June marks the end of my sixth year teaching. While I’ve spent every one of these years building relationships with children, distributing materials, implementing lesson plans, and tending to a classroom environment, I’ve also been perpetually confounded by the imagery associated with my job title.
Everyone is subject to that dreaded question: “So, what do you do?” When I tell someone that I’m a teacher, I can see the vision unfold behind the inquirer’s eyes. They see me sitting at a desk in a room that I call my own, my name on the door, touting a benefits package and teacher salary. Yet despite the accuracy of all the minutiae – the actual emotional labor and circulation and instruction – I’ve always lacked the life blood of the position. The work space. The established security. The benefits. The salary.
I acquired a job in a charter school almost immediately after I graduated with my teaching certification. I was essentially hired to fill in the gaps regarding student needs in a low socioeconomic urban environment, my official title being ELA Support Teacher. I both co-taught, pulled students out of class for small group sessions, and taught my own class, as well as extra classes over school breaks, Saturday school, and summer school. Despite the array of vital services I provided for the school, my contract did not place me on the teacher’s pay scale, and they elected to pay me per diem over the course of four years. They once told me it was because I didn’t have my own classroom and I traveled from class to class.
This limitation was not unique to my position. Even the classroom teachers allowed on the pay scale were still subject to annual contracts that required yearly renewal. No one was ever fired at the end of the year – administration just didn’t renew your contract. Fifty year old teachers with two decades of experience were subject to the same conditions as the new faces that popped up fresh out of college. Those on the pay scale were given decent benefits packages, but my options were much more expensive and took serious blows to my paychecks. I elected to go without.
In the face of this lack of job security, the majority of the teachers in the building looked to the public schools with big shining eyes. We sat together in our classrooms and ate up our lunches alongside our aspirations to win that secure, unionized teaching position in a large school district. The administration could sense our dreams of flight, further cementing the annual contracts and per diem work.
I was making enough to get by before the nature of the system shook me up enough that I swore I wouldn’t spend five years in the same position. I would take my youth and plunge back into school-age poverty. My partner went back to school, and I went so far back that I found myself doing something I hadn’t even really done as a teacher post-graduation: substitute teaching.
This was when I discovered that the majority of school districts around me utilized third party businesses to provide them with substitute teachers. In order for me to work at their schools, I needed to take the jobs through a third party system. I took assignments, and they took a finder’s fee. There are many different outsourcing agencies like this out there, though the most popular is likely Kelly Educational Staffing Services.
The language on Kelly’s website is telling of the situation.
We help our employees attain rewarding careers, districts achieve cost savings and operational efficiency, teachers maintain continuity of instruction, and students flourish from quality education.
So are rewarding careers truly attained through this agency, with their finder’s fees? I’ve spent the last two years looking around in the school district in which I work and I do not see Kelly employees moving into open positions. I see a lot of established teachers being shuffled around like chess pieces to optimize district funds, and the offspring of former teachers being hired. Kelly employees are far more likely to disappear from the campus, never to be seen again, than be hired into an opening.
Are these districts achieving “operational efficiency”? Well, most tellingly, the teacher vacancies are not being filled. The office secretaries complain of substitute shortages, and often I find myself in a room full of three different classes without teachers, becoming a true blue legally-required baby sitter. So no, this is clearly not an operationally efficient option for school districts.
As someone who’s been working on this front for a while now, I can assure you the reason for these shortages is that the pay is simply not high enough. When you really break down the per diem pay for these vacancy fills, it comes to about $10 an hour. This is true for what are called “long-term” positions which are ironically not long-term and require you to lesson plan and facilitate classroom instruction for 4 months for the same pay as those who do less work. It doesn’t take long for a person to figure out that they are likely to make $12 to $15 dollars an hour doing secretary or construction work elsewhere. For those with children, the pay from substituting teaching is even less feasible.
To put the cherry on the top of all this, in the past year bills have pushed me to do direct freelance work to supplement my income. I write promotional articles as a freelancing agent, sell my tutoring services, and I have picked up contracts teaching English to children overseas before.
