A Day in The Life of an Adjunct Instructor

great teacherIf you have been following me for a while, you know I have been teaching writing as an adjunct instructor at the local community college for the past two years. I’d like to share something that happened in my class yesterday. I have a couple of darling male students who wanted to play the game, “Stump the Instructor.”  I realized what they were doing right away because I’ve been down this path before. I’m happy to tell you, the game was over as soon as it started when I flat out told them, “I don’t know everything. Look it up.”

I continued the class by telling him, “I don’t know everything about everything. But I know more about writing and English grammar than you do, otherwise you wouldn’t be sitting here.”  Done.

I think teachers who set themselves up as omniscient beings are asking for trouble. Even grade school children go to work to prove their parents and teachers are wrong about something. This is the very reason I tell my classes I don’t know everything. I tell them I make mistakes once in a while. I do so because it makes me human, and a better teacher.  My role is to coach and guide them through the class, instead of parking myself on some know-it-all pedestal. I want my feet firmly on the ground to connect with my students. I do this by sharing it wasn’t so long ago I was sitting in their seat. I tell them I was an adult student just like they are now, and say I understand they have other responsibilities in their life, which can throw a monkey wrench into their worlds once in a while. In the next breath, also share I graduated from college Magna Cum Laude in four years with two children and a part-time job. In other words, I subliminally say, “There are no excuses. If you want an education,  you will find a way to get it done.”

I know one of the best things they can do for themselves is to show up. When they are in class, they have the benefit of my experience. I give them tips on how to approach an exam, how to take good notes, and encourage them to ask “why?” As we go through the textbook from week to week, I try give them memory aids I’ve made up. Like ABIOOTU, which is my made up word for all two-letter prepositions. Then there’s the tried and tested, “I before E, except after “C” jingle.” And once in a while, I come up with something new. I before E

Yesterday as I stood at the white board explaining the difference between infinitives and prepositional phrases beginning with the word “to,” I had a spontaneous inspiration. I said,  “Here’s a Barbara tip  — the “V” in the word INFINITIVE tells you “to” is paired with a VERB, where as, the word PREPOSITION has an “N” so in this case, “to” is paired with a NOUN.” I realized I am a  frickin’ impromptu genius!

I love when my creativity has the chance to inspire others who want to learn. I even love teaching  students who still are lumps of clay, not sure if they want to learn. But I despise students who come to class only to collect their financial aid and have no intention of learning because they not only want cheat the system. Little do they know, they are cheating themselves, too.

So on it goes, from one class to another, from one textbook chapter to the next. Learning happens somewhere in the process. I can only hope that some of the things I try to teach will stick.

83 thoughts on “A Day in The Life of an Adjunct Instructor

  1. Well, how about that! I learned something new today. Can I come sit in your class. Infinitives and prepositons. I used to have all the prepositions memorized. The difference, I didn’t know. It’s a good day today! Thanks.:)

      • Thanks, my friend. It is so exciting to be recognized in this way. I can’t believe the response. It’s taken me almost two hours to go through all the comments, likes and “I’m following your blog” emails. I’m not complaining, just saying . . .


  2. I had to laugh when I read this and realized that @freshlyPressed tweeted that you were an ” adjust instructor” Of all bloggers to slip a typo in on – It’s ok, part of the reason I stopped by was to see what that meant. Now I’ve learned something that may help me with my struggle with grammar – thanks.

  3. I am 53 years old and I still remember my favorite teachers from grade school through college. A good teacher is a great influence for the rest of one’s life. A good teacher injects curiosity and enthusiasm into a student–they should want to go to the library and learn even more.

  4. I too was an adjunct professor for a couple of colleges. I did Strategies and a Literature Class. I noted to the class that sometimes an idea can differ in how I look at something, and how they look at something. I tried but some of them were so prejudice that it sometimes made difficulties in the classroom and that was with adults. I found some of my best students were military. They seemed to be drilled that education had meaning and the prejudice edges had worn off. Keep up your good work. After forty years of teaching I can report to you that I learned, the one person who you thought learned nothing could be the one who really did learn something. Good luck, Barry

    • Thanks Barry — I know what you mean about adult students being prejudiced. Usually it’s because former teachers told them they weren’t worth the effort. I start all of my sections telling the class I know they are all smart–just a little rusty–and we can rub off the rust and they will go away with a new, shiny paint job. I prohibit negativity in my class; there’s too many nay-sayers in our world.

