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Pathways, Teaching

Of Scantrons and Sessionals

Hard-won lessons on college-level contract teaching

I AM AN ACCOUNTANT by trade – a consultant who specializes in strategic transformation, guiding organizations through post-merger integrations and other major projects. I truly love my work. During my career I’ve also taught and mentored in corporate settings. I have always enjoyed teaching and sharing my knowledge. I wanted to give back on a larger scale, so last year I decided to dedicate myself to teaching part-time at the college level for the Winter 2013 semester. I thought that with my work and corporate teaching experience, it would be easy to transition into the college environment. I was somewhat naïve about that… 

In December 2012 I applied to two Ontario colleges that had job postings for part-time accounting faculty in their full-time business programs. I was hired by both colleges – let’s call them Cumbrae and Halston.[i] 

It was only after I began teaching that I understood the impact of teaching hours on union and benefit eligibility. Cumbrae hired me to teach one section of an advanced cost accounting course. I was paid $3,000 to teach the course and I was classified as a part-time teacher with insufficient hours to qualify for temporary union membership or benefits. At Halston, I was hired to teach two sections of introductory accounting. Having two classes gave me sufficient hours to qualify for the union and benefits. 

In the final days of December, I was offered two additional courses at Halston. Instinct told me this full course load might be too much to handle in my first semester of teaching, so I declined these courses. Later I learned that accepting the other two courses at Halston would have made me a sessional appointment, which would have impacted my eligibility to teach in upcoming semesters per school policy. I admit that this was my first employment experience where I only really began to understand contract terms and rights after being hired as an employee. 

Adapting to college life 

For my first semester teaching college, I was confident about my subject material and clueless about college norms. I had never completed a teacher training program, so I had no idea how to use the Scantron machine or what the term “accommodation” meant. I, like the other “new to college” part-time teachers, had entered a foreign environment. I was fortunate that I on-boarded at two colleges simultaneously because I could contrast the experiences. 

At Halston, there was formal training in December that I missed because I was hired too late. That being said, I had a fantastic course leader who spent many, many hours with me discussing course structure and approach, and sharing past years’ tests for me to use as framework guidelines when building my own tests. 

I know I was blessed to have this course leader at Halston, because at Cumbrae I had the total opposite. He practically rolled his eyes when I came by and made it clear that he was too busy to “hand hold” a new teacher. I relied on the goodwill of my office mates to help me fill in the blanks on Cumbrae norms. What Cumbrae did have was a very robust teacher training program that I completed during the semester. It was a struggle to keep up with the homework at times, but it did educate me on teaching theories in a formal classroom setting. 

The economic realities of contract teaching 

My intention going into the semester was to teach part-time and consult part-time. The teaching paid a lot less than the consulting did, but this was a sacrifice I was willing to make. The challenge was that the class preparation and marking took a lot longer than I had ever estimated. Within the first month, I transferred my client to another consultant because I couldn’t give proper attention to both client and students. With the absence of consulting work, the semester became very punitive financially. I contemplated teaching another semester but in the end I realized I couldn’t afford to teach part-time during the day at the college level. 

Most of the other contract teachers in the full-time programs were primarily or solely dedicated to teaching. Many showed concern about contract renewal as we neared the semester’s end. During my semester, I caught a student cheating during a test. When I asked the six other contract teachers who shared my office what to do procedurally – meaning, what form to fill out and who to inform – every single one of them told me to forget the incident. I was shocked by this. To me it seemed crystal clear that I should report an incident of cheating to school administration. My more experienced contract peers advised against this because I would then carry the administrative burden of completing the necessary paperwork and meetings on the matter. I also risked my contract renewal through association with the incident, gaining unfavourable attention from my Faculty Chair. I reported the cheating because I felt that it was the correct thing to do, but it surprised me that many of my peers were unwilling to do the same. 

Improving the effectiveness and retention of contract teachers 

Given how heavily the college system relies on contract instructors, it seems obvious that better support is required, to ensure stronger out-of-the gate teaching performance and encourage retention of good staff. I suggest the following steps: 

1.  Provide practical online training resources 

I can remember running around one day trying to find someone, anyone, to show me how to use the Scantron machine to mark a test. These skills are taken for granted by those who are familiar with college life. While the teacher training program was great for sharing modern classroom management concepts, new teachers who have never worked in an institutional setting need help with the basics. I suggest offering expanded online resources (e.g. webinars) that we can use to gain necessary knowledge. Many of the stressors for the new teacher can be avoided by providing training on these practical topics. 

2.  Share class materials 

I learned that lesson plans and lecture notes are often considered proprietary by the teacher who creates them. One of my classes was a foundational course offered in 15 sections each and every semester, and I had to build my own lesson plan and notes. I question the purpose of asking each teacher to build their own set of materials for a course that is extensively deployed. At the end of the semester, I gave all of my materials (lesson plans, notes and exercises) to my school for sharing with all teachers. It took a lot of time and effort to build the materials, so why not share them? If the colleges fostered a culture of sharing, all teachers would benefit. 

3.  Offer longer teaching contracts 

Teaching contracts enable the colleges to adjust resourcing to enrolment levels, but I believe short-duration contracts result in unintended behaviours and drive away the very teachers who should be retained by the colleges. The preoccupation on renewal leads many contract teachers to suppress reporting classroom issues for fear of becoming adversely recognized. Offering longer contract terms (e.g. 12 months) would give workplace security to teachers and enable them to focus upon effective participation in the college. 

4.  Reward teachers for administrative compliance 

During my college semester, I reported classroom incidents and provided sessions for my students with accommodation. I did everything I was supposed to do. Some of my peers did not. We were both paid the same rate and both given the same renewal opportunities. I argue that if the colleges want to see appropriate behaviours in teachers, there should be recognition for performance. This is how it works in business, and the educational system would benefit from the same approach. 

I CONTINUE TO TEACH through my professional organization. My workplace is a recognized training office and I am mentoring two students through their work experience and exams. But I am not inclined to repeat my college teaching experience. It’s a shame, because I believe that career professionals offer a lot to today’s students. I hope that one day the colleges will see the need to better integrate these individuals into their delivery models.

Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, November 2014


[i] I have not used the real names of the colleges to protect the identities of the individuals reflected in the article, some of whom expressed concern about repercussions to their employment status, should their identity be revealed.

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