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How I Became a Community College Teacher
My Struggle With "Idealism"
During my college years, I went through an “idealistic phase.” In my freshman year, I changed from a “lukewarm” Catholic into a serious, committed “evangelical” Christian. As part of this conversion, I began thinking of ways to reconcile my future career goals with my newfound faith. Since I was not creative enough at the time to think of ways to use a Computer Science degree to promote the kingdom of God, I made the switch to “Social Science,” and I began dreaming of ways to fight poverty and other injustices. (Plus, Social Science had the added benefit of being both easier and more enjoyable than Computer Science.)
After my junior year, I spent about half of the summer on a short-term “missions” trip in order to get a taste of what working in a “third world” country might be like. I went with a group of about fifteen other students to the West African country of Liberia, and I learned pretty quickly that the reality of living in an underdeveloped country was not as noble and glorious as the dream. If I had to choose one word to describe that summer, it would be overwhelming. I was overwhelmed by the extent of the poverty that existed all around me. I was overwhelmed by – for lack of a better way of describing it – the scarcity of white people. One of the biggest things that I missed about home that summer, in fact, was the ability to just blend in to the crowd. I stood out like a sore thumb, which is part of the reason why total strangers would often walk up to me and ask for help. In the end, what most overwhelmed me was the degree to which I felt unequipped. The problems were just too big. A few months after I came home, the country of Liberia descended into a horrific civil war that lasted for several years. I then realized how naïve I had been in thinking that I was doing something that was relatively safe. In addition, I felt even more helpless and guilty when desperate requests for help would come in the mail from Liberians whom I had met.
Looking back, I realize that guilt had a lot to do with my so-called idealism. When you study history and other social sciences for a while, you are constantly reminded of the differences between the lifestyles of average Americans today and those of the overwhelming majority of humans who have ever lived. As a Christian who was trying to live out my faith, I felt compelled to do something about human suffering. But when I tried to put myself out there, I felt unequipped, and the issue was not just that the problems were too big. I also felt emotionally unequipped. I missed home during that summer in Africa, and I often felt myself getting annoyed with the people that I was supposedly trying to help. All of those requests for help from people that I barely knew started to drain on me. I then became increasingly frustrated with myself. Personal suffering, after all, was supposed to be an integral part of the experience. In my mind, the amount of personal suffering was directly proportional to the nobility of the endeavor. So if I could not handle these relatively minor difficulties, then I was clearly not as noble of a human being as I had previously thought. And if I could not handle six weeks in Africa, how could this ever become a career?
I did not give up entirely on these notions of helping the poor people of the world. I continued to do research as my undergraduate career ran down to determine if there were any missionary or development agencies where I could be useful. When I started getting my teaching credential, I then looked to see if educators could be of some use in development work. Unfortunately, I did not seem to have the proper skills. Technical skills – engineering, medicine, farming, etc. – were needed to truly help poor people, not an ability to teach History or English. And since it had been clear for some time that my skills were more academic and conceptual than technical, I eventually concluded that directly helping poor people was not in the cards. And since my religious beliefs were evolving and changing during this time, I had little desire to go out and convert people to a faith that I increasingly had trouble believing in myself. So what could I do since saving the world was seemingly impractical? Well, the world could use some more teachers, and the United States had plenty of people struggling with various problems. So maybe I could live in the United States with all of its wealth and still be idealistic. Staying in America, after all, did not make me a complete “sell out.”
Now if I still believed that the nobility of an endeavor was directly proportional to the suffering involved, then the most idealistic place to teach would be in poor, “inner city” neighborhoods. Having said this, I had already realized by this time that I was not quite that noble. Student teaching in a fairly average neighborhood in Orange County had been tough enough, so I limited my initial job search to middle class neighborhoods After traveling throughout the state of California interviewing for jobs without success, I applied for a more local job in an unincorporated area called South Whittier. Now when I went to be interviewed, it was clear that this might have been a little too inner city for me. It was definitely not the roughest neighborhood in Southern California, but it was nowhere near the nicest one either. But then my inner idealist, and what was left of my wavering Christian faith, spoke to me in a little voice and reminded me of past dreams of helping the poor. So I did my best in the interviews for the job, and I eventually found myself teaching 8th grade History at South Whittier Intermediate School. A part of me then wondered if this was part of some divine plan.
