A reflection from a young contract teacher

by Phil Lagogiannis, Dawson College

This essay originally appeared in issue 524 of the Owl Hoots, the Dawson Teachers’ Union newsletter, in October 2014. It has since been edited.

As teachers, we constantly engage the question of what it means to teach: it inflects our work even if we have never asked it out loud. Our practice is itself a kind of articulation of the question, even if it only flirts with giving an answer through its method.

What lasts in teaching? I don’t mean to ask, “What do our students take away from us?” but rather, “What about teaching remains present over the semesters, over the years?” As a young teacher I can only outline a possible answer, but maybe you will be willing to share your insight upon hearing mine.

A related question we could first ponder is, “To what extent does our employer encourage us to teach?” I can speak to this question as a teacher of the precarious sort, but I can only speculate about what it might be like to be a permanent teacher working at the same college.

For example, I have recently come off a regular winter semester composed of two night courses. I felt that I was capable of teaching those courses at a level consistent with my own evolving standards. I have only just now begun to teach a summer night course. This course runs for the usual 75 hours, but it does so over seven weeks instead of over a regular semester’s fifteen. The enrolment currently sits at thirty-four students. To an administrator, it would be reasonable to conclude that my summer looks a lot like teaching two regular semester classes at once: a nearly full workload. Officially, this determination would depend on various factors outlined in a calculation protocol which unfortunately does not apply to contract teachers.

Nevertheless, I feel capable of teaching this course at a level consistent with my current standards. Its 10.75 hours per week translate to 38.7 work hours under the Employment Insurance (EI) Act. This is a special provision for contract teachers which recognizes the value of a single teaching hour as 3.6 hours once preparation, grading, and support are factored in. This seems to be altogether fair to me based on my own experience, but there is no parallel college policy. Since money talks, our high hourly rate reflects this de facto if not de jure.

From what I gather, for contract teachers classes are indiscriminately identical regardless of student enrolment. Maximum workloads are also not ideas we should be entertaining lest we compromise our job security. These are the only conclusions I can reach based on the fact that I was offered a second course, running in parallel but during the day. If I were to accept it, I would be taking on an EI-equivalent workload of 99 hours per week. To an administrator, this should look like a breach of at least one common sense principle: there are only 168 hours in a week, and about 70 of them are spent sleeping and eating. Despite this fact, I was encouraged to take on the extra course in order to secure my position in the hiring pool. If I were to oblige, the ensuing time constraints would require me to lower my standards. Permanent teachers are fortunately exempt from having to make this call.

Would it be worthwhile to accept the work? Some might argue that contract teaching is a stepping stone to permanent teaching. This is no longer the case in many departments given the size of the Continuing Education program and the relative dearth of permanent posts compared to the growing number of contract teachers. Others might suggest that the work is challenging but that the financial reward is due compensation. This is false: a permanent teacher would in some cases make over twice as much for teaching the exact same summer course. Their salary will also grow next year while ours will remain unjustly frozen. We have no sick days, no disability insurance, no guarantees of future work, and no available leaves other than parental leaves.

But none of this directly answers the question, “To what extent does our employer encourage us to teach?” Any honest answer must be couched in a certain signification of the word teacher. It might help us to run through two possible meanings of the word: a common one and an older one. This detour will take us back to the question we opened with.

Is a teacher that person who, through persistent remembrance of a set of skills, projects the essential features of her discipline for students to assimilate?

If this is the case, then our employer might even be partly justified in its approach to doling out work. A teacher is a pool of knowledge, a resource not unlike a textbook. Consultation of this resource is a process to which we could prescribe an almost definite structure. That is the meaning of course of study, the duration and scope of which is mapped out in advance. Under this description, we could speak of a teacher’s efficiency and how it is conditioned in part by his experience. We might even conclude that a summer contract teacher with a remarkable capacity for time management who has taught all courses in question before – in my case, I submit to the latter but not to the former – would be able to bring down those 3.6 hours-per-lecture-hour to a more manageable 2.5. Then he is really only working about 69 hours per week, is sleeping and eating about the same amount, and even has some time for his loved ones and for himself during the remaining 30 hours. This is by no means easy, but it is at least conceivable.

There is nothing superficially defective about this signification of teacher and course insofar as it says something true about what we do. But we should also consider that a teacher might not essentially be the foregoing description. Teach comes from the Old English verb taecan, which is etymologically connected to the word token – a sign, a mark. To teach signifies to point out, to show. Learn comes from leornian, which aside from its usual signification of “to study” has the sense of “to find the path.”

Perhaps a teacher is a guide rather than a purveyor of knowledge. She brings her students into the disclosure of a phenomenon by pointing out the way to finding it. She is not a source of persistent remembrance of a skill, but someone for whom the path to disclosure has been trodden many times and with deliberate pre-meditation. Deliberate pre-meditation is therefore her skill. Her sharpened sense of the path and her commitment to treading it is her discipline. Her students follow this path not behind her but alongside her and ahead of her.

To teach is then not to set down the elements of the way as remembered facts, but to remember the way and to bring others into that remembrance. It involves a willful, thoughtfully meditative recollection. This recollection must be pre-meditated anew each time it is taken up. A teacher’s failure results from taking the way for granted, from assuming mastery – exhaustion – of something as inexhaustible as existence. All teachers, whether they teach French, physics, or physical education at bottom engage with existence.

Let me suggest that what lasts in teaching is the way. The students will be different; the metaphors may change; but the way is what we seek to show. Yet it is demanding and often surprising. By forcing us to make of it something so crudely calculable, our employers do not fully encourage us to teach.

If this is true, then the definite structure upon which we rely for the organization of material into a course of study has to be understood as something provisional. A teacher can no longer be seen as an hourly laborer, but must instead be understood as having a task which is far less definite in its requirements from iteration to iteration. A teacher must be supported as a guide, as someone who guards her discipline and shepherds students on the way. A teacher should not need to spend every minute of her downtime eating and sleeping because of the absurd calculations of her friends in administration, and her security should not depend on this impossible proposition.

JUNE 2014