Living the contract life...

One union member’s story…

I started teaching as a sessional in my late twenties. Over the course of the last ten years I’ve taught at various colleges and universities.

I always knew that I wanted teaching to be some part of my life. I love working with students, the problem solving that goes into course development, and the opportunity to talk about the ideas that I care about. At first, sessional contracts seemed like a way to gain experience. I didn’t mind the part-time nature of the employment as it meant that I had the time to pursue other projects. Financially, I made things work by living frugally, cheap rent, and saving money so that if a contract fell through I would be okay. I often worked other jobs to supplement my income.

But the longer term goal was to find a more secure opportunity. I’ve taken all the reasonable steps to try to achieve that. I have worked very hard to provide solid, engaging, challenging courses. I spend hours course planning and marking and am available to students by email and office hours. I consistently get high student evaluations and at one school, I won a teaching award. As much as possible, I also try to engage with the programs beyond just parachuting in to teach my courses. I attend faculty meetings and participate in service that I’m not paid for. I have invested in my own education and am consistently learning more to stay relevant. I am engaged in my field and have fostered connections to the communities that my students are working to become a part of. Every spring, I work to polish and rework my teaching portfolio to reflect these efforts. I apply for the few positions that do come up, have interviews, but have yet to secure something more stable. There are just too few opportunities and too many people who’ve been waiting longer.

Now in my late thirties, after a decade invested in teaching, I’m still subject to the same uncertainty about employment, lack of opportunities, and financial anxiety. The difference between now and when I started is that now I have a child whose daycare needs to know whether I’ll need full time or part time care, but I often don’t have contracts until near the very end of the summer. Now the option of cheap rent in the GTA is laughable. After being reno-victed from my affordable apartment, I’ve moved to an area that is more affordable, but things are still very tight. I’m lucky as my partner has a slightly more secure position with benefits. This has effectively subsidised my contract work. I know a lot of single parents who are sessional who don’t have this and who are really struggling to make things work.

Over the last few years, I’ve really felt how dehumanising this system is for contract faculty. I do the same teaching labour as my full time colleagues at a much lower rate, my research is funded entirely by myself, and in order to make a living to support a family in a very expensive region I have to work various contracts at multiple schools in different cities. It’s very difficult to plan for anything as I never know what income I can depend on. And despite all evidence suggesting that I’m doing a good job, I feel little hope that something more stable will come up.

In the end, it’s my choice to continue teaching. I find the work rewarding in many ways, but there comes a point where people give up and move on. The system loses experienced, talented, committed educators every year because it just ends up being too humiliating and exhausting to scramble for contracts. I think the administration depends on instructors buying into the fallacy of sunk costs. I’ve spent a huge amount of time, energy, and resources learning how to do what I do in a classroom really well. If I didn’t genuinely care about my students and believe in the kind of education that I was providing, I would have moved on years ago. But I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up.

I feel horribly for my students who are caught between the administration and faculty. But I see this fight as one that will benefit them in the long run. We shouldn’t have to just accept that precarity and disposability as the new norm.