As we begin our interview, Sara skims through her sliding phone. Taps her fingers on her laptop. We are sitting in her large screened-in porch by the lake in Merrimac, Ma. It is mid-August. She is wearing a black T-shirt that reads: “I stand with standing rock.” Her hair is cut in a cross between a pixie and a bob and there are a pair of new tortoise shell glasses resting on the bridge of her nose. Sara is an adjunct, and this semester she’ll be teaching 2 classes, tutoring for 20 hours a week, and proctoring exams wherever necessary.
The one I make money at. That would be working at Northern Essex Community College, and I do a lot of different things there. I teach writing classes, I tutor in their writing center, and I help out in the testing center by proctoring and scoring the tests that students have to take to go to college. Of those three things I’d say the one that I do the most is the tutoring, then teaching, then the testing center. When I’m not there I write, but so far writing has not yielded more than maybe $800 a year on average. So that’s more of a hobby that I earn a little bit of income from than my job. I’m hoping that changes.
(Favorite part of teaching is) Getting to meet all the students and watch them grow as writers. My night students are very motivated, they are either there because they need the degree to move up in their job, they want to change careers, or they had kids really young and never got to finish school and now they really want to because they don’t want their kids to fall into the same cycle of poverty that they’ve been in, so they’re trying to get out of it. In the day I tend to get more students that are fresh out of high school, and some of them are just as motivated, others really don’t want to go to college, and community college is just kind of the compromise they made with their parents. I prefer the night classes.
The adult students, even if they don’t always get their work done, when they’re in class their minds are focused on class, and they’re respectful and they do get their work done eventually. Sometimes they just need extensions, where the other students, the younger ones, especially the ones that, the more privileged they are, the more they procrastinate, they try to make more excuses. But that’s the negative. There’s a lot of positive too. We have a lot of fun in class.
If you want to be a plumber or an electrician or a welder you might need to take some courses to keep up your licensing, but you don’t need a degree. Even in the medical field there’s some things you can get a certificate for but you don’t need a full degree. It really depends on what you want to do for a living. There is a sort of social thing attached to it where people think, oh if you didn’t go to college you’re not smart, but that’s not true for everyone.
My friend who is an assistant manager at T- Mobile, she’s gone to college but she never finished a degree program. It’s not required for her job, and I think she makes more money than me some years, and I have a Master’s degree. I’d probably say that 75%, 50% of the time college is necessary, but not everyone needs it. It depends on what you want to do and how you learn; if you can educate yourself too.
When I have a class that doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t want to focus I really can’t deal with getting them to shut up and pay attention or stop. Last fall I had an 8 am class and there were some cliché mean girls in there that wouldn’t stop talking, they made fun of other students, and it was like high school and I was miserable and it made me not want to teach. Let’s just say I don’t plan to teach an 8 a.m. class again.
About ten hours (a week per class) they’re about three hours, then there’s maybe an hour of prep for each class day I meet, so if it’s a twice a week class it’s two hours of prep, and then grading and answering emails. Depending on the class, sometimes I can spend a couple hours a week just replying to peoples’ e-mails. Some weeks there might be only an hour of grading, but other weeks there might be 10 or 20 hours of grading, so the 10 a week is kind of an average of the whole semester when in reality some weeks I might just spend 5 hours on that class, other weeks I might spend 20 hours on that class.
I have Fridays off. I try to keep a four-day week, even if I have longer days. I like it, but it’s tiring work, it takes a lot of emotional energy, especially for somebody who gets anxiety around other people. By Friday I just need a day of minimal human contact—writing and reading. I don’t think my experience is typical for adjunct. I have it pretty easy. This is my fifth year. I’ve been tutoring since 2010 and I’ve been teaching since 2012. When I started teaching I was teaching at three different colleges: I was teaching at Northern Essex, Bunker Hill and UMass Lowell. I would end up teaching a total of 5 or 6 classes a semester, and I was only tutoring about ten hours a week.
At Northern Essex I was split between the two campuses in Haverhill and Lawrence, so I was driving between Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell and Boston all within the week and some days I would have to leave at six or seven in the morning to get to Boston on time, and I wouldn’t be done until 9 at night. It was insane. And a lot of adjuncts keep doing that for years and years, but I got lucky because I also have my tutoring job, which paid enough that for every 5 or 10 hours I was tutoring I could drop a class, and now I’m just at Northern Essex tutoring and teaching and doing the testing center, which is probably the easiest and least work, but also the least exciting.
I don’t think I would ever fully give up teaching. In an ideal world I’d do what I did this summer where I taught one class and I wrote the rest of the time. I think that—plus maybe 10 hours of tutoring—would be my ideal lifestyle. Writing is what I’m most passionate about. I make up stories and put them on paper, it’s what keeps me sane, it’s what I really want to be doing all the time, but I do enjoy interacting with the students when they actually want to be on campus, and I like hearing their stories. Even if I’m not teaching them how to write fiction, their stories and their lives influence the way they see the world, so whether they’re writing a research paper, an argument paper or a personal essay, their stories come into play, and as a teacher, the more I know their stories, the more I can help them succeed.
Some teachers want to get rid of the personal essays, but I always keep one at the beginning of the semester no matter what the class is, because I feel like that’s a window into the student’s mind and life that I learn more from that than just from talking to them.