Army of scabs

A retired teacher realizes he’s ripping himself off

Jaime O’Neill is a freelance writer and retired community-college instructor.

I taught English full time in four different California and Washington state community colleges over three decades, a teaching discipline notorious for the workload it imposes on conscientious teachers. When I reached retirement age, it felt a little like getting to the edge of the pool after a very long swim.

But, after four years away from the classroom, I decided to get back in the pool to test the water, returning as a part-timer to the job I’d done full time for so long.

I’m getting seriously ripped off, of course, and the worst of it is that the person ripping me off is mostly me.

At the beginning of the current semester, I started teaching a remedial writing course. For that work, I’m paid a little more than $50 an hour, which sounds like pretty good pay, until you start doing the math.

I began to exacerbate the act of ripping myself off almost immediately by allowing students to add the class, thereby overenrolling it with six additional bodies. I added those students because I have a congenital reluctance to say no, especially to anxious-looking young people who offer sob stories.

So I added ’em, pumping up my workload in the process. There are now 34 students in the class, and because I believe writing improves through application, practice and attention to detail, I am asking them to write five short (250-word) papers each week. That means 34 students times five papers each for a total of 170 papers. This comes to 680 papers every 30 days. If I spend five minutes on each of those papers, I will have expended 96 hours each month at the task of pointing out the myriad errors the course is devoted to expunging.

The first batch of papers assigned produced the following three sentences—among dozens of others—that cry out for remedies.

1. “So today is Wednesday; being the first day that I have started college and do not have class I decided to sleep in and enjoy not being responsible—boy was I wrong.”

2. “I never get to bus tables because there are so much people and most of the time tables were be full or have people sitting in them. But I do try my best cleaning it.”

3. “I’m going to school for business reasons. I have decided to be that person who parties has a good time and to work my way through college but still maintain a focused school study.”

So what’s a teacher to do, if he or she would be worthy of the name? If there are other options, I never managed to find them in more than 30 years of full-time teaching, and I still don’t know how to avoid that time-consuming chore as a part-time teacher. If we want a more literate society, our students must write more, and what they write should be read critically by engaged teachers. Like most human skills—piano playing, tennis, golf, chess—improvement comes with practice and coaching at the hands of someone willing to offer suggestions about ways to improve.

The guy who teaches in the classroom just before I take up my duties there is a former full-time colleague. On a classroom-hour basis, he makes more than five times more than I do for performing something like the same function, and that pay ratio doesn’t include his benefits. His salary—and the entire community-college enterprise statewide—is subsidized by the sacrifice of an army of part-time instructors who are willing to rip themselves off, or allow themselves to be ripped off.

More than half of all instruction provided to community-college students throughout the state is offered by part-time instructors. On the campus where I’m currently teaching, part-time teachers outnumber full-time teachers by roughly 5-to-1.

My pay for the entire semester will be just a hair more than $3,400, and if I had been paid at this rate when I was a full-time instructor, I would have been compensated at the rate of about $27,000 per year for teaching eight sections of writing classes, which was my annual teaching responsibility back when I was full-time.

Now I could, of course, get my pay rate up by merely assigning fewer papers, or by reading fewer of the papers I do assign. But, of course, student writing that isn’t read merely reinforces the kinds of mistakes those students routinely make, and an unmarked error in grammar or spelling or logic is an error sustained and sanctioned.

Now that I am a part-time instructor, I am part of that army of people whose work undergirds the entire system of higher education in California and elsewhere throughout the nation. The community-college system is largely subsidized by the sacrifices of thousands of undercompensated part-time instructors like me, the people who make it possible to offer instruction to far more students than could be served without our willingness to rip ourselves off, or to allow the system to do that for us.

But our willingness, or need, to take underpaid work also makes us an army of scabs, guaranteeing there will be fewer full-time jobs, and turning the teaching profession into a hobby for retirees or the bored spouses of those who already bring home a living wage.