When I first landed a job with my school board as an adult education teacher, I was visiting one of the high schools and ran into one of my old teachers. He congratulated me on finding a position, but he cautioned me not to “get trapped” in adult education. I nodded, smiled, assured him that would not be the case.
Welp, here I am, eight years later!
Did I get trapped? I honestly don't know. I made some half-hearted attempts at moving into the regular high school system (it has since become a little easier). Now that I have a permanent position in adult education, the idea of giving that up for the precariousness of a high school contract is less appealing—though, ironically, thanks to the pandemic’s effect on teacher availability, there has never been a better time to try to get permanent periods at the secondary level.
But that teacher's advice was very telling. It speaks to an attitude towards adult education, a kind of implicit bias, that is present even among my fellow educators. It’s why I inevitably get asked the question in the title of this post by anyone listening to me rant about the disparities between my position and those of my secondary colleagues. I understand that you mean well, that you just want me to be happy, and you think you're hearing me say that this would make me happy. I appreciate your concern. However, when we position regular high school as the norm and adult education as the “other,” and suggest that the solution to being dissatisfied with adult education is to move back towards that norm, we are letting down the adults who seek out this service.
Yes, I would love to make $20,000 more than my current salary.
Yes, I would love more than forty-five minutes of unscheduled prep time per week.
Yes, I would love some more stability in my schedule, less financial pressure to work over the summer (because otherwise we don't get paid).
But then who teaches our adults who need their diploma? A teacher who doesn’t want those things?
I’m not trying to make myself out to be a martyr (oh, poor me, sacrificing myself to teach the overlooked adults!). Literally, I want the opposite: all of us, no matter what we are teaching, deserve better working conditions. That is to say, I want all of the above, but I want it for adult day school teachers as well as high school teachers.
That’s why I think this question misses the point. It’s tantamount to asking any teacher, “Well, if you are so unhappy with teaching, why don’t you leave?” (and many are), or asking any nurse why they don’t just quit if they are so burned out. Individuals need to make the choice that is right for them, of course. “Why don't you just leave?” creates a false dilemma, however, where the choices become "endure" or "quit."
Where in that choice is there room for sustained, systemic change?
Where is my revolution?
Maybe I will follow some of my colleagues who have adult education for high school. I don't blame a single one of them, and I won't conflate my desire for systemic change with doing what is ultimately right for me on an individual level. Maybe I’ll even leave teaching entirely one day (though, as I have reflected in a recent post, that is a recent and very scary thought).
If I do one day leave adult education, however, I hope I leave it in a better place than I found it. I hope that these words, and my other advocacy, can help people recognize that not only is our entire public education system under attack by our current government, but even before that attack began, adult education has long been overlooked and ignored.
Maybe I did get trapped all those years ago. If so, I'm grateful. I don't think I had any concept, as a teacher, what adult education was until I started working here. I'm glad I have this perspective now, and will bring it to whatever I do in the future; I wish more people could get this perspective. Until that's a possibility, all I can do is share mine.
So don't ask me why I don't just move to teaching high school. Ask me what all of us can do to make public education in Ontario better for everyone, at every level. Let's have a conversation about that.
If you want to read more about what it was like to teach in adult education during the pandemic, check out my article in The Monitor for Our Schools/Our Selves!
Cover image by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash