On October 16, faculty, librarians, and counsellors, represented by OPSEU, at 26 Ontario colleges began a strike. I am one of them. For the last several years, I’ve been working as a contract teacher at various colleges and universities in the GTA, cobbling together a living from semester to semester. For me, as for my colleagues, the main issue in this strike is more job security for those on contract, and a fairer (50:50) ratio of contract to permanent teachers.
Over the last few decades, the postsecondary sector in Ontario has seen the gradual shift of work from permanently employed professors to those working on short (typically four month) contracts, with no job security beyond that point. The proportion of contract faculty varies from college to college (and varies somewhat term to term). According to the latest numbers, at College Boreal in Sudbury, 86% of teachers do not have permanent jobs; at Humber College in Toronto, 75% of teachers do not.
There are so many categories that college teachers can fall into that the system can be very confusing to outsiders. A college teacher can be part-time, partial load, sessional, or full-time – and these bureaucratic names are, on the whole, quite misleading. Those who are part-time teach one to two classes per semester. As they are not members of the union, they receive no benefits or sick days. Those who are sessional teach five or more classes a semester, and surprisingly, they are not part of the union either.
Only those who are “partial load”, who are in the sweet spot of teaching three to four classes per semester at one institution, are part of our union, in addition to those who are permanently employed. It’s not uncommon for teachers to yo-yo between part-time, partial load, and sessional work, periodically losing benefits and sick days.
To call permanent employees full time gives the impression everyone else is a mere part-time worker. However, permanently employed teachers might very well be teaching four classes a semester themselves, just like many of their partial load colleagues. And partial load teachers often take on unpaid work like course development, which is typically the domain of full-time teachers. Effectively, colleges are treating part of their full-time workforce like short-term, casual workers.
When it comes to part-time teachers, colleges claim that they work in their industries and only teach on the side. However, this represents only one portion of the part time workforce. Many part time teachers work at two or even three different institutions; some are partial load in one college while picking up more courses at another, and so might be teaching five or six courses per semester. Without a doubt, juggling this many classes and upwards of 200 students per semester affects the quality of education that our students receive.
Whatever class of contract worker a teacher falls into, our work is highly unstable. Each semester, we hope to receive courses again in four month’s time, and hope to receive enough to stay in the union. Often, we receive course offers too late to effectively search for other work. This makes it difficult to raise a family or save for the future, and it takes an undeniable toll on teachers’ mental health and morale. While we may be asked to teach courses again and again, colleges’ refusal to commit to us for any length of time beyond four months leads me and my contract collegues to feel that we are professional failures. One sign of the precarity of our work situation is the fact the colleges take away our benefits for the scant one or two weeks at the beginning of January before the winter term begins. While we are expected to be on call for administrators and students, we can’t rely on the colleges to be there for us.
Part-time pay, full-time workload
As a partial load teacher, I am only paid for three hours of class time per class, per week. At the lowest partial load hourly rate ($82.35), teachers can earn as little as $3500 to teach one class from start to finish – which is not only far less than our full time peers, but half of what those on contract at universities can expect to earn. Given how unstable teaching work is, it can take years to move up pay steps. While a contract teacher’s hourly rate seems very high, it must be divided into three or four to truly reflect the number of hours per week that teaching a course requires. The pay of those who are part-time is even lower, leading to sometimes poverty wages once all the hours that teaching involves are factored in.
As with other fields, when teachers are good, their work can look effortless. But the time I spend in the classroom is only the tip of the iceberg. Each new class I prepare requires about 8 hours of work – from doing more research on the topic to creating classroom activities that build on my lecture. And given that teaching something for the first time inevitably involves some trial and error, and that knowledge in many industries is constantly evolving, even when I teach a course for the second or third time, I spend hours updating and improving my lectures and activities. Likewise, even efficient grading requires hours of work – grading 40 essays, if I devote 15 minutes to each one, is 10 hours of work. To this, we need to add time to meet with students, answer emails, keep course websites updated, create tests and assignments, and fill in paperwork. At a minimum, each hour in the classroom thus represents about three or four hours outside of it, and sometimes a fair bit more.
Teaching conditions are learning conditions
Don Sinclair, the CEO on the College Employer Council (the bargaining unit for the colleges) has said that it’s wouldn’t be worth using college surpluses to hire more permanent teachers, because students “would get nothing for it”. As a contract teacher in the system, this is insulting. I can see how my precarious work situation affects my students.
Often, contract teachers are only offered courses weeks (or even days) before they begin, with little time to adequately prepare them. Given that so many contract teachers are teaching at two or even three institutions, they have less time to devote to each lesson and to offering support to their students. Many have no access to office space, and so no environment to meet students in the first place. While my permanently employed peers have extra-large classes off-set by reductions in other work, I do not. But this means that when I do have a large class, I must simply grade more work in the same amount of time, with less time to give meaningful feedback to students.
Large class sizes can mean the difference between circling a box in a rubric and writing a student personal feedback. Indeed, large class sizes affect the way I evaluate students, forcing me to rely more on multiple choice questions than I otherwise would. Lastly, I am not paid for any professional development. As a contract teacher, I cannot be there for students in the way that they deserve and that I wish I could be.
The college’s refusal to acknowledge that precarious work is a problem that affects both teachers and students has forced me and my colleagues onto the picket lines. None of us want to be here, and none of our students want to be forfeiting class time either.
Unfortunately, they pay dearly to be in school, as the public reminds us daily. However, I ask everyone to consider how much of those high tuition rates are making their way to the people on the front lines: teachers, counsellors, and librarians. While college presidents and senior executives had the audacity to ask for 20-50% raises last year, they are refusing to spend any of the $188 million surplus that Ontario colleges have this year alone to create a pathway to stable work for at least some of their contract teachers. Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions: Ontario college students, and those who teach them, deserve better.
*Johanna Wright is a contract worker in the college system, her name has been changed.