I have a job that pays me a decent wage, provides excellent benefits and gives me a high degree of satisfaction. Not everyone can say that and I am fortunate to be among those who truly love their jobs. I am a university professor. I am not tenured or tenure track (full, associate or assistant professor); I fall into the next hierarchical level. The terms vary, but our titles include adjunct professor, instructor, lecturer, part-time faculty, visiting faculty and the like. Most of us are employed on a contractual basis and our employment is not guaranteed by the rules governing tenure. We hold these positions for a variety of reasons, one of which is the rigor and the concessions it takes to obtain a tenure/tenure track position. In my case, it was a failure to write a dissertation and complete my Ph.D. along with other factors that, through a weighing of pros and cons, compelled me to pursue the path I did.
However, for all university or college level teaching positions, and to a certain extent, all teaching, there is a perception that we do not work either as hard or as many hours as those with “normal” jobs. The perception is not totally unfounded, many of us, myself included, do not work during the summer and other breaks in the school year. Many have to in order to make ends meet, but I have the luxury of taking that time to myself. I don’t get paid for the summer and winter breaks, so in that respect I only work nine to 10 months per year. I also don’t get any paid vacation time and I have yet to figure out how I would use my sick time. Unless I am truly sick (only twice in my entire teaching career), calling in sick does not “save” me any work, it creates more.
While the pay rates for teaching can vary widely, the idea that teachers are notoriously underpaid - for the responsibility we have combined with the education and training it took to get us here - is also well supported. We are, all of us, not valued enough. That is not open for discussion. Those who teach are not doing it for the money, almost all of us could get better pay in other jobs. We love what we do, but it should not cost us because we do. It does, nonetheless. But this is not about that. This is about the perception that I (and I am assuming this applies to many others) are somehow not working as hard you are.
I get it. Those who see me riding my motorcycle all over the country every summer might feel some envy, perhaps some jealousy and even, for a shallow few, some animosity. Combined with the work we do that is unseen, it might look like we really don’t do shit. My schedule this semester has me on campus for class and office hours (required) only two days per week. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I am not required to be there. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I have back-to-back-to-back classes, office hours and another class from 7:30 a.m. straight through to 2:45 p.m. (other semesters I have not been so lucky, my 12 or more units can be - and have been - spread out over five days). And that’s it, right? Work two days and I'm done? While that would be nice, it is not even close to reality. To be fair, I don’t think many regard the job of teaching as just what we do in the classroom. Most would grant and acknowledge that a lot, maybe even most of what we do happens outside of the classroom. However, the perception that I am living in some kind of “semi-retirement," even during the school year, persists.
But let’s assume it’s true, that all I do is teach all day twice a week and the rest of that time is mine. Let’s say that those perks, if they really did exist, are attractive enough to make me want to get on that career path. Okay, what does it take to get there? A master’s degree is the minimum and that takes a minimum of six years (often more) of higher education to achieve. I went beyond that and actually made it to Ph.D., candidacy before cashing that work in on another master’s degree. During that time, I was dirt poor, living on part-time, very low-paying work and student loans, grants and scholarships. I will be paying back my loans for years to come, and the payment is equivalent to a decent car (or motorcycle) payment. That means that to attain this “cushy” perception (because it is not reality), I had to do a lot of things, make a lot of sacrifices and pay my dues. And, of course, I am working much more that the two days I am actually, physically, there for students. And then there's email...
I get the reaction. I really do. “Why does that asshole get to spend all summer doing what he wants when I have to work?” The answer is really very simple. Because I did the things I needed to do to get here. I am happy with a lower-paying job because there are tangible and intangible components to it that make it worth it to me. I absolutely love what I do and I love that I have the time and flexibility I do. If it was about money, my educational credentials could land me a much higher-paying job. I’d probably have to wear a suit. For people who are not personally grateful for my efforts. While commuting to get to some office building every weekday by 8:00 a.m. And maybe have to travel 30 percent of my time. Filling out expense reports. And working in July.
For those who are so envious, do what I do. Really, do it. Go get the degrees, work your ass off and get a teaching job. You’ll love it. Your students, most of them, will show you how much they appreciate you, it will feed your soul. It won’t pay much, and some people will think you get paid for doing next to nothing, but you will have time to ride your motorcycle into the sunset, leaving them and all that negativity in your rearview mirror.