The cringe-worthy fact is that substitute teaching only makes me about $15,000 a year. As time goes by, I am either forced to abandon ship for some career outside of teaching, or doggedly whore out my education and English degree for contracts. You can see which option I’ve chosen thus far.
This has been going on for six years, whilst continuing efforts to obtain that secure, unionized, stable classroom job. That carrot that hangs over my head. I am repeatedly hired over and over again into temporary piece-work to pay the bills, while watching others like me do the same – until that dream job opens and all candidates pounce on it with frenzied desperation. One person obtains the job, and hundreds of the rejected lower their heads and try again the following year.
I’ve job hunted in two cities in two different states, and about four to five positions open up in a single certification area every year regionally. And I’m talking full-time, join the union, retirement benefits, and health insurance positions only. Hundreds are looking.
With less and less permanent teaching jobs available on a yearly basis, the education system has been partially overtaken by what is essentially a gig economy. It took me a while to recognize this or understand how this economic model worked. My frustration built over the years, but I find that fellow teachers are bitterly compliant and hesitant to call it what it is. Or maybe they’re just lucky and aren’t exposed to it.
A cursory Google search of gig economy provides this definition: “A labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs.” I suppose if there’s an area to nitpick over, it’d be in the definition of “short-term.” Many probably envision the gig economy as singular freelance projects that last from a day, a week, to six months. Substitute teaching is certainly this. But I would like to extend short-term to include annual contracts. Charter school jobs are far more prevalent than positions in other schools, and obtaining a year of guaranteed work is not secure or stable for a family with children, a mortgage, multiple loan payments, or substantial health problems of any kind.
Basically, if you can only account for a year’s worth of work and income, you’re working a gig and the same limitations of the gig economy apply. There is no certainty for future employment, there is never a guarantee.
The limitations I have experienced are frustrating and plentiful. I have been offered benefits packages that are impartial or far more expensive than those offered to secured, full-time employees. I have also been denied insurance of any kind. Currently, despite working for Kelly for two years, they do not offer me anything other than a “supplemental” benefits package which is meant to pad my own individually purchased insurance. With buying my own health insurance being untenable, I receive Medicaid.
Work is unstable and inconsistent. Though I can usually find enough work to scrape together a paycheck due to my non-stop efforts, there are often months at a time where there is no work at a school available – especially during the summer.
Also, pay amounts to much less for the same work completed by those granted long-term, secure jobs. For instance, I taught classes but did not make the same for it as the teachers on the pay scale. In good times, I could do different gigs for the same employer throughout the year – but currently, I find myself working multiple gigs for many different clients every year.
Wrapped up in this system is a lack of accountability on both ends – from the employer and from the workers. No matter the high quality of the work I produce for an employer, they can dismiss me and any concerns I have with a lazy wave of their hand. I can also do the same to them, abandoning a gig to immediately pick up another, similarly low-paying project. There is no reason for either side to care.
Considering that Kelly’s involvement with substitute teaching and the charter school system are hardly new, I imagined I would find some sort of concrete criticism on this gig approach to education somewhere online. However, when I turned to search engines to discover how many other workers have felt frustrations similar to mine, the immediate results were largely in favor of this gig economy expansion. In general, there wasn’t a lot of critical conversation about the topic.
The first search result, from a website that talks about revolutionizing education, refers to the education sector’s regretfully slow adoption of the market. They encourage employers: adapt to this model quickly in order to gain access to a “greater pool of talent.” What they don’t mention is how cheaply that desperate talent can be purchased, as not to scare off the talent.
The site also paints employees in situations such as mine as saved from leaving the education sector forever through the option of gigs. They bemoan that “half of new teachers leave the classroom after five years, and many think that means they have to leave the education sector.” You don’t have to say goodbye to children and lessons forever, they say. You can do the exact same thing for less stable money.
Another site that offers “a bird’s-eye-view of the Education industry” also presents the situation as if it’s a good thing. They describe how “[m]any professors, adjunct and otherwise, have begun seeking outside sources of income as ways to supplement base salaries. These outside tasks have included everything from serving as Ph.D. or grant reviewers to freelance writing for mainstream outlets.” Again, the idea that freedom to work for supplemental income is somehow more worthwhile than a single job that pays a livable wage.
