Friday, January 17, 2014

The Education Lie

I stand in front of my classroom looking at their faces, some wary, some eager. The students are a true United Nations. They come from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Central America, the inner city of Columbus, Ohio, and farmland around Columbus. Their skin colors vary from shiny pinkish-white to cafe au lait to burnished mahogany. Their hair styles range from dreadlocks to frizzy pony tails to purple stripes to close-cut shaved heads. Some of the women wear burkas or headscarves. They range in age from 17 to their early 40s. The only thing they have in common is me, standing at the front of the room.
I'm like an actor, especially in these first few classes. I feel the energy rushing through me as I try by sheer verve alone to unite them in their goal to pass this class, an English composition class.  
I promise them that this is only a stepping stone to the rest of their college career. That writing good papers can help pull out a grade in any class where they might be struggling. "This isn't just to torture you," I pledge.
But this time, I feel like a fraud.
I am telling them that education can save them from a life of poverty. That education will give them a love and a passion for life and learning.
I know some of these students will go on to earn their associate's degree. Even fewer will earn a bachelor's degree. Maybe a couple will go on to get a master's degree, like me, or a PhD or law degree.
But the lie I am telling them catches in my throat.
Get a master's degree and you can teach college; I want to encourage them, but I know that the changes made at my college mean that even if I teach all the hours adjuncts are allowed -- if I teach through the summer and am lucky enough to get a fully allowed schedule -- I can earn about $17,000 this year.
The salary I will earn with my master's degree is just a touch more than what I would earn working a full-time, minimum wage job.
Teaching as an adjunct has always been tricky, but our college used to allow us to work up to 30 hours per week. That brought home a decent salary, certainly  nowhere near the poverty line.
Last year, like most schools in Ohio, we switched to semesters. That cut down on some of the hours we could teach.
Then in the summer, they declared adjuncts could work a maximum of 22 hours, as per the IRS rules. But wait, they had more.
We could work 22 hours, but they counted each teaching hour as two hours rather than one. That meant we could teach 11 hours and they would count it as 22 hours, but we'd be paid for only 11 hours.
Yeah, let that sink in for a minute. We get paid for 11 hours, but they count it as 22 hours.
In 2013, I earned $18,000 less than I did in 2012. I'll earn even less in 2014.
Yet I stand in front of these students, and they trust me. They trust me to teach them, to be enthusiastic and supportive.
And I will. The students haven't let me down. And education is still a good way out of poverty, but the route hasn't served some of us as well.
All I can do is cross my fingers for these students and plunge in, hoping they'll follow, and for this semester, continue their dreams of a middle-class life.

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