5 Myths about being an independent language or literacy professional (and secrets of the trade you need to know)

June 18, 2014

Sometimes when I talk with contract language teachers, sessionals, adjuncts, freelance writers, editors and others who dedicate themselves to the language and literacy profession, I’ve learned that there are some myths about the profession that we need to debunk. Here are a few of them:

Myth #1 – The work is about the language

You absolutely need to understand the mechanics of language and the foundations of effective learning to succeed as an independent language professional, the real work is about the people you work with. Helping others to learn, grow and develop as human beings is at the heart of what we do. If you think the job is about being “the spelling police” or a “grammar guru”, you’ve missed the point.

Myth #2 – Being a professional means someone else does the admin work

Language teachers love being in the classroom, but that’s only part of the job. Submitting grades, writing reports and tending to administrative duties comes with the territory. In today’s world, being a professional means paying as much attention to the quality of your administrative work as you do to your teaching. Program and institutional staff are not your personal secretaries. They are professionals in their own right and deserve to be treated as such.

Myth #3 – Being an independent professional means you have no boss

Sometimes people say to me, “You are so lucky!  You have no boss!” Nothing could be further from the truth. You get a minimum of one new boss with every contract you take one. Sometimes you have more than one person you report to. If you’re very lucky, those people will like each other and see eye to eye. If they don’t, you are the one who will get pulled in different directions. Learning to figure out, understand and navigate the reporting requirements of each job is likely to require an immense amount of energy. You invest time and effort at the beginning of every new job. But make no mistake, you will always report to someone, even if it’s not always clear who it is. The trick is to clarify who you report to and understand that your job implicitly involves making that person’s life easier in whatever way you reasonably can.

Myth #4 – The last day of the contract is the end of the job

In many contract situations, there is follow up work to be done after the contract end date. This work is often administrative. Some examples include written reports, expense claims and grade submission. Even though your contract may have officially ended on a particular date, the obligations and expectations of the job may extend past that. Be amenable to reasonable wrap-up duties and ensure you comply with deadlines set by your employer or client. This is important to preserve your positive relationships as you are wrapping up your work. Remember that the end date of a contract may signify the end of a particular job, but your relationships and reputation can outlive any contract.

Myth #5 – It is important to leave with a letter of reference

This is a partial myth. Getting letters of reference can be important, but they can also be formulaic and written according to a template. What’s more important than getting with a generic letter of reference on the last day of the job, is leaving the job with a reputation for excellence and sincere relationships that can last a lifetime. Recommendations that matter are likely to happen over the phone or during informal personal conversations that are more honest and open than a templated letter ever could be. The reality is that we’ll never know about most of the conversations that happen between our prospective employers and our previous employers who are more than likely connected in some collegial way we were never even aware of. Real recommendations don’t come from generic letter we tuck into our portfolios. They come from informal conversations that “never happened”.

There are more myths about the profession that need busting, but these are a few of the most common ones that I see over and over again, especially from folks who are new to the world of working independently either as contractors, freelancers or consultants. The most important thing to remember is that we are only as good as our last contract, our last course or our last project. Our love of language or dedication to literacy is what we do. The reputations we build along the way is how we do it. We need to pay as much attention to the how as we do to the what.

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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


5 Questions to ask before taking a contract teaching job in the languages or literacy field

April 24, 2014

Too many language and literacy professionals grovel for work. They’ll take teaching, editing or translating jobs that require long hours, lousy pay and poor working conditions because they are afraid that if they don’t they might not get another offer.

Nothing could be further from the truth. When you exude confidence to your school or the organization who is contracting you (e.g. the client), you earn their respect. Here are 5 questions to ask yourself when you are considering a contract job as a language or literacy professional:

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#1: Will I like working with these people?

Let’s face it, people who work in languages and literacy often have a vested interest in the students or clients they serve. It’s not just the learners you want to think about though. How does the management treat its staff? If the Executive Director is a micro-manager and you are a big picture thinker, is that really going to be a good fit for you? If the office staff are miserable because they hate their jobs, are you really going to like working in that environment?

You owe it to yourself to find out what the people are like that you would be working with. If you get that nagging feeling that these folks aren’t “your peeps”, do yourself a favour and walk away. Chances are you’ll be miserable if you take the job. In the kind of work we do, people matter. At least, they should. If people don’t matter, why would you want to work there?

#2: How do the organization’s values align with my own?