There were also the obligatory articles about preparing students for a gig economy, dismally accepting this system as a reality that faces the young, burgeoning generations – or, perhaps I should call them pools of talent.
On the bottom of the second page of search results, I finally found a blog that criticized the negative effects the gig economy had on education. The post decried how “sequential, comprehensive curriculum is replaced by a series of unrelated, disconnected videos and ‘online modules,’ with no cohesiveness, content area articulation, or spiral curriculum organization.” While I can agree on the effect on curriculum to a certain extent, this criticism doesn’t factor in the effect that participation in such a disconnected workforce has on the individual. This what I find the most problematic.
The idea that incorporating a gig economy structure to education would result in freedom and active employment of previously untapped talents is laughable. The charter school’s yearly contracts did nothing but create a toxic, anxious environment. As the end of every school year loomed, we would whisper in passing around the copy machines, counting off on our fingers all of those we knew were most disliked by the administration. If we were cruel enough to take bets, we would have made off well. It was always obvious whose contracts would not be renewed based on how much shit the administrators had given them throughout the year, structured around pettiness and never issues of individual talent. Even if we hadn’t squared off with an administrator, there were always those who walked out of the office having been told their jobs were reduced to part time the following year. No one was ever safe, secure. Long-term plans were always at risk.
Substitute teaching with a third party contractor has turned me into a ghost. I wander through an established school culture and environment, never fully welcomed or embraced. When I first began, school secretaries wouldn’t even look at me, ticking off my name on a piece of paper to mark a vacancy filled. Even when I took an assignment that left me working at the exact same high school for two years, I was still never accepted into the school environment. Children would cheer when they saw me and treat me as a staple, but the administrators avoid eye contact, still believing I will surely vanish at any moment. I would spend months putting in organizational and emotional labor to build relationships with staff and students without ever being granted access to the school emails, or scheduling systems, or attendance systems, or even given a card that granted me access to the building. No matter my efforts or my talent, I was never anything more than a temporary fixture employed outside the district.
The result of annual contracts and temporary assignments has been a permanent state of job hunting for that stable, secure, unionized, benefit-giving job. The strain on my spirit – the complexes I’ve developed from this system and process – are also clearly not sustainable. The emotional drain and pitiful income compensation are not sustainable. Snatching the carrot on the end of the stick means being poised and ready for the perfect time, the perfect place, for years on end.
I’ve completed six years of this and I could easily see myself subject to an indefinite number of years ahead of me, at the whim of ever-shrinking school budgets and the luck of time and place. Or perhaps I’ll find myself back on annual contracts, or even land myself in a charter school that offers longer contracts – which I’ve heard exist but have never found.
There’s a large, ignored segment of the education sector – a word I will ruefully use, in light of the reality that this is all clearly a business. That segment is composed of people like me, who are raking in between an inconsistent 15k to 30k a year in the hopes of obtaining the carrot. Our numbers fluctuate as we graduate college and drop out of the sector in pursuit of more sustainable and secure jobs. I certainly won’t last much longer before taking the next office job that will help me pay my bills.
Do we want an education system subject to the same limitations and consequences of a gig economy? The reality is that your child, enrolled in elementary school, likely has a number of educated, talented professionals interacting with them throughout the day, applying band aids and praising their work, while in a perpetual state of stress, extracting measly compensation for even their hardest work.
It’s time to recognize this transient, pathetic, ignored portion of the education system and think about what this means for our society as a whole. The gig economy has entered our school buildings, demoralizing its workforce and developing detrimental practices that worsen school cultures, environments, and education as a whole, eroding at a system that relies heavily on the emotional well-being and time of its employees in a fundamental, society-building way.
Be conscious of what you imagine when some says they are a teacher. The odds are likely that they spend their days pushing around a cart to various classrooms, stacking paperwork on its tiers, while struggling to soothe the small crises of adolescence around them in between worries for their next paycheck. Not all teacher positions guarantee the basic benefits of most jobs, or even a stable paycheck the following month.