay expectations (again), handing out rubrics, etc., and I seriously felt nostalgic about all of it. And since I’m so separate from the grading, I don’t have a complete picture of which students are struggling on their assignments and how they’re struggling. I mean, I can see their grades, but that’s very different from doing the grading. So there’s some disconnection there.

With that out of the way, here is more about what I am getting out of my assistant teaching gig:

Light As A Feather

I get to breeze in without preparing anything, work with the teacher and students on an as-needed basis, and then breeze out again without that big stack of grading. It’s very fun and relaxed!

Professional Development

I get to be in an hour of every session of someone else’s class. Sometimes I play second-banana, and sometimes I observe. Either way, it’s fascinating and I’m paid to be there! I have taken notes on so many great activities and explanations these past two semesters. It’s way better than a conference because it’s embedded in an actual class with real students across a whole semester.

Observing Students

My time is either spent conferencing with students or watching the class. Since I’m not running the show, I have attention to spare for keeping an eye on the quiet ones, watching people’s faces, seeing exactly which word tripped people up (and jumping in if needed, which is rare), and just being a fly on the wall and getting a perspective other than that of Leader Of The Class.

Working Closely With Another Teacher

Being an adjunct instructor is a lonely business! Especially working at secondary campuses and working at night – I just don’t usually have a lot of contact with my wonderful departments and colleagues. Being an assistant teacher, I’m always with my lead teacher, and any work I do supplements her agenda. This is really different from what I’m used to, and it’s valuable and refreshing!

Balance In My Life

All that time I’m not spending trying to prep lessons, write tests, keep track of late homework, and grade essays? I’m using it to blog, go to bed early, organize the house, start up a garden, donate the baby stuff my kids have grown out of, etc. I even get to read sometimes! I don’t feel so stressed and depleted. I have more to give. It’s good. It’s really good.

Prep

When I’m ready, I would be overjoyed to lead teach this class. And while assistant teaching it any number of times will certainly not make it “easy,” I am way more prepared to dive in than I would have been just reviewing the previous teacher’s syllabus. I have tons of specific activity ideas, familiarity with the textbook (though they’ll likely switch textbooks by the time I get there), and observation hours ready to inform my decisions, lessons, assignments, and grading. I’m looking forward to that semester, whenever it turns out to be!

You’re reading Why Assistant Teaching Is Completely Awesome, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Throwback Draft: Off on the Left Foot

Tying the Knot by psyberartist on Flickr
Tying the Knot by psyberartist on Flickr

[I have a collection of unpublished drafts in this blog, and I thought I’d publish some from time to time in a Throwback Draft series.]

I wrote this piece more than five years ago, as I was transitioning from being in nonprofits to being in ESL. I’d like to keep the timeframe vague because it will help protect the identity of the kind  people and beneficial orgs in the specific example I describe.

I turned out to be happy teaching the class I describe in this article, and I have been happy with my current part-time contingent role at multiple sites through multiple community colleges over the years.

That said, looking back at this post more than five years later, it still resonates with me. I’m happy teaching and assistant teaching, but what’s going on around my classroom is still significant. The nonprofit I wrote about here has shut down. Academics is considered to be having an ” adjunct crisis.” I think a lot of us have a sense of doing ever more with ever less. Our students are not benefiting from this trend, and I’m not sure who is.

***

The beginning of this new teaching gig has been a string of annoyances and errors so far.

I’m blogging about them because I feel like they exemplify what’s wrong with running low-efficiency operations hog-tied by arbitrary funding rules and changes.

Background: I will be working through a community college to teach ESL at a small nonprofit.  I have met everybody involved and there are no slackers, no morons, and no mean-spirited trolls; there are just good people trying to run a good program.

The Comedy of Errors

  1. Disrespectful scheduling: I requested morning classes through the college.  They were all listed as 9AM – 12PM.  I was scheduled as the teacher for one of them at “Nonprofit A.”  Then the college moved my class one hour earlier.  I found out via a mass email of the changed schedule.  There was no acknowledgement that I did not sign up for an 8AM class, nor were there offers of flexibility or explanation.  There were, however, enough obvious errors on the schedule that I had to email the office to confirm that the change was not a typo.
  2. Slow Information: Teachers were going to receive materials at a meeting over a month before classes started.  This meeting was then moved to be two weeks before classes started.  So much for planning ahead.
  3. Inefficient, Ineffective Meetings: Said last-minute meeting was so generic that the teachers still did not know what to plan.  It had to be followed up with other small-group meetings the week before classes started.
  4. Chase Grant or Prep Teachers?: Said small-group meeting was derailed because the leader of the meeting unexpectedly had to deal with changes to our grant (which begins Monday) that morning and so was unable to be prepared for us.
  5. Logistical Detail Disaster: Remember how they pushed my class one hour earlier?  Nobody thought about building access.  The regular teacher who has a key is currently hospitalized.  And the Nonprofit A staff who have keys to the building don’t normally come in until 9AM.  The director is graciously coming in at 8AM to let us in.  Yes, that’s zero set-up time for my first class.  And a potential security issue in the future if the only people in the open building are small teachers in their classrooms.
  6. Technological Ineptitude: When I called Nonprofit A to see if I could come in today to at least drop off some materials, their voicemail message was the generic one that comes with the phone, confirming the telephone number but making no mention that I had reached Nonprofit A.  An internet search to confirm the phone number and find their hours of operation showed that they don’t have a website.  Seriously?

