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In defense of Indiana’s “adjunct teacher” bill

HB 1251 and SB 356 are floating around the halls of the Indiana General Assembly. Both are trying to define what it might look like if Indiana’s K-12 schools allowed adjunct teachers. The notion being a chemist might do well to teach chemistry and a historian might do well to teach history.

Doug Masson hates the bill, saying:

At root, this is a declaration that teaching is not a profession. Understanding how different kids learn, knowing how to assess their current level of understanding and communicate the new information based on learning styles and existing sets of knowledge, etc. is incidental. Any geek off the streets who’s spent 4,000 hours reading John Grisham novels, can be a reading teacher. Not incidentally, this looks like a way to water down collective bargaining contracts. 

Thing is, I’m not so sure this bill is a bad idea. For one, I used to be an adjunct teacher. I think the root of this bill is simply there aren’t enough teachers. I really don’t think legislators are scheming to undermine the profession of teaching. Why there aren’t enough teachers is, perhaps, a result of their own actions. But for now, I don’t think it’s trying to undermine teachers.

Back when I taught at Ben Davis University, I was an adjunct teacher through Vincennes University. BDU had licensed K-12 teachers in the traditional mold teaching language arts, math, and other “core” high school subjects. VU, as part of conferring an early Associate’s Degree on students, had adjunct faculty teaching things in medicine, IT, and other vocations and trades. I taught graphic design and web development.

I liked this setup because as an adjunct I didn’t have to deal with parents, licensing, endless meetings about curriculum or “outcomes”, and a host of other stuff no teacher who is a teacher has ever thought helpful. I focused on my lessons, my students, and had a good time with them. I think the students appreciated it. My proudest achievement was taking a former syllabus that was designed to teach HTML via Notepad and chucking it out the window. Instead of useless “Hello, world!” exercises the students knew were hokey and dumb, I created a course that taught design in the first semester and development in the second. Because there is no state standard for web and graphics design, I was able to put my students through a course that mimicked what professionals did. And I had a network of other professionals and resources, like web servers, I could use to back it up for the whole year.

It was aggressive since the former syllabus didn’t even bother to question, “How do we make websites that look good?” But I knew I had a good plan and a good hook: “You can make money doing this. Right now.” And many took that opportunity, albeit with friends-of-the-family connections. I was told weeks later that students who had discipline problems were in my classroom and I had no idea who they were. In fact, I was surprised to hear it. “Really? They hit someone?” Maybe I got lucky, but for all the classes I had, I had students that were keenly interested in what we were talking about.

I pushed my students hard. I even came in on a Saturday before finals to a full classroom, ordered pizza for everyone, and let them work in the labs (software and computer access was a challenge, given the subject. Not everyone has Photoshop lying around at home.)

None of this would have happened if I had to go through the typical teaching channels. I was never going to get a traditional license or a Master’s degree in education for this. But to teach a class on something I know a lot about every Tuesday and Thursday morning for a couple hours? Sure, why not. You might argue we’d never let cops do that, but we do for lots of professions. Firefighters being one example. Given the pay I was getting, it sure felt like volunteering.

I do not doubt Doug is correct that of the people hired as adjuncts many will have no understanding of classroom management or learning styles. I didn’t. But I also do not believe the teachers that are teaching some subjects like business, IT, programming, and other semi-vocational skills are themselves experts at their subject matter. And students can suss out when they’re being patronized or a textbook is outdated, or the skills being taught don’t match what they see in the real world.

From my vantage point, I wonder, which would you rather have teaching you woodcraft, computer programming, or even English: a teacher who spent 15 years in the classroom, or a teacher who spent 15 years honing that craft? Teaching is also a craft, but I don’t think most people would opt for the “teacher” in every circumstance.

Further, my experience is many teachers in the programming, technology, and design spaces were completely overwhelmed. A teacher at a large Indy-area school once asked me for help and I spent weekends in his classroom to help him understand what he was teaching. “My school gave me this textbook and asked me to teach it. I have no idea about any of this. I taught accounting before this,” he told me.

Every high school web and programming teacher I’ve ever sat around for more than a minute has told me some variation of this and asked me for help. It’s also clear the State’s licensing has put them into that corner. “Business” licenses have ballooned to cover everything from typing to accounting to C++.

I probably won’t win the hearts and minds of many of my former teachers with this notion. But I tend to follow David McCullough’s oft-repeated thinking that we have a generation of students who are, in his mind, illiterate about history. That despite being surrounded by wonderful teachers, we need less “education about education” and more education from people who are passionate about their field of expertise.

I greatly enjoyed many of my high school English teachers. But if Kurt Vonnegut came along to teach high school English, that’s a class worth serious consideration. Likewise, if David McCullough could have taught me history, what a memorable class that could have been.

“Justin, Vonnegut and McCullough aren’t here. We’re talking about who-knows-who in our classrooms!” I understand. But I don’t understand how that’s much different from a university classroom, of which many of these students are a year or two away from. Some of my best teachers were adjuncts. And some of my worst were adjuncts, too. But it’s a mixed bag in every classroom no matter how they get there.

HB 1251 and SB 356 might not be great for every classroom, or even every school district. The bills probably need to limit adjuncts to specific subjects or credit types, only in high schools, and probably on a provisional or year-to-year basis to give building principals the ability to remove underperformers quickly.

I had an excellent chemistry and biology teacher in high school. I’m not sure where Salem could have possibly sourced someone more qualified. But if an Indy-area school can source someone who has built a career working at Eli Lilly and wants to teach high school chemistry in a school that’s struggling to find chemistry teachers, why close that opportunity? Students might do well seeing and hearing from someone with obvious interest, career success, and love for the work.

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Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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