This is a big one. You need to be honest with yourself about what matters to you deep down. If you believe that genuine effort, commitment and participation are the most meaningful aspects of learning, then you’d hate working in an organization that bases marks on standardized testing.

I was once raked over the coals by a department head because my final grades didn’t fit  onto a bell curve. My students’ marks were too high. It happened that it was a particularly good group of students.  The department head didn’t care. She wanted a statistically perfect bell curve for the final grades “to maintain the integrity of the department”. (Baloney. The integrity of a language teaching department can never be represented by a bell curve of marks.) I was told in no uncertain terms that the next semester my class record book needed to reflect grades that fit onto a standard bell curve. There was no “next” semester. I choose never to teach for them again.

If an organization’s values are not aligned with your own, you’ll hate the work and you’ll hate yourself for working there. Seek out schools and clients who believe what you believe.

#3: How are the working conditions?

Are you given your own desk or work space or are you required to share? Are the facilities where you work clean and sanitary? Is parking readily available (at a fair price)?

How are the psychological and emotional conditions of the workplace? Is there a culture of oppression? Do the folks who work there constantly feel demoralized, grumpy or stressed out?

I recall one client who didn’t pay their staff particularly well, but the “extras” they offered them included free parking, a catered lunch every Friday and a work environment where laughter filled the hallways during break time and folks enjoyed a genuine sense of camaraderie and friendship. As a result, they had staff who never wanted to leave and a long line of applicants who would give anything to work there.

The working conditions, environment and relationships at a workplace matter.

#4: How are the hours?

It is not uncommon for teaching organizations to fail to pay for the time required for you to prep your classes, grade student work or perform associated administrative duties. But what if they did? That would definitely be worth considering.

Are you required (or implicitly expected) to sit on committees as part of your professional volunteer service to the organization? Are you constantly being asked to help develop (or revise or “refresh”) curricula for no additional pay?

All of these extra tasks add up. Time is a limited resource. Every extra volunteer task you are asked to take on is time you can not spend doing something of our own choosing, such as spending more time with your family, engaging in leisure activities or even taking on more paid work elsewhere.

Your employer (or client, depending on your relationship with you) may not intend to “suck you dry” in terms of your time, but it happens more often than it should. Contract employees want to say, “Yes” because they think it will help position them for a full-time job should one arise. That may be the case… but it may not. Be honest with yourself and ask if all these “extras” you are taking on are really worth it.

 #5: How will this work maximize or help me develop my professional skills?

Would you be doing the “same old, same old”, teaching a subject you’ve taught for 20 years and if you are honest, are kind of bored of?

Conversely, are you being asked to teach courses that you’ve never taught before and the work would require you to put in dozens of hours of development time?

Is the work challenging for you in a way that you find inspiring and engaging? Are you growing as a result of your work? Are you learning new skills that will make you more marketable?

I’ve seen too many adjuncts, sessionals or contractors take any job they’re offered because they are afraid that if they don’t, the sky will fall in and they’ll never get hired again anywhere. You’re not “just a contract teacher”. Schools need you as much as you need them. Finding the right fit is more important to your long-term health and professional growth than taking any old job that might come along.

You are a language (or literacy) professional. And professionals don’t grovel or beg for work.

Treat every opportunity as a two way street. Interview the organization to see if they are a good fit for you. Make sure the work aligns with your areas of expertise and interests. If not, walk away. If you don’t, you could miss a real opportunity that’s just around the corner.

It’s your career. Be in charge of it.

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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


How to love your job as a part-time contract teacher

January 2, 2013

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:

hands hope sun1. 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 enrollments in your department, 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 more 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 an organization 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. For me, 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 contract teaching contexts I have worked in, seniority does not exist. At least, not on paper. In reality though, department heads and managers employ 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.

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 or not. 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 some stability to my life, but I have learned that a contract teacher needs to develop resilience and a tolerance for professional uncertainty.

6. Your finances are your responsibility.

Contract teachers are more like entrepreneurs than they are 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 a new opportunity to work with new people, each of whom is committed in some way or another, to lifelong learning and improving the human condition.

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 is that what I do — whether it is teaching, consulting or freelance work — is that the daily practice of what I do contributes to a collective professional and personal movement to improve the human condition.

The bottom line for any social entrepreneur or contract teacher is simple: The work we do matters.

While I may work independently, I relish the thought that I am not alone in what I do. There are tens 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.

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 what will matter more: the courses you have taught or the career you have cultivated?

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


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