Looking back several years later, it is clear to me that my two years in South Whittier were very positive in my development as an educator. It was not, by and large, a pleasant experience, however. Maintaining discipline was a constant struggle, and the academic level of most of the students was pretty low. It became clear fairly quickly that I was not going to have the opportunity to delve into historical issues in any significant depth. Just surviving, in fact, was going to be a major accomplishment. By the time I finished my second year, things had improved significantly, but I still did not enjoy myself. I was suffering from chronic back and neck problems, and I found myself constantly counting down the days until the next weekend or vacation. I knew that I wanted to get out, and the back problems were making it difficult to be on my feet all of the time. There were two nagging questions, however. First, what was I going to do if I walked away? I had gotten married less than a year earlier, and I did not like the idea of becoming an unemployed, somewhat disabled husband. The second more important question brought me back to that youthful idealism. Was I walking away from a difficult situation to avoid the inevitable suffering that comes when trying to help people who are living in tough circumstances? Was this more proof that I was not noble enough to endure suffering?
I would have a lot of time to ask myself these questions. For a little over a year, I did not work, and I spent a lot of time going to various doctors to try and resolve the chronic pain that I was in. When not dealing with these health problems, I was taking some foreign language classes and preparing for the GRE test in hopes of entering a PHD program. (After all, teaching at a university did not involve working with annoying thirteen year olds.) When the PHD program rejection letters came – in spite of my high GRE scores - and I found a chiropractor that was able to resolve most of my pain problems, it was now time to think about working again. This time, however, I was going to try a new approach: private high schools. The hope was that private schools would have fewer discipline problems. This was based on the assumption that parents would be more involved in the education of their kids because they were, after all, dishing out a lot of money. Secondly, I assumed that private schools could be more selective in choosing and keeping their clientele. I also figured that high school students would be more pleasant to work with because they were theoretically more mature, and the material we would cover would be more sophisticated than junior high stuff. Now these motives, of course, did not seem very noble, but I justified my actions with the argument that my health was still somewhat fragile, and private school teaching would be a good way to transition more peacefully back into teaching.
After months of searching, I finally landed a job at a private high school. It was a place called Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, and it was a unique job in a few respects. First of all, it was an all boys school, which was a foreign concept for me. Second, I worked in the afternoons from 2:30 – 6:30 on Sunday through Thursday. Why the strange hours? As you may have guessed from the name, this was a Jewish school. It was not, however, just any Jewish school. It was an orthodox Jewish school in which students took a dual program of religious education combined with “secular” classes. So students attended the religious program in the morning, and then they took their History, English, Math and Science in the afternoon. Then, when I went home, they were often required to attend further religious education in the evenings.
So as you can imagine, a bunch of teenage boys stuck in school both day and night could get a little wild. It did not take long to dispel any illusions that a private school would be a place filled with students who were all highly motivated and well behaved. Still, student quality was much higher than my previous teaching experiences, and if anything, the main annoyance was often student obsession about grades. One of the biggest things I learned there was the importance of being very meticulous in my grading. If I could not justify every point that I deducted, many of these students would eat me alive. The first year was a tough adjustment, but over time I settled in to this job and learned how to work with these particular kids. One of the most effective things I did to connect with them, in fact, was to both talk and play a lot of basketball. (The fact that I often kicked their butts did not hurt either.)
I ended up teaching there for four years, but I knew from the start that this was not a long-term job. The pay, as is often the case with private schools, was significantly lower than what I had gotten in public school. The location was not ideal either. I still have nightmares about fighting traffic on my way into or out of Los Angeles, as virtually any Southern Californian can understand. There was also, however, a more fundamental problem: I knew that this was still not the level where I wanted to work. Much of my energy and lesson planning were still focused on discipline. And while my ability to handle discipline problems improved over time, it was still not something that I particularly enjoyed. I was more interested in the academic aspect of teaching than on the behavioral management.
So as time went on, I increasingly thought about the prospect of college teaching. The only problem was that I only had a bachelor’s degree, and since my previous attempts to start on a PHD had failed, I started thinking about a master’s degree. So during my last two years at Yeshiva Gedolah, I cut down my class load slightly and worked on a master’s degree in History. Then, once I completed this task, it was once again time to walk away from a teaching job. The only problem was that I did not have a college gig lined up.
