In my experience, there are 2 kinds of great days as a teacher: the great days that come from hard prep that pays off (teaching Judith Butler almost always falls into this category) and the great days that happen from some magic chemistry of prep and intuition and energy and student insight. I have had banner days of both kinds. Days when it feels like the words tumble out of my mouth in exactly the right order, and my examples are brilliant, and my jokes are funny, and my students are nodding and laughing and focused and I can see little explosions of light and knowledge behind their eyes.
Yesterday was not one of those days. Yesterday was me, standing in front of 30ish people, completely aware that my explanation of concepts I have taught successfully a million times was NOT working, that I had fumbled terribly and was getting worse, that my example was distracting and unhelpful, that my students were unfocused, inattentive, and largely unable to follow even if they were trying.
I’m still trying to shake the miserable funk of that feeling of bad teaching, almost 24 hours later, although I’m sure it stopped mattering to most of my students the instant they walked out the classroom door. So why is it still rattling me?
Maybe because I care deeply about pedagogy. Maybe because I’m competitive and I don’t like to feel off my game. But maybe also because as an adjunct, I think I’m more sensitive to the small ups and downs. One of the benefits of adjuncting is that I don’t have the responsibilities of advising or university service or committee work or research. I prep, teach, and grade, and I can work 3 days a week and spend the other 4 days focused on parenting. The downfall of this arrangement, however, is that my professional life is centered on one single endeavor: so when I have a lousy day, the whole enterprise starts to feel worthless. If I’m not a good teacher, what exactly is the point? Why am I driving all over creation for a tiny paycheck if I’m not absolutely stellar in the classroom?
And I know that mindset is a trap: it’s equally easy to feel lousy after a tremendous day in the classroom, because if I genuinely am awesome at this job, why can’t I find a way to make more money at it?
As an adjunct, I’m incredibly lucky in many respects: I work with thoughtful, friendly, kind colleagues. I feel valued and respected and appreciated. I have a part time schedule that fits all my needs as a parent. I love being in the classroom. I teach classes that are transformative in students’ lives. But I’m feeling increasingly stuck: financially, emotionally, professionally. Adjuncting has been a good fit for a lot of years, but I’m starting to feel squeezed, by bad days and good days, by the institutional constraints on departments, by the knowledge that how well I teach matters deeply to me and my students and my colleagues but will never matter at the institutional level: good teaching, even excellent teaching, will not earn me a raise or a full time job. If I need more financial security, (and if we’re going to move out of this house I almost certainly do), I need to start looking for full time, non-adjunct work.
But I’m so hesitant to let go of those banner days, so hesitant to look for a job that might not have those incredible highs, even if it also doesn’t have the lows. Despite yesterday’s dose of awful, I know in my gut I’m really fucking good at what I do. What if I’m not that good at anything else?