My Conclusion: We Have Low Overhead

What Low Overhead Looks Like (photo by jhf on Flickr)
What Low Overhead Looks Like (photo by jhf on Flickr)

I see too few people trying to do too much in too few hours.  I see good things done poorly.

This is why it might actually drive me crazy one day when I hear that people interested in donating money are quite strongly opposed to said money going to overhead.  This mentality implies the belief that somehow their money will magically help “the people who need it” more if the organizations trying desperately to serve them are as starved for resources, infrastructure, and staff hours as possible.

I strongly suspect that the reason we’re locked out of the building until class time is because budgets are too tight to have extra keys available and a safe place to store them.

I’m quite sure that there was no special meeting for teachers new to the college because there wasn’t the staff time available to run an orientation.  I’m also positive that the office staff would have loved to send out an error-free schedule that was backed by lots of one-to-one talks with the teachers to be sure there was clarity and harmony in the department.  The way things actually went just smacks of a scarcity of staff hours.

I’m sure that Nonprofit A would love to have a web presence, but I’m also sure they don’t want a crappy website that nobody has time to update anyway.

And nobody wants to be unprepared for a meeting, especially one you’re leading.  But when your bread and butter grant changes under you four days before it starts, you kind of have to drop everything and respond.  We’re so starved for funding that we have to sacrifice the very quality the funders are trying to encourage in order to just survive.  They intend to underwrite excellent programming, but unreliability undermines it.

But what can we do?

Thus, My Conundrum

Everywhere I look in my work with nonprofits, I see broken systems and a dearth of the power necessary to fix them.

I see a great many people who are working hard and doing their best in good faith that it’s enough.  If we just pour enough of ourselves into the effort, it will be enough, right?  I’m hardly a seasoned veteran, but even I have seen more than one nonprofit worker get stressed out to the point of serious physical illness.

But I see little change.  I no longer have the faith that just showing up as I am and doing my best is enough.

And I ask myself what my role in it all should be.

An Adjunct’s Reply

Several of the colleges I’m affiliated with (for work past and present) email faculty teaching tips every so often.

One of these colleges sent the following two articles in the last month:

  1. A Simple Request: Please See Me!
  2. Getting More out of Exam Debriefs

Both of these articles extol the benefits of teachers scheduling one-to-one meetings with students to take place outside of class hours.

After receiving the second of the above messages, I drafted a reply that I feel compelled to publish here. Being an adjunct is one facet of what teaching ESL is for me, and so it will be one (small) facet of this blog.

Dear _____,

I appreciate your sending out articles from Faculty Focus. They are consistently lucid, well-researched, and interesting.

The most recent two of these excellent professional development emails arrived about two weeks apart and shared a theme: the quantifiable value of professors meeting with students outside of class. Both articles lay out logical, engaging, research-based narratives emphasizing the importance of such meetings. Indeed, the articles frame this time outside of class, even if “brief” (both articles were vague as to the actual time spent per student), as a major factor in students’ ability to master material and pass classes.

I am pleased to see that we all agree that students need their instructors to be available outside of class hours. However, it needs to be acknowledged that adjunct faculty are only compensated for in-class hours.

This is a conundrum. The college relies heavily on adjuncts to teach its courses, and the college pays them for very limited functions. Yet the college itself just forwarded two articles in as many weeks that convincingly argue that the paid functions of adjuncts are not sufficient to ensure student success. There is conflict here between the college’s mission and its hiring practices. This is an institution-wide, leadership-level quagmire.

A cynic might wonder if by emailing the adjuncts about the effectiveness of meeting with students outside of class, the college intended to recast a deficiency in faculty compensation as a deficiency in the faculty themselves.

Happily, I am not a cynic. I believe that this was a simple case of one person identifying good content and sending it out in good faith to her usual stakeholders. It was to be sure a bit of a faux pas to send this theme to the adjuncts at all, let alone twice in one month. But as they say, if we never accidentally offend anybody, it’s because we’re not doing anything at all.

Kudos to you for all that you do to support all faculty. And extra kudos if you would kindly forward research about the importance of increasing student-instructor interactions not only to the instructors, but also to those who fund them.

Many thanks,

Emily

 

In fairness, the issue I raise is not unique to this specific college, but is widespread in all forms of higher education institutions across the USA.

In case you are interested in the topic of adjuncts in higher education, one mild narrative piece is O Adjunct! My Adjunct! (New Yorker). For a very readable and organized summary of how things currently stand, I was impressed with the sections I read of The Role of Adjuncts in the Professoriate (AAC&U).

For more impassioned/inflammatory reading than anything you’ll find here or in the above links, Google “adjunct crisis.”

You’re reading An Adjunct’s Reply, originally posted at learningtoteachenglish.com.