By the time I completed the master’s program, it was too late to apply for community colleges, which were the only higher education institutions that would hire people with “just” a master’s. So, for the time being, I decided to look for a job at a private school that was higher paying and closer to home. Amazingly, a job opportunity that fit these criteria arose at the beginning of the summer, and since I was not in the mood for another extended job search, I decided to take it. This was probably the worst decision of my professional career.
This job required me to teach History, Math, Reading, and language skills in a school that worked with kids with dyslexia, a commonly misunderstood term that refers to people with various types of language disorders. These disorders could affect their ability to read, write, or absorb auditory information. Needless to say, this was not something that my previous experiences had prepared me for, although the school provided some training in the school’s basic language education techniques. From the start, this was a struggle on every level. As one might imagine, a lot of these kids had behavioral problems that were often associated with their learning disorders. Their parents were extremely demanding, and they would waste no time complaining to the school administrators if they felt that the teacher was not giving their child (or the parent) the immediate attention that they deserved. And when the complaints started, I quickly got the feeling that the administrators supported the parents more than the teachers.
Now I could complain for a while, but looking back, I see a simple truth: this school was not the right place for me. The hyper kids with low attention spans, complaining parents, and monotonous, low-level learning tasks in the school curriculum, took their toll pretty quickly. To make a somewhat long story short, I left at the beginning of Christmas break. And while I left with some lingering resentments based on how this school was run and on the limited training, support, and initial information about the job that they provided, in the end, this was the best decision for everyone involved. I literally dreaded going to work by the end, but I can honestly say that I tried my best to make it work. So there was no need this time to beat myself up about my unwillingness to tolerate suffering. For the first time in my life, I had taken on a task that was clearly beyond my abilities. The sense of failure was not a pleasant experience, particularly when you consider the fact that my wife and I had just bought a house and were expecting our first child in March. Ultimately, however, it was exactly the kick in the ass that I needed.
When it became clear that I would be leaving the special needs school, my wife and I began contacting all of the community colleges in the general area inquiring about teaching opportunities. I was not feeling particularly hopeful about my prospects, but when you are a teacher looking for work in early December, your options are limited. College teaching also happened to be my ultimate goal, so here was a golden opportunity to give it a shot. To my pleasant surprise, a place called Cerritos College had a couple of classes without a teacher. One met from 6:30 – 8:00 AM on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other from 8:00-11:00 AM on Fridays. (I wonder why they could not fill these classes?) Needless to say, I was happy to get any class I could. Then, to my pleasant surprise, El Camino College had a class open up at the last second, so I happily snapped that up. One could hardly live on three classes, but it was a foot in the door, and it definitely beat unemployment. But then, to my further surprise, an opportunity came up during the course of the semester at Golden West College to teach an eight-week class that began after spring break. All of a sudden, I was almost making something that resembled real money, and prospects for the future, given the fact that I had my foot in the door at three schools, were looking a bit brighter. Almost eleven years later, I am still teaching at all of these schools, and a fourth school that called back a year after the initial three, Cypress College, is still giving me classes on occasion as well. And as long as there is someone out there willing to give me a chance, I have no plans to teach at any other level in the foreseeable future.
Disappointment is a common human experience. Many times we get something that we have always wanted and find out that it is not quite what we hoped for. In this rare case, I did not experience that disappointment. I had suspected since my student teaching days that the college level was the place to be, but I would never be sure until I actually tried it. By the end of that first week, as I was teaching semi-conscious students in the wee hours of the morning, I knew that I had finally found my place in the world. I now found myself focusing on academics rather than on behavioral management, and the skills that I recognized in myself during my earlier teaching jobs – public speaking, organization of material, relating past events to the present – were able to come out fully. For the first time in my teaching career, I did not feel stress when I thought about going to work, and I no longer found myself counting down the hours to the next weekend or vacation. This does not mean, of course, that the job was easy. I put in lots of work during those early years just getting the material straight, writing tests, and compiling various videos and other resources to enhance the curriculum. This was work, however, that I generally enjoyed doing, and the stress associated with it was nothing like the sense of dread that I often had in the past. Today, I am a much better teacher than I was then, and I can honestly say that my passion for the job is even stronger than it was when I first started.
