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Liz Sarles's picture
I fell in love with the subject of history when I was a sophomore in high school and that love has guided my professional development for the last 25 years. As much as I enjoy reading, researching...
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In Defense of Part-Time Teaching

 In 2010, I moved to a part-time teaching position at my workplace so that I could start and then raise my family. I spent eight years as a part-time educator, maintaining a 75% status at school while I had my three kids. When I began the adventure of part-time working and mothering, I knew very little about how to straddle the two worlds or if I could be effective in either role. Which of us parents starts the foray of working and child-rearing with any real knowledge? Certainly, there were many moments when I felt frazzled or incapable - pulled in too many directions and lacking the time to fulfill my responsibilities. But there were also many moments when I felt like I had success in both arenas, and sometimes even in a single day - teaching a great class, participating in a lunch debate with students and then spending a happy and laughter-filled afternoon at the beach with my children.

I learned a lot about part-time work in those eight years, both in terms of my own experience and those of my part-time colleagues. Most of them were women, and most were new mothers - but not all. There were also a few teachers who maintained a part-time schedule so that they could follow their passions - be that art, community service, social justice or travel. Yes, I feel personally gratified that I had the luxury of choosing to be at school teaching in the afternoons but home with my kids in the mornings and late afternoons. Yet more than that, I feel like part-time work - at least within educational institutions - should be celebrated. So many of my part-time colleagues contributed significantly to the life of the school and the academic enrichment of their students, and yet sometimes felt marginalized. I know I did. Some full-time teachers made jokes at our expense, asked when we would return to full-time work or seemed to assume that we had more fun or leisure time in our non-work hours.

I remember one particularly frustrating interaction soon after I returned from my second maternity leave. I entered the faculty room right before lunch, planning on finishing my grading before meeting a group of students to prep for a test and then teaching consecutive classes from 12:00-3:15 PM. One of my colleagues saw my wet hair and asked me if I had just showered. I replied yes, and he (yes, it was a man, but those who belittled me were not always) said, “It must be nice to take it easy in the morning and have so much time before starting work.” I saw red. But I simply said, “Not quite.”

For those of us who have young kids and take time off to care for them, we know there is no lazy morning and then long prep time for work. My morning had actually started at 3:45 AM, when I woke up to finish grading US History essays. My five month old work up at 5:30 AM to nurse and my two year old was up only 30 minutes later. We read, had breakfast, took our dog on a walk and then went to music class. My sitter met me at a playground in the late morning and I rushed home to shower quickly and throw on clothes before driving to school. I could not find a hairbrush and I forgot my jacket, so when I actually arrived at school I felt disheveled and wet - which is not really how anyone wants to start work, let alone when you need to stand in front of a group of teenagers. I still had a pile of grading to do and was not fully confident in one of my classes. Yet I knew I needed to gird myself for a mighty afternoon of teaching before returning home to relieve my sitter at 3:45 PM.

Should I have explained the reality to him that day? Perhaps. But I did not want to defend myself or my value as a teacher. Nor did I want to feel like I needed to justify my actions every time I arrived at work “late” or left “early” (neither term applied to me or other part-time workers as we negotiated alternate start and end times).

Every year when contract negotiations rolled around, the senior administrators would begin with a request for me to return to full-time status. Every year for seven years, I replied no and then negotiated over my 75% status. My supervisors explained that part-time teachers could not contribute to the school in the same way as full-time teachers and that the community suffered as a result. I bought into this argument early on, but my desire to be at home with my children outweighed my commitment to constructing the ideal school environment. Because of this, I was often timid and even apologetic in the early contract meetings. I asked for things and used soft language. Yet as time went on, I stopped saying “I’m sorry” and started defining my importance to the school - and to my family.

Part of my improving negotiation skills came with the confidence that grew as I became accustomed to these meetings. But much of it came with my increasing belief in the value of part-time work. Maybe we weren’t at school for as long as full-time teachers, but when we were there we were on - teaching, prepping, grading, advising, leading student clubs or participating in faculty meetings. Many of us felt like we did not have time to spare or procrastinate, and so we utilized all of the minutes we had at school.

In no way am I trying to argue that my full-time colleagues were not giving their all to their jobs. Nor am I proffering the idea that I worked as many hours as they did. I am sure I did not. Some of the members of my department put in 60 or more hours a week, if you factor in prepping for classes, curriculum construction, grading papers and responding to e-mails from parents and students. I have only the utmost regard for their dedication to their work and their care for the students.

But just because they worked more should not diminish the value or responsibilities of those of us who chose to go part-time. Keep in mind that we are also paid less, so there is a level of fairness at play here. And, in fact, I think there are many arguments to be made for what part-time work allows in terms of focus and drive. While part-time work benefitted my family, I also think it benefitted my school. I was a better teacher and worker because of my 75% status.

In many ways, I think of my professional life in terms of pre-children and after-children. Before I became a mother, I threw myself into every activity at school possible – teaching, coaching, advising, chaperoning, etc. After I had my three kids, I realized that I needed to choose my activities more carefully and involve myself in those classes and extracurriculars where I could really dedicate my time and efforts. I worried about shortchanging students by spreading myself too thin; I wanted to focus on those responsibilities that I could attend to in full.

Interestingly, with this added focus in those eight years, my teaching went from good to great. Feedback from students and teachers echoed this development. In not being pulled in multiple directions and always running from one activity to the next, I had the time to pour over lesson plans, create and then re-create simulations, try out new teaching methodologies, meet with individual students outside of class on a regular basis, research technologies and methodologies for meeting students of While I lost connection to students outside of my classes or extracurricular activities, I pushed so much of my energy into supporting the 45 students I did have. In stepping away from certain activities, part-time teachers move from breadth to depth - in terms of responsibilities, but also in terms of relationships with those under our care. I had more time to meet with individual students, respond to their emails, edit their essays, talk with them after class and invest in their connection to the material and the class.

I also now have a greater understanding for how to not lose myself in the myriad of possible paths that emerge daily at a secondary school, and how to focus on the tasks at hand and make an impact. I would like to think that straddling the worlds of mother and teacher pushed me to handle stresses and multiple demands with grace and expertise.

Finally, those of us who teach part-time are often excited about being at work and really find joy in the hours or days that we are there. This is particularly true for those of us who are parenting small children. Taking a break from the demands of babies and toddlers and getting a chance to engage in discourse and intellectual debate and laughing and energy…it’s in some ways a break, and it keeps us active and excited about teaching and learning. When I showed up for my classes, I was so My youngest child will be in Kindergarten next year and I plan on returning to work full-time. I am excited about this prospect, as I know I will feel more connected to my school and the faculty. I will do so, however, holding onto all that I learned as a part-time worker.