Over the last month, I’ve been experiencing what I’ve lovingly named “Career Strokes.” When I think about my job and the lack of security, benefits, and sufficient cash flow — not to mention the constant nagging fear that, at any given moment, any or all of the courses that I teach could be cancelled — I experience wonderful bursts of anxiety attacks.
When I first realized that I wanted to teach writing at the college level, I told my undergraduate major advisor, and was met with a harsh semi-reality: Becoming a full-time college professor is not easy. I refer to this as a semi-reality because this is the exact thought that went through my mind: “It won’t be hard for me.” I thought this despite hearing my advisor’s story of how she was an adjunct professor who fought to patch-quilt a full-time schedule every year for 9 years before she was offered a full-time position at Ithaca College, my alma mater.
Still, I thought I’d be the exception. I’d get my masters degree, have my book published, and be fielding offers left and right.
Because that’s how it works, right?
When I first graduated with MFA in Creative Writing, it wasn’t long after that I got my first teaching job, teaching one of the core writing courses at a private university. I was hired over the phone. When I met the English Department head in person, he was beyond enthusiastic about my ideas for the course, and over-the-moon excited to bring writing into the 21st Century.
I was on top of the world, unstoppable; One class led to a full-time schedule the following semester. This, of course, lead to a false sense of security. And with a false sense of security came imminent disappointment and the one idea that I still can’t quite shake: I was/am a failure.
These are the cold, hard facts about being an adjunct professor:
- There is zero job security.
- There are no health benefits.
- It’s a first-come, first-served job. Full-time faculty get first pick on classes. If there aren’t enough students enrolled in your courses, they will be cancelled with no guarantee of course replacement.
- I don’t get paid during breaks. Summers and winter breaks are my mortal enemies.
And possibly the worst of all:
- The LOVE of teaching. I love getting to work with kids and help them build their confidence as they improve their writing skills; it’s incredibly rewarding and I can’t imagine what I would do if I didn’t teach writing. It’s been my dream since college to have the opportunity to inspire and encourage students the way my professors did for me, to give back; to actually touch the life of one student each semester was reward enough to compensate for any hardships. If you don’t love teaching and connecting to your students, why teach?
It’s hard to argue with the above, right?
Nope. It’s not, actually. There is a constant battle raging on inside of me and it’s gotten out of control. The stress of not knowing what I will be doing the following semester eats me alive. It’s created a neurotic, anxious hermit Steven that I can’t seem to shake. “Worry” exists in everything that I do: worry that I won’t be able to make rent, worry that I won’t be able to pay my student loan bills, worry that I won’t have enough money to buy groceries.
However the biggest worry I have is that, if I decide to stop teaching, I won’t have a place in society.
I’ve spent so much time cultivating my teaching “career,” and I’ve put everything I have into building my resume into something hugely respectable and extensive for a not-quite-yet-3o something. Teaching gives me purpose, fulfillment, and if I no longer have that, I don’t really know who I am.
My family keeps telling me the same thing: “Isn’t there something else out there that you want to do?” or “Why did you choose this career if you knew how difficult it would be?” or my personal favorite: “You should really do ______________ [Fill in the Blank with Career I Have Zero Desire to Pursue]. I think you’d be perfect for that kind of job!”
That last statement is encouraging to an extent, but ultimately I chose this path because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of students. I chose this career path because getting to teach writing, the thing that quite literally saved my life back in college when I was scared, closeted young boy unafraid to take his own life, and maybe, just maybe, in the process helping someone like me along the way, was the only imaginable career path I wanted to travel down.
I never wanted a 9-to-5.
I never wanted to be a slave to a desk.
I never wanted to be docile and immobile and stagnant.
Teaching gives me the freedom to follow inspiration.
Or, at least it did.
This upcoming semester will be hard. Under-enrollment at both institutions where I teach have caused my usual course schedule/load to implode. I’m losing 60% of my usual income. And for someone who lives paycheck-to-paycheck, to the last dime, a 60% loss is going to kill me.
I may actually already be dead inside.
How is it that I’ve dedicated my life and career to teaching, yet I ended up creating a massive pile of neurosis, anxiety, and insecurity?
I see my friends, many of whom have well-paying 9-to-5’s (or 8-to-6’s, which is apparently the new 9-to-5). They have money – maybe not hand-over-fist piles of money, but more than I have by a long shot. They can pay off their student loans, rent, bills, and still have enough money to go out and have fun two nights a week, take relaxing vacations, and go out for brunch a few times a month.
Subsequently, I’ve been left behind. Since I can’t participate in pretty much any activities due to monetary restrictions (i.e., I be BROKE), I’ve become a pariah in my social circle…or at least, I’ve been made to feel like a pariah. (Perfectly legitimate) excuses like, “Sorry, I can’t come to _______ [Fill in the Blank Occasion] because I can’t afford the train ticket into the city + subway fare + whatever other expenses might accrue” have turned into a punchline and created a lot of resentment, which in turn has led to my retreat, effectively hermitting in my apartment for the last year.
It might sound like I’m complaining (yes, I would LOVE a little cheese with my whine #ThankYouVeryMuch), but I’m not. I’m genuinely happy that most of my friends are living comfortable lives, as they deserve to do so. It’s not like they didn’t work just as hard as I did to get where they are.
Everyone just chose different career paths.
Mine just happened to be the one with the most resistance. And I’m (quite literally) paying the price.
I spend a lot of time ruminating on what my life would be like if I chose to work a 9-to-5er; would be any more or less neurotic and anxious? Or, at the end of the day, would I just feel unfulfilled?
After all, my soul isn’t unfulfilled … just my wallet.