Teacher appreciation week’s unsung heroes – adjunct college instructors

by Jessica Martin
As I haul a Costco-sized bag of chocolate truffles to help celebrate my son’s elementary school teachers and staff this week, I’m reminded that I, a college educator, never actually considered myself a part of teacher appreciation week. For some reason, I associated this week with preschool and K-12 education.
My notion of “teacher appreciation week” changed last year when I had a student bring in a small note and gift of appreciation. I was honored and completely blown away by this unexpected gesture of gratitude. Then again, why didn’t I feel like I deserved this token of appreciation during this week? How about my colleagues – do they feel the same as me? Do we forget the role we play in potentially making a difference in the lives of our students? Is it that we only have three short months with any given student instead of nine months? Maybe it’s that adults are seen as having a greater responsibility for their own education compared to children? Whatever the reason, I hope we start honoring our college instructors for the unsung heroes among our ranks.
I am an adjunct biology instructor – part of the “76%” of adjunct faculty at Portland Community College (PCC). While my students see me no differently than a full-time instructor, there seems to be a great financial and benefits divide between adjunct and full-time instructor status. Last term, I talked to my students about what it means to be “adjunct” faculty. Most truly had no idea that any extra office hours or time spent outside of the classroom isn’t technically compensated. My pay technically comes from time spent in the classroom with students – or “contact hours” – with a vague expectation that a reasonable amount of time outside of the classroom is devoted to activities like grading, writing quizzes and exams, making lecture slides, answering emails, etc. While it’s often said that teachers don’t teach for the pay, it’s certainly true for adjunct faculty. By the way, this isn’t just a PCC problem, this is systemic across higher education in our country. As tuition for students continues to climb, more unstable adjunct faculty join the ranks with fewer stable full-time positions. It seems that this “system” snuck up on us gradually over the course of several decades as a cost-savings measure by the business of higher education. So, where is all of that extra tuition money going if not to the educators? The adjunct position was never intended to be “76%” of faculty, yet here we are. If I honestly add up all of my contact hours and non-contact hours, my hourly rate isn’t much different than many jobs that don’t require a college education. Yet, I have a Ph.D. What does it say to our students, who are paying for an education in hopes of a better paying job, when their highly educated instructor’s hourly rate is comparable to not even bothering with college in the first place?
I don’t know what the answer is for solving the current adjunct crisis in higher education, but I hope to get the word out to students and taxpayers alike, who financially support and rely on public higher education. Instructors, students, and taxpayers deserve more. We need everyone touched by higher education – which is arguably everyone in our modern society – advocating to fix this problem. Do we keep a high fraction of adjunct positions, but better compensate? Do we shift back toward more full-time faculty positions over adjunct positions? Is it some combination of both? Does the government fully subsidize community college education like K-12 education? If so, will instructor compensation improve? While we can’t easily quantify quality of instruction, intuition tells me that appropriate compensation – i.e., a livable predictable wage with benefits – makes the difference between an instructor who spends the time to give constructive feedback on a written assignment meant to challenge critical thinking versus an instructor who runs a standardized, fill in the box, multiple choice exam through the Scantron machine.
In spite of it all, I LOVE my job. Nothing brings me greater pleasure than sharing my passion and feeling like I am truly making a difference for my students. I honestly get goosebumps when I tell my students the story of how former PCC Biology instructor, Donald Defler, was a key inspiration behind Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times Best Seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. College instructors can and do alter the trajectory of lives – not only for those individuals who grace our classrooms, but those individuals who later go on to make ripples throughout our communities and beyond – as is the case for Rebecca Skloot. Higher education plays a much greater societal role than ever before as the demand for highly skilled and trained workers only continues to rise. Community college instructors especially –whether adjunct or full-time – are truly at the heart of training this workforce. So, this teacher appreciation week, thank a college instructor. Just one email from a previous student can fill an instructor’s mostly empty cup. Even more important, this teacher appreciation week, be part of righting the wrong in our current higher education system. Become aware of the problem in higher education. Write letters to our state and national legislators to better fund public higher education and ensure that additional funding helps compensate its educators at a level commensurate with their education. Heck even start asking more questions up the chain of command at our higher education institutions. Students who are paying and going into thousands of dollars in debt for their education deserve a higher quality education that comes from instructors who don’t have to worry about whether they have enough “contact hours” to pay the bills next term. And to all my amazing colleagues in the biology department at PCC, you all have my sincerest gratitude and a Costco-sized bag of chocolate truffles headed your way.

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