A first semester

What follows is a recounting of my first year as an adjunct in California after many years teaching in Japan, written in real time as it happened.

One of the first job interviews I had upon moving to the US was for an SI (Supplemental Instructor, like a teaching assistant) job at a local community college. As with the ESLs I applied at, the interviewer remarked on the novelty of an MA holder applying for an entry-level job. Perhaps, but MA holders need to eat too. As part of my interview, I had to help a current Academic Writing I student revise an essay. I think I mentioned something about the formatting rules for block quotes, which probably overshot the mark.

I was offered that job after the interview and in the days afterward I started the first of my many trips through HR that year.

The evening of my first full day as an SI, I got word that my grandma had been admitted to the ICU with pneumonia. I got the message just as I was climbing into my car in the college parking lot to go home.

While we were visiting her in the hospital, I got a call from the SI Program Coordinator suggesting I go for a newly-opened sub assignment for a teacher who’d badly injured his knee.  Doing so would make me an adjunct rather than an SI, a step up from entry-level teaching position to parity with the vast majority of college ESL teachers. At the time, we figured this meant I would have to stop being an SI, as teaching my own classes and assisting in others at the same time would probably break some rule somewhere.

The evening that I got the news that I got the sub assignment, no longer as an SI but as a proper instructor, I found out that my grandma had died. It was her first day home for palliative care.

I started the sub assignment roughly 2 weeks into the semester, or 2 months after we arrived in the US. Meanwhile, my SI assignment was allowed to continue with an amended schedule. Given the other circumstances around this time, I didn’t celebrate.

2 weeks after that was my grandma’s funeral.

The 2 classes that I was subbing in started quite rough. Retrospectively, it was a crash course in matching my preferred style to a completely new context, in addition to learning the California CC system of adds, drops, Ws, SLOs, etc. from zero.

Midway through the semester, I got a call from another local CC that they wanted me to come in and interview for one of two 5-unit classes for fall.

(10 units is the maximum in any given district for a part-timer.  20 units gives you a decent monthly salary, but requires you to drive to at least 2 different districts.  It’s not unusual for adjuncts to work across many different districts in one semester.)

The next day, I got a call offering me both of those classes.

Soon after, my current school also offered me 10 units for the fall and some lab hours for the summer. This was all great news, but I couldn’t really celebrate given the context in other areas of life.

All the while, my supervisors were asking me if I’d heard from the teacher of record for the classes I was subbing for – the one who had injured his leg.  The most anyone could get out of him was that he’d be out for “a while”, which meant I might have the classes until the end of the term.

The day before I had planned to announce our final project in those classes, I got a voicemail telling me that the original teacher was coming back. I had been driving to the park when the higher-up called and listened to the voicemail while playing with my dog. When I called back, I was told that because of the rules governing part-time employees, both my sub assignment and my SI job had to end at the same time.  The last shift for SIing had been that morning; the last day for subbing would be tomorrow.

That night I called the teacher I’d been subbing for to lay out what I’d been doing and present options for him going forward if he was interested. He indicated he’d be willing to follow my final project plans at least. Needless to say, whether he followed my plans or not was his prerogative. I found out later he hadn’t. I certainly don’t blame him.

(The final project was going to be a shorter version of what has become my staple in intermediate classes, the 30-Day Challenge.)

The next day, after announcing the to-be final project and doing some other normal class stuff, I announced that it was my last day. Students showed a mixture of sadness, surprise, anger, and a few other emotions, one of which was probably relief. Within the next few days I wrote goodbyes on our LMS to the students in my SI classes that I’d already had my last class with without knowing it, and got some heartwarming replies.

That evening, I got an email offering me a class for the summer at a third CC. That was the start of another interesting and instructive episode.

I spent the remainder of the academic semester picking up private students and looking forward to summer.


Everything up to here was written as it happened, making this almost a real live blog, albeit posted years after it all ended. The third CC became one of my less enjoyable experiences in the hiring process.

Looking back, I underestimated how much of a transition going to community colleges would be, even after 12 years teaching English in other contexts. It’s always hard to reconstruct what you knew about the world at previous moments in your life, but I remember the feeling of tumbling down the rapids blindfolded (and this was before Bird Box made that a meme) very strongly.

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