      • I love your rust analogy. By the way if you can use any of my short stories or tidbits in class I would be honored. You have my permission. At least it will get a conversation going. The best, Barry

  5. I feel sorry for English 101 professors. When I was in that class at my local community college, at least half the “students” liked to play that old middle-school game of “let’s see how much time we can spend off-task today”. The disruptions were even worse if we had an adjunct professor. Of course, now that CLEP has been invented, nobody who “knows it all” about English and grammar has to take English 101, but this crowd seemed content to stay in the class and complain about it. I spent most of the semester kicking myself that I didn’t CLEP out of English 101, as I easily could have. It was really a good thing that I didn’t though, because the teacher recommended me to be a tutor at the end of the semester.

  6. You are discussing something my mother taught me over and over, it was why she had a good name in business and as a teacher. She was willing to admit she did not know something and tell you she would get back to you or tell you how to get the information. This trait and skill led her to become a leading name in her field of choice and a fascinating person to learn from. It was rare that people would be upset with that response, but when they felt she should act like she knew everything about any related topic, she preferred not to work with them. Honesty, what a useful skill.

      • Agreed on all counts. 🙂 I never have understood why people and businesses cannot see the extra time and effort it may take to be honest and to look things up make more difference than the effort could ever amount to. How many people would choose a business, or a class simply based on their good name? Besides, it’s just the honorable thing to do.

  7. One thing they teach you in law school is never pretend to know something you don’t. It could be disastrous. Great tip on handling the stump the teacher game. I’ve started teaching writing at a senior center, and it’s a whole new world of fun for me!

  8. Very nice way to respond to “stump the teacher” and by the way I love “i before e expect after C” and sing it on a regular basis. Here’s my question though, do you have any tips on how to help adult EFL students why we use certain prepositions over others? I find it tough to explain why we can get angry with or at someone but not angry on someone. Also, what is the rule about “I tell her” not “I tell to her” but “I say to her” not “I say her”.

    • Like I confessed, I do not have all the answers–and you probably are much more educated in the area of teaching than I am. However, think of prepositions as locations and directions. Then, being angry “on” someone doesn’t make sense. The “I tell her” versus “I tell to her” — I have no rule. Good luck with the quest.

  9. magic always come from spontaneous inspiration, haha i think English grammar is also complex as Chinese grammar, because i’m a Chinese girl

  10. Wow! Now, I know why you’re blog post being freshly pressed. There is substance to this post that everyone can use while living. It’s really cool that you’re really honest about the things you can’t do and being very bold about the things you can do.


  11. Speaking as a student, professors like you are the bees knees, the cream of the crop. I’d go as far to say professors like you are even “the shit”! When I connect with a professor, I connect with their lessons. Congrats on the fresh press!

  12. I agree with the idea that teachers who set themselves up to be some sort of omniscient being, are in for trouble. I don’t pretend to know everything, and I certainly tell my students that fact. When I am stumped for an answer, I tell my students, “I don’t know” and “Let’s find out together”. I’m an ESL teacher and that means I have to teach grammar. It’s difficult to explain some grammatical concepts in a way students can understand. I have lots of reference books on my desk available for use. I try and find different worksheets, games and other activities to use as aides.

    • It sounds like you’re a terrific teacher. Anyone who goes out of their way to enrich students by traveling different avenues in addition to textbooks to get the point across is tops in my book. I once had a gifted professor who could give multiple examples of demonstrating complex communication theories in as many ways as there were students. He was amazing!

