Goodbye Mr. Chips


Sitting in the classroom waiting for the students to arrive, I close my eyes and empty my head of the thoughts of the day. It is 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and I have left work behind. A sub and a cup of Diet Coke for dinner as I prepare for class.

I love this hour. The calm before I stand and teach, encourage, mediate, and moderate a group of 20 adults from all walks of life, and all points on the compass for 4 hours. To think that it took me 20 years to figure out what it was that I was born to do. I often wonder what I would have done if I had discovered it sooner. Would I still have become an engineer, and headed down the path of corporate America? Or would I be sitting in some ivy colored building, brushing chalk dust off of my tweed coat?

Class tonight is on the 4th floor of a non-descript office building, in an office park in the suburbs. It doesn’t exactly exude Cambridge in here, although I must say the University has spared no expense in outfitting the classrooms. Top of the line audio visual equipment, honey colored paneling, rich carmel tones on the furniture; it’s the kind of place where you just want to curl up in a comfy chair with a nice book.

Adjunct teaching is like playing house for me. It’s a part time gig that takes up little more than 10 hours a week of my time. I look forward to these little 5 week long classes, as an escape from the day job that pays our bills. The students that I meet continue to fascinate me. I imagine that teaching adults is a completely different experience than teaching kids. Each person in the room has come back to school for a reason, and has made great sacrifices to be there. They want to be here, and are eager to learn.

The diversity of the student’s background and experiences is wonderful. I am lucky in that the class I teach is a required course in the undergrad Business, Leadership, Human Resources, Nursing, and Christian Ministry programs. I feel like I learn more from them than they do from me. As courses go, it’s a bit of a mishmash. It’s a 5 week long Global Studies course, focused on “Modern World Trends”. We look at social issues like population growth, demographic changes, environmental issues, energy use, human trafficking, terrorism, and technology from a moral and ethical viewpoint. While the lead instructor provides the syllabus, the 5 week nights are essentially a blank canvas for me to paint on.

In a way, teaching these classes is a sort of performance art. Discussion based learning in a cohort setting is completely different from the lecture hall experience I had as an undergrad. In our class my job is to lead the discussion, and help the cohort of students work their way through the issues, to come to a deeper understanding of them. Hopefully they will come away with a broader outlook on the world, and understand how these seemingly disparate issues are all connected by a common thread. If things go really well, they will look at their career, and their lives in a new way. If I screw up, they just go away with a vague memory of five nights of their lives that they will never get back.

No pressure.

It’s a mystery to me how the painfully shy little kid that hid behind his mother, and still hates to go to parties, was transformed into a grownup that is not only capable of standing in front of 20 people, but actually enjoys it. I think that this is what they mean when they say the spirit works through you, for whatever I am bringing to the class is not coming from a dumpy, middle aged, white guy from suburbia, but from something beyond me. Once class begins the switch is thrown, and the spirit begins to flow. It’s a pretty awesome experience.

I’d like to tell you all how qualified I am to be the instructor of a college course, but the scary truth is that aside from holding a Master’s Degree, I have few credentials to show. I have never taken any formal training on how to teach a class. What I have learned has been through self study, and observation. Yes folks, the sad truth is that most courses are taught by well meaning, untrained people, who are paid far less than what you might think. The adult and professional studies business is a lucrative racket for Universities. Rent out a conference room, charge $800 a credit hour, and pay the adjunct teacher $1,600 for the course. For a 3 credit course, with 20 students they pull in $48,000, and probably only spend a little of $2500 in expenses and overhead.

Teaching adults is way more lucrative for a school than teaching “college kids”, and the degree is the same.  I’d love to sit down with someone in the administration and look over the books. I can’t for the life of me understand why Non-profit college is as expensive as it is. I look around at the tenured Prof’s with PhD’s from prestigious schools, and impressive CV’s of research and publication, and see them making less money than some entry level engineering graduates. Yes, it costs money to heat and maintain all these ivy covered buildings. Gargoyles don’t come cheap, but there’s no way that it should cost $40,000 PER YEAR to fill the head of an undergrad.

Yet here I am, another willing cog in the machine of higher education, happy just to be here, and have the chance to teach. I wish that somehow I could quit the day job and make a living at this. The painful irony being that the one thing that keeps me wed to corporate gravy train is the impending cost of college for Lil’ Miss 20 Prospect, and 20 Prospect Jr.

2 thoughts on “Goodbye Mr. Chips

  1. Your kids are roughly the same age as mine so we should be arriving at the poor house within a week or two of each other.
    Four years of private preschool.
    Eight years of private parochial school.
    Four years of private co-Ed Catholic High School.
    Four years of college.
    Bail money.
    MBA’s
    Three kids .
    Anxiety attack.

    • I’ve considered the cross country armed robbery spree as a potential revenue source, but the price of gas and ammo is prohibitive.

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