Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Teaching poverty at the community college

By Caprice Lawless

            We watch in great sadness as, one by one, gifted teachers leave our college without so much as a farewell from administration or from the departments in which they served. A few leave for what they know may be temporary, albeit better-paying jobs in other colleges and universities. Most leave education altogether, vowing never to return to the particular types of humiliation and contempt faced by those who dare teach in this state’s community colleges.

            Those of us who remain wonder what are we teaching and modeling by our teaching. Increasingly, students are becoming aware that many of them earn more in their espresso-pouring and other retail jobs than we do teaching them college courses. Some of our students, not surprisingly, have begun to connect the dots and question the purpose of their academic pursuits if their teachers live in poverty.

            Yet don’t we model poverty for our students? Wordlessly, we teach them how to expect not a bright future, but, in fact, a decidedly dim one. Each time we enter a classroom, we show them how to make do with used clothing, sack lunches and reconditioned electronics. When we go to work sick (and we all do, as we have no health insurance or sick leave), we show them how to get through a work day by keeping the decongestant and a box tissues handy. Of course they realize we are spreading illnesses to them. They see that this is what is in store for them, as well, once they get their college degrees. They are watching professionals who are deeply in debt for their own degrees work even while ill, and for peanuts.

            We unintentionally teach them to become wise to the ruse; that the sprinkling of words like “future,” “planning” and “integrity” in class schedules and college programs are there to serve only the careers of the invisible administrators, the ones never seen in hallways or cafeterias. They are learning that, similarly, they will never see their administrators either, and, should one appear, it is likely time to worry. We model for them not to expect too much, once you graduate, from anyone in leadership, for leadership is in a class of its own making and is self-serving.

 When they watch us load our files into our aging cars, they can see that college teachers have so little status they don’t even have a place to store their things in the schools their labor has helped build. When we run into our students in food banks, at subsidized clinics, and in used clothing stores, we are teaching them that even “making ends meet” is a quaint and meaningless phrase.

            A colleague of mine taught her classes for a week on a broken leg. Her students saw her in the hallway, crying in pain. Another adjunct taught for two weeks after he had been diagnosed with shingles. He was so weak he could not even carry his books. His students carried them for him. He could walk only part way down the long corridor before he had to stop and sit a while. What did his students learn during that episode about the value of three college degrees?

            Alas, when we teach them to recognize cries for justice in essays they study, do those cries fall on deaf ears? Are we are teaching them to be numb to human suffering? Posters in our hallways promise hope and opportunity, but we wonder whether the work life of their highly educated teachers offers a convincing counter argument.


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