      • Thank you! I try to improve myself as a teacher everyday, and continuously look for ways to do just that. I have a wonderful network of friends here in Andong who are also ESL teachers. We love to bounce ideas and tips off of each other. My parents are both teachers, and my dad said that teachers aren’t perfect, and they shouldn’t try to be. Teachers should try to be the best they can, and be there for their students when they need help. I have no idea what the “perfect teacher” is like, but I know that i will do what I can to bring out the best in my students. I’m not always successful at teaching English, but if my students can at least learn how to be a better person, I’m satisfied.

  13. The best professor I had viewed his mission as guiding each of us to be independent scholars who could analyze a given problem, come up with alternative solutions, and then argue for the one that fit best. He compared it to a country woodworker he knew and the old master/journeyman/apprentice relationship. You learn from those who have gone ahead and are willing to come back and show you their way, not that it can’t be improved. Much later, his wife, who shared this approach, won the Nobel Prize … in a field other than her own.
    Still, each of us needs to master the basics. Sounds like you’re instilling both.

    • Thanks for sharing your story about your best teacher. I stand in front of my classes and give my best and hope something stays with them. It’s a bit like throwing spaghetti at the wall.

  14. I teach in a high-ability all-girls’ school. By and large, the girls are respectful of us teachers except for one or two who try to ‘test’ your knowledge. Unfortunately, the latter belong to the group of students who tend to give us a mocking look and spread information like how we don’t know a certain thing onto Twitter like wildfire. Any tips on how you handle these kinda students?

    • Like a said, I don’t have all the answers. Maybe you could encourage them to be smart in class — and upfront tell them you don’t know everything, just more than they do in the classes you teach. It’s worked for me. And I could give a damn about Twits on Twitter.

    • Thanks for you comment. Texting isn’t as much of a problem as I anticipated. I just made it clear they couldn’t turn in a paper written in text-ease.

  15. I know exactly what you mean. I just left my teaching job. I loved teaching history and literature but always found grammar really, well, boring. I did my best to punch it up, but eight hours of summer SAT courses per day can take their toll.

    We need motivated teachers. Great post!

  16. So much in here reminds me of my stints as an adjunct teacher of English. I’ve taught at both community colleges and a rather posh university, and by far I prefer the community college crowd. My first semester doing so, I of course had a perfectly-curated reading list, interesting writing assignments, enthralling topics of discussion planned out for the whole semester, and expectations galore of watching a room full of “lumps of clay” grow into passionate writers as in love with words as I was(am).

    By the third meeting, I’d scrapped 75% of what I’d planned, and was giving a half-hour lecture on the comma.

    Once I readjusted my expectations of them, we had a great class. Encouraging students to ask “why,” as you put it, is one of the things I miss most about teaching. A lot of my community college students had never been encouraged in that particular way before, as many of them had been passed through the k-12 system just by keeping their heads down, and it was among the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced to see people realize that it was not just okay to ask question everything – including me, their teacher – but actually a good thing.

    Thanks for a great post. Good luck with your class – they’re lucky to have you, I’m sure.

    • Thanks so much for your comments. It’s nice to hear someone else has experienced the joy of seeing dull bulbs grow bright–knowing that someone thinks they are smarter than they believe. I have one student who grew up in the Chicago projects, served time in prison and this same man has shown he has a unique voice in his writing which merits praise. In fact, today, I asked him to read a piece he wrote to the class. His writing is so fresh, I encourage him to think about doing more with his writing. He’s a perfect diamond who only needs some polishing.

  17. There is a lot of pressure to know everything while teaching. It took me a while to learn how to be authoritative on my subject, but be willing to learn more from students.
    Also, everything is better with a good analogy or song.

  18. I love how you realize that being real and being respected go hand in hand. Your students can trust what you teach them all the more.

  19. Pingback: A Day in The Life of an Adjunct Instructor | e-teaching forum

  20. One of my favorite Einstein quotes is, “never commit to memory anything that can be easily looked up”. I may be paraphrasing a bit here but that’s the gist of it.