I still have a problem, however. That little idealistic voice still whispers in my ear every now and then. And when it does, it says something like this: “What happened to you? You were going to go out into the world and suffer for the good of mankind, and instead you ended up doing something that you actually enjoy? How can your current career be truly noble if you are not experiencing significant hardship while you are doing it? And if your plans were to help suffering people in the world, then why are you living in the United States, the wealthiest nation on earth? Man, what a sell out.” So how do I contend with that little voice? I have managed to develop a few different techniques. First, I recognize something that I mentioned before: idealism, at least in my case, can be heavily laden with guilt. I don’t know exactly where my sense of guilt comes from, but there is no denying its existence. And if I spend my life making decisions motivated by guilt, I doubt that I will be doing anyone much good. I suspect that I am not alone in experiencing this sense of guilt. I often think of it as the ‘martyr complex.” I wonder how many seemingly selfless acts are actually motivated by the selfish motive of easing guilt? Or maybe it is just me.
Second, I contend with this emotional, guilt-laden voice by being practical. Yes, there are people out there engaged in activities that seem nobler than what I am doing: doctors, nurses, development workers, employees in relief agencies, political activists, etc. The problem is that no one has the time or the skills to be heavily involved in all of these activities, and there will always be someone out there who is doing something that seems nobler than you. Also, the world could not function if everyone was involved in these nobler professions. If day-to-day, seemingly mundane activities were not performed, then economies would collapse. Then, everyone would be in need of development aid in a world in which the development workers had no financial support to help all the people in need.
Finally, I can focus on the noble aspects of the profession I have chosen. I have the opportunity to challenge the thinking of hundreds of students each semester and to hopefully help them develop a more accurate understanding of their country and world. Noble intentions are great, but if they are not backed by a certain amount of knowledge and wisdom, they can lead to actions that are ineffective or even harmful. So I can justify my career by seeing myself as providing some of the ideas behind the noble actions that some of my students may perform in the future.
This argument dulls the little idealistic voice a bit, but not entirely. Yes, education can be a noble profession. But is college education as noble as working with younger children living in poor neighborhoods? Have I chosen college teaching simply because it is easier and more enjoyable? To a certain degree, I have chosen this path because I like it more, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Happy people, after all, tend to do a better job. Still, as I indicated before, my personal happiness does not snuff out the idealistic / guilty voice.
Fortunately for my mental health, I have one last argument on my side: community college teaching is hardly an educational paradise. A significant percentage of students are apathetic and unmotivated. An even higher percentage of the students I see are not particularly interested in history. As an adjunct professor, I basically teach the same classes from year to year: mostly general education American History. In these classes that cover an enormous amount of material in a short time, there is not a lot of time to study specific topics in a great deal of depth. In a sense, community college really is junior college. It is a kind of educational limbo land somewhere between high school and universities.
Every summer, I get a taste of what teaching at a university might be like. During the summer, I do not get as many “typical” community college students. Instead, I often get students from four-year schools completing their general education requirements, or, increasingly, I have had high school students trying to get a jump-start on their college education. Because of this change in student clientele, grades are always significantly higher in the summer. A part of me wishes that I could see these types of students all year round.
Of course, if I was seeing these higher quality students all year round, then that inner voice would have more ammunition to use against me. But this time, I can make the argument that I have chosen a nobler path. My main motivation, however, in teaching community college is not to satisfy what is left of my youthful idealism, guilt, or whatever you want to call it. I can honestly say that I enjoy the challenge of working in the educational “mission field” that is community college. I find the apathy and lack of motivation of some students to be a benefit of working at this level. It is much more interesting than the “preaching to the converted” that I would be doing teaching upper division and graduate level courses at a university. The hardships faced by many of these students also motivate me to work at this level. Part of the reason that many of them are going to community college is their inability to afford the fees at a major university. The variety of the students also keeps things interesting; I get to see everyone from the eighteen-year old straight out of high school to people in their ‘50’s and ‘60’s embarking on a career change. I even enjoy those survey courses that I get to teach over and over. I have always been a “big picture” guy any way, and the prospect of promoting basic historical literacy is more appealing to me than focusing on narrow historical issues with a bunch of History majors.
The idealism, therefore, is not completely dead. I have just taken a different path than I originally expected and have maybe become a little wiser on the way. Still, I hope that I never snuff out that little idealistic voice completely. The world is still a messed up place in a lot of ways, and even if my profession does not get me directly involved in certain activities, there are things I can do to support those who take more direct actions to solve social problems. We as a family give some financial support to causes we consider noble, but there is definitely more that we could be doing. I sometimes use the “poor, struggling, adjunct professor” argument as an excuse for not doing more, but I should know better. That youthful idealism, after all, isn’t all bad.