The Other Side of the Fence

As I cleaned my office in preparation for the start of the semester, a small yellow slip of paper somehow rose to the surface: a parking permit request form from Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington, where I spent my first and last quarters as an adjunct. The paper bears my old zip code and the license number of a 1991 Civic hatch that most likely no longer runs.I will leave for another blog entry the story of how I came to leave the Civic in one Washington when I flew off to the other one, but finding an artifact of my adjunct days seemed especially fortuitous this week.

It has been sort of a big week for me. About ten days ago, a wonderful teacher and colleague announced that he would be resigning to follow his wife to the Pacific Northwest. He was the coordinator for our transfer composition and literature courses, which involved mentoring and overseeing nearly thirty adjunct faculty members, conducting assessments of our learning outcomes, reviewing course descriptions and requirements, and working with department chairs and coordinators on our college’s other two campuses.

Those duties have now fallen to me. Nearly ten years have passed since the first day I strode to the front of a classroom, saw a row of faces aimed in my direction, and thought, “Wow, they’re looking at me like they think I’m a real teacher. I guess I’d better teach.”

Similarly, when I went to yesterday’s beginning-of-the-semester adjunct orientation meetings, my part-time colleagues looked at me like I was a real coordinator. Just as I discovered by acting like a real teacher that I could become one, I somehow found myself – despite self-doubt, nerves, hesitation to advise faculty who had been teaching far longer than I have, ambivalence about thinking of myself in a leadership role – unexpectedly transformed from the neophyte who asked all the questions into a professional tasked with answering them.

I realized something amazing this week: To my surprise, I can do the job.

I fielded questions. I commented on syllabi and assignments, offered sample handouts my colleague had left on a disk, suggested approaches that had worked for me, and reassured newcomers. I even said “No” a few times, and nobody seemed to hate me afterwards. I navigated personalities, facilitated discussions, and led a workshop. People treated me like someone who knew what she was doing. It was a little weird.

If I can do the job, though, it’s because of what I have stolen from or have been given by others. When I advocated for stipends for part time faculty who facilitate workshops or serve on committees, I thought of a colleague at Green River Community College who assigned adjuncts to leadership positions for short-term assessment projects and refused to let us work without pay, and I remembered the department chairs at South Seattle Community College who picketed on behalf of adjuncts while I scurried to the parking lot to drive to my next teaching gig.

When a part-timer asked me for help applying for full time positions, I thought of the former department chair who fired interview questions at me, critiqued my responses, and gave me tips on my teaching demo; the coordinator who advised me to learn to teach developmental English and initiate visible projects; and the brilliant tenured instructor who took at least two hours out of her winter break to scrutinize my CV and cover letter. The job search advice I give is their advice.

I think of my fellow “freeway flyers” in our various part-time faculty offices who took hours out of their breakneck schedules to talk through assignments, advise me on classroom management, and let me plunder their best ideas. I think about my first dean, whose response to most of my teaching questions was, “Well, what have you thought about doing?” and an electronics instructor who was my unofficial mentor through the bruising first years of learning to teach. I think of my current department chair, who has tirelessly answered my questions, gracefully negotiated department and college politics, and encouraged me to grow as a professional.

And I thought of the kind words of a colleague who was then a stranger, a compliment that sustained me when I was ready to give up my full-time job search. At the time, I had no idea that a year after I signed that part-time permit request, I would be living on the opposite coast and starting my first semester as a full time faculty member.

This morning, having survived my first week as coordinator, I pinned the slip of paper on my bulletin board to remind me of the generosity of many, many others. I have no way to thank them – except, perhaps, to do my job as they would do it.


3 thoughts on “The Other Side of the Fence

  1. Woo hoo Congratulations! I went into teaching HS via lateral entry (ie no education major & student teaching) and I vividly remember that first day of teaching and thinking that if I was lucky enough, the kids MIGHT not know I had no clue. 🙂 Its an amazing thing to mentor a new teacher and remember all those tidbits I was lucky enough to have shared with me. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Pingback: My Great Freeway-Flying Adjunct Apprenticeship Adventure | Paper Balls

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