  21. I was an adjunct for a while, too. I taught remedial English and study skills at a for-profit college. I loved teaching, but hated the (sham) school. I had the same philosophy, but my students rarely tried to stump me on purpose. But sometimes they did anyway. I caught myself often saying, “Hm. I’m not sure about that but I’ll do some research and let you know next time.” Then I did.
    It led to one of the nicer compliments I had in my class reviews. Students said they liked that I could admit when I didn’t know something. I think it’s odd (sad) that it has become a rare-ish trait.
    I also was an adult returning student and they could relate to that, too.
    I’m about to start grad school so I can teach more interesting subjects at better places!

  22. I’m currently temporary faculty at a relatively small university. Unlike a lot of the teachers who’ve posted here, I don’t teach English or writing but rather statistics. Still, this post really spoke to me. Especially this phrase: “I love when my creativity has the chance to inspire others who want to learn. I even love teaching students who still are lumps of clay, not sure if they want to learn.” I teach an introductory stats class that’s required for most majors and therefore get a lot of different types of students. I love it when I get students who aren’t initially excited about the material but over the course of the semester really get into it. I really enjoy feeling like I’ve introduced them to something that they may not have ever gotten into.

    The best you can do as a teacher is show your passion for the material through teaching and hope that it inspires at least some of your students.

    Excellent post, and good luck with your class!

  23. Great article, I find teaching to be a very challenging yet rewarding career. You should see the look on my statistics students faces….priceless.

    • I do not have an email list, however I added the Widget for people to opt in to receive an email when I post something. My biggest influx of readers came after I was awarded a “Freshly Pressed” recognition from the WordPress editor. Good luck with your blog, and I promise I will take a stroll through your words. Thanks for you comment.

  24. As a fellow teacher, I enjoyed your post, and loved your short cut for remembering prepositional phrases and infinities. I could never teach that well – I knew what they were but didn’t have a nice shortcut like the “i before e” classic.

    I agree with your assertion that it’s best to say you don’t know it all. That’s always been my mantra. A teacher is a guide in learning how to learn and make sense of information, not just a provider of direct information. Sadly, some students want to be spoon-fed, they don’t want to think critically.

    Ah, the challenges of teaching in today’s world.

    Congrats on being FP’d! Enjoy the ride 🙂

    • Some students not only want to be spoon-fed, they also want you to digest it for them. Such people don’t make it in my class. They’ll have to try again with another teacher until they realize they must pick up the spoon and feed themselves.

  25. Fellow community college adjunct here! One of the best pieces of advice I received when I first started teaching was, “Just be real with them. They can tell when you’re putting on an act.” I think this is along the same lines of admitting we don’t know everything and that we, too, make mistakes. We even have the same writing struggles as them! I make a point of letting my students know that education isn’t about knowing everything all the time; it’s about understanding how to find the answers to the questions that perplex us. Education should be more about exploration than memorization.

  26. I notice, that I learn something new everday even in my native language. Even during teaching something, I notice, what I do or do not know. Knowing everything would be boring.

  27. Great blog. I had a lot of Adjunct professors’ while going through college; I found them more human, more entertaining, and wanting to teach than the ones who worked F/T.

  28. Mccloskey,

    This is spot on about certain professors setting themselves up for failure after trying to seen as a all knowing source of information on everything. I have seen it and it simply does not work plus was annoying as all get out in undergrad. I am in my second semester of teaching as an adjunct professor of biology at my local community college so I very much appreciated this! I love the students who come in during office hours just to argue. The chair of my program taught me a little process when dealing with these upcoming hooligans, and the aid seekers. I try your trick of the “I do not know everything, look it up,” but then follow up with the comment, “Follow up with me I’m interested in what you have to say so let me know what you find next class.” They feel dumb, and now have an extra work load and all for trying to make their professor look uneducated. And beyond that I have learned a few things by having students look it up and share with the class.

    Have a wonderful 4th!


  29. Reblogged this on The Harold Lounge and commented:
    A little something for y’all to read. Goes to show me that an adjunct instructor = full-time instructor = dedicated instructor = instructor

  30. I can understand, I am a financial aid director for a college and work with students all day long too- its amazing the stories that come from college life

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