2014 marks my 20th year teaching at post-secondary institutions. I have spent the past two decades of my teaching career as a part-time contract instructor, also known as a “sessional” in Canada, or an “adjunct” in the United States.
Here are some things I’ve learned over the past twenty years:
1. Know your “why”.
I have friends and colleagues who have been contract teachers for a long time. Some become bitter and jaded because they do not get hired into full-time and permanent positions. If you want a full-time position, then you need to be prepared to do whatever it takes to get one. That may mean moving to a new city, region or even a different country to get it. If you aren’t willing to do that, then don’t get grumpy about being a part-time teacher. Understand that you are putting staying in your current location above getting a permanent job. If you are very lucky, eventually you may get hired on full-time, but there are no guarantees. It comes with the territory.
Like a potted plant, each of us has an ideal set of conditions in which we blossom. For me, the idea of going into an office at the same time every day for the rest of my life makes my heart wilt. I have learned that I serve my institutions, my clients and my students better when I honour that part of my character that thrives in an environment of flexibility, independence and variety.
Knowing why you accept part-time contract teaching jobs helps you stay positive. Once you know your why, you can stand in your truth about what is important to you and what you need to thrive.
2. Have more than one gig at all times.
As much as you may love the department or institution you work for, there may be semesters when there are no classes for you to teach. The reasons for this may vary. For me, these have included lower departmental enrolments, insufficient enrollment in a particular course, departmental commitments to give jobs to visiting professors or scholars, or jobs going to other contract teachers with more years of service.
For me, a combination of teaching, consulting, researching, and freelance work has proven successful. I don’t do as much freelance work as I did in the early years. My career has evolved to the point where I do organizational consulting. The difference is that in freelance work you have a clear set of deliverables due by a particular date. In consulting, the work is often more iterative, strategic and adaptive. The deliverables are not always clear, but the results can be documented or measured.
Whether the work involves a clear set of deliverables (freelancing) or the ability to work iteratively with a client to change processes or systems (consulting) or teaching a group of students, I have learned that having more than one gig ensures I can pay the bills every month.
When you aim to always have more than one gig, you build your own safety net. This builds your confidence and assertiveness as a professional. If there’s a semester when there are no teaching opportunities, you can redirect your energy to another element of your career for a while.
3. Don’t take it personally if there is no course for you to teach.
If you look at the list above, you’ll see that all the examples I shared had nothing to do with me personally or my job performance. They are all factors outside my control. Having a semester when there are zero courses for me to teach has been rare. But there have been times when I have been offered only one course. Either way, I don’t take it personally.
It is naive to assume that just because you had three courses last semester that you will have the same number of classes next term. I have found that having high expectations around the number or type of my teaching assignments causes unnecessary stress. In the early years, I became frustrated or angry when I received fewer teaching opportunities than I had the semester before. I have learned that there are many variables, most of which are outside my control. There are no guarantees… and that’s not your fault.
4. Unofficial seniority is a reality.
In some teaching environments, seniority is a reality among full-time or tenured staff. Those with the most seniority can cherry pick their assignments.
In most of the part-time, sessional or contract teaching contexts I have worked in, seniority does not exist. At least, not on paper. In reality though, department heads and managers often use an informal or unofficial system of seniority that is not written down anywhere. Those who have been teaching the longest are often first in line for contract teaching assignments.
Such “unofficial” systems come with the territory. Understand that these undocumented systems do not exist only at your institution. They exist everywhere. Being resentful of them doesn’t change them. You can spend your time protesting unofficial seniority or other undocumented systems that make up the culture of educational institutions, or you can understand that it is an unspoken reality of the profession and go about creating your career anyway. Learn to live with the informal or implicit culture of your school or organization.
5. Develop a tolerance for uncertainty.
Contract teachers never know from one semester to the next what their teaching assignments will be, or even if there will be a job next term. If you can’t cope with that, you may want to think hard about whether this professional situation is really for you.
I have learned that I have a fairly high tolerance for uncertainty in my work life. Because I aim to have at least three gigs at any given time, that adds stability to my life, and I have learned that a contract teacher needs to develop resilience and a tolerance for professional uncertainty. If you need a steady pay cheque to stay sane, contract teaching may not be for you.
6. Your finances are your responsibility.
Contract teachers are more like entrepreneurs than employees. Entrepreneurs learn not to depend on a boss, a company or an organization for a regular pay cheque. I have often heard new entrepreneurs told, “If you are not making money, you don’t have a business. You have a hobby.”
Part-time teaching can be one element of a successful career in education. It may not be the only element and if it doesn’t pay all your bills, it probably should not be the only element. Entrepreneurs, freelancers and contract teachers all need to have a firm grasp of reality when it comes to finances. If teaching does not pay the bills, then find something to supplement your income that will. It may be editing, writing or whatever. You may love teaching, but passion does not pay the mortgage. Learn to think like an entrepreneur and hunt out new contracts, new clients and whatever it takes for you to have a career, not a hobby.
It’s not up to your school or your department head to ensure you can pay your bills. It’s up to you. In fact, if you choose a career as a contract teacher (and it is important to recognize that you have indeed made a choice on some level) then not only do you need enough income to cover your expenses every month, you also need to put a little bit away every month for those times when you may not have a teaching assignment.
7. Courses do not equal a career.
If you spend your years as a contract teacher whining about not having job security or a pension, you can end up marinating in self-created misery that can mutate into lifelong jaded bitterness.
I love the work I do. I deeply enjoy working with my students. I am surrounded by brilliant colleagues who care deeply about learning. I eagerly embrace the chance to do consulting work with organizations focused on education, training or social development. Every contract provides an unparalleled opportunity to work with new people, each of whom is committed in some way or another to lifelong learning.
My work has spanned a variety of sectors including education, non-profit and government. Some of my full-time colleagues see that as haphazard or unfocused. But not me. I am crystal clear on what my purpose is. What drives me has a singular focus: To improve the human condition.
While I may work independently, I relish the thought that I am not alone in what I do. There are hundreds of thousands of us — maybe even millions of us — around the globe who teach part time, on contract, without job security, pensions or a regular pay cheque because when we get right down to it, we love teaching and we believe in education. The bottom line for any social entrepreneur or contract teacher is simple: The work we do matters. The work we do individually — our daily practice of teaching, researching, consulting, freelancing and all our other educational work — contributes to a collective global commitment to improve the human condition.
As harsh as it may seem, when you are a contract teacher, you are not in control of the courses you are offered to teach. But you are still in control of your career. How you use your skills, talents and expertise is ultimately up to you. Whether it’s teaching, researching, consulting or freelancing, understand what drives you, what matters deeply to you and what you need not just to survive, but to thrive as a professional.
When you look back in twenty years (or more) what will matter more, the courses you have taught or the career you have cultivated?
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.