Laura’s a character, in the real sense of the word. She’s memorable because of the way she speaks, a lingering New York accent bubbling up despite decades of Berkeley-living. She speaks with her hands and has lost some of her hearing. The way she says, “What?” makes me bite my lip to keep from laughing. Imagine Lewis Black, but as a small woman with frizzy hair. Laura’s had boyfriends. And cats. She’s made ceramics for a long time. She’s closing in on 60. I’ve never sat down and shared a meal with her, but know she’d have hours and hours of stories.
We’re English teachers who teach adults. We’re sitting in the room where I’ll soon be teaching. Night classes have a unique atmosphere. The attendees work all day. Then, if there’s time, hop in a shower, get a bite to eat, and come to class. Some arrive when I open the door at 6:20. A few beat me there and wait in the hallway. Most of the class arrives between 6:30 and 7:15. Attendance is sporadic during night classes. I might see a student every night for three straight weeks and then not for a week or two. Work schedules change. Living arrangements might change. But that’s my class, which starts on Monday night. We’re in prep meetings.
Laura’s sitting on the opposite side of the room. Of the 30 or so teachers, maybe five of us are under 45. It’s possible I’m the youngest teacher here, though probably not. Most are in their 50s or 60s, some into their 70s. I’m happy to have this teaching job. It allows me to stay home and take care of my 14-month-old daughter, which wouldn’t be the case if I were still teaching high school. It also allows me to enjoy my time in the classroom, not focusing on the behavioral considerations of teenagers who’ve dealt with more upheaval than most.
Still, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll keep teaching at night after this year. The job is part-time, and only four nights per week, which is great for the current situation, but won’t be ideal in a few years. My partner’s job allows us to work out this situation for now. As a look around the room, I go in-and-out, listening to the meeting’s current topic, which relates to funding changes. Many are concerned about the possible loss of a small, but reliable, amount of added income which comes from certain curriculum called EL Civics. These are units devoted to useful topics: employment, nutrition, cultural harmony/sensitivity. Life skills that are relevant to adults who’ve just arrived in the United States. However, the pre-packaged units are outdated and annoying to teach, and even more annoying to assess. Regardless, they provide extra income. Remember, we’re mostly part-time teachers, paid at an hourly rate, not a salary. Funding is always tenuous for teachers. Adult Education funding is even more tenuous.
Laura raises her hand and begins speaking. She says what’s on most of our minds. The fact that we’re spending so much of this rare three-hour meeting going over detail after detail related to these changes in the funding. Laura explains, “I have taught the curriculum, which makes me want to vomit because I’ve done it so many times and it feels like torture to the poor students… because we get a small amount of money for teaching it. And here we are, about to lose some of that money, and we’re wasting time we could be talking about actually teaching.”
The room is silent. How frustrating and demeaning it is to have to beg for a few more hours per month to survive. I’m lucky because of my partner’s income. We’re comfortable. But these people aren’t. They’re in their 50s and 60s. They need these hours and the financial reality of teachers is troubling and sometimes downright scary. Living in the Bay Area has become a luxury. Affordable housing isn’t being built and real estate values continue to climb.
I decide to speak for the first time in the meeting. I tell Laura that I appreciate her saying what many of us are feeling. How our culture doesn’t value education and how it feels awful to be constantly reminded of how uncertain our income can be. Now I write this, thinking about the upcoming school year. The months between now and Thanksgiving. The dates of winter break. The final day of the school year.
I imagine all the people who are jealous of teachers because they get the summers off. Never mind that Uber and Lyft have been recruiting teachers for the last five years, aware that a part-time driving gig is the perfect complement to the many near-broke teachers who work from eight-four, often bringing home work to grade before considering the hours spent prepping on the weekends. None of this is news to most of us. We’re aware of how messed up the situation is for teachers of all levels, up to adjunct professors at colleges who are being screwed by bloated administrations. We’re aware, but that doesn’t mean we should all be silent.