I got into higher education accidentally, but I was hooked after my first week. It was one of the more difficult things I’d done at 26, but teaching writing to college freshmen and sophomores was rewarding in ways nothing else had ever been. The first time a student came back to class to tell me he’d gotten a job using the résumé I’d helped him write was euphoria
For that reason, among others, I hesitate to write this.
After moving to Atlanta two years ago, I began teaching part time with a major university. I was given a small office in which I could meet with students, the syllabi I created were challenging and excited me, and my colleagues were wonderful. The salary was minimal, but I went in with the hope of getting a full-time position after a few years.
The first two semesters were a dream.
My third semester, I went into my “English Composition II” class with high hopes. Eventually, though, I realized there could be a problem.
Two students, brothers, sat in the front row. They towered over me at well over 6 feet each and were likely close to my age. They rarely spoke, but when they did, the comments were often inappropriate and sometimes nasty or hurtful to other students.
The behavior progressed to giving offensive and off-topic presentations and calling other students names. Some students complained, and I often had to take the brothers aside for a chat.
Then the behavior turned toward me. The day one of the brothers cursed at me using a racial slur and threatened me was the day I told him to leave class. His brother followed.
The behavior continued from both brothers until I had to make my dean aware. I found out it wasn’t the first time one or both of them had used racial slurs and threatening behavior, particularly toward young female instructors. After I had much discussion with my dean and other higher-ups, virtually nothing was done.
The brothers didn’t receive disciplinary action (nor did they in other instances), and they were moved to another class. The school did suggest, however, that security walk with me to and from my office and my car.
It went on for months. I didn’t want to go to work anymore.
Later in the same semester, I was teaching when a police officer knocked on the door and served me with papers. The students were suing me for kicking them out of class.
When I finished teaching that day, the police escort picked me up and walked me through the parking lot, and I cried in my car.
The lawsuit was dismissed, but that’s not the point. I had to go to court, and the students stayed in school with no disciplinary action. I heard through some colleagues that the school was likely worried about being sued the school and getting bad press.
But what about me? The university thought the brothers were enough of a threat to have security escort me through the halls and to my car, but not enough of a threat to discipline them or even issue a warning. The students were clearly in charge, and they knew it.
I felt virtually no support from the school. That was the last time I taught on campus; I’ve been teaching online since.
It hasn’t been more than a decade since I was in school, but there has been a shift. I didn’t work for a school or a dean these past two years; I worked for and answered to students. I’ve even taught at universities where student ratings of a professor determine a raise.
Maybe I should have stuck it out. Maybe I’ll be back. Maybe not.
I miss being in the classroom, the smell of a new textbook and how wonderful my colleagues were. I even miss my small office.
But I won’t be scared to go to work, and the power-dynamic pendulum in higher education is swinging the wrong direction. I have things to teach a full classroom of incoming freshmen, and perhaps one day I’ll be able to do so.