Transparency in Part-Time Teacher Hire

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My first job in the U.S. back in 1997 was an hourly-paid summer program teaching gig with a for-profit ESL school, that paid $18 per hour for 18 hours of teaching a week. After that came a short stint with another, at $17 an hour for 21 hours of teaching. Soon I was with yet another for-profit ESL school teaching 25 hours a week at $21 per hour. 

The ‘per hour’ part of this is misleading though. What the job ads meant when they posted their hourly rate (if they did) was the rate per contact hour, that is, hours in the classroom. If I had been able to walk into class, teach, and leave, those rates might have been acceptable, but I put  in countless hours outside the classroom getting ready to deliver classes the next day, five days a week, as well as grade and write student evaluations, and talk with students before and after class. How much was I actually working, and what was my actual hourly rate? 

How much do part-time or adjunct instructors work, and what do they make per hour? 

Since each teacher and teaching situation is different, it’s hard to say. But in 2014, the Federal Government issued guidance to higher education institutions on how they should calculate the number of hours worked by part-time or adjunct instructors. (Under the Affordable Care Act, employers were required to provide health insurance for employees working more than 30 hours per week.) For every hour of contact time, the guidance recommended, part-time instructors should be considered to work an additional 1.25 hours in preparation and grading time. (This excluded time in mandatory meetings and office hours, which was to be added to that total.) Given how unwieldy it would be to know how many hours each instructor actually works, the calculation was meant as a rule of thumb. The +1.25 guidance was not mandated, and colleges could put in place any reasonable, defensible calculation of their own; but it was the result of extensive discussions among universities, faculty advocacy groups, and the Federal Government. 

While the guidance was applicable to institutions or 50 or more employees, it nonetheless had interesting implications for how part-time teachers’ hours and pay are calculated. These days, private ESL schools and some university-governed ESL programs continue to post a rate per contact hour. A school that offers $25 per hour on this basis (rates generally haven’t gone up very much since 1997) would, if we followed the federal government’s +1.25 ratio, be offering about $11 per hour worked – which is lower than the minimum wage in almost half of U.S. states.

In university-governed ESL programs, where faculty are often paid by the course rather than by the hour, the rate of pay can be calculated by dividing the total compensation by the number of contact hours, then dividing again by 2.25. A teacher making $3000 for a 30-hour course, for example, earns $100 per contact hour, or less than $45 per hour according to the +1.25 ratio. 

So then, given preparation, grading, and evaluation responsibilities in addition to teaching, how many hours do part-time ESL teachers work? 15 contact hours is not abnormal, but some teach less, and others more: 20 or 25 hours per week are not unusual. At 15 contact hours, the +1.25 ratio gives 33.75 hours total (not including office hours, meetings, and any other obligations). That is, under the Federal Government’s guidance, a part-time instructor teaching 15 hours per week is a full-time employee (over 30 hours) and is eligible for employee-provided health insurance in organizations of 50 or more employees. 25 hours of teaching per week are 56.25 hours of total work according to the +1.25 ratio. 

For much of the 20th century, Berlitz teachers could walk into the classroom and teach with no preparation, given that they needed only to follow the step-by-step material and were not expected to diverge from it. One former Berlitz teacher I knew told me he used to teach 60 hours per week. (He also said it was ‘soul destroying.’) These days teachers are expected to be creative and engaging in the classroom, to know the material and be able to explain it, to have mastery over classroom technology, and in many cases to have learned and use the school’s learning management system. 

The +1.25 guidance is a guideline, and institutions are free to use ‘reasonable methods’ to calculate actual hours worked. This does raise some interesting questions for the ESL industry, especially the private, for-profit sector, where hourly rates tend to be lower: 

  • Is ESL teaching so different from other postsecondary teaching that teachers can regularly teach 20 or 25 hours per week or more? 
  • If ESL classes require far less preparation and grading than other postsecondary courses, what does that say about ESL teaching and the ESL profession?
  • Is ESL teaching easier than teaching other disciplines, requiring less time for preparation and grading? 
  • Or are part-time ESL teachers simply valued less, monetarily, than other instructors at many schools and programs?   

I’ll leave my opinion on these questions for another time. 

In the meantime, ESL school and program leaders might consider the following suggestions: 

  • Appreciate the amount of out-of-class work involved in the good quality teaching they advertise to their prospective students
  • Take into account the actual amount of work required to teach effectively when determining compensation 
  • Investigate whether the +1.25 ratio is reasonable for their program, and if not, explicitly state what is
  • Transparently state compensation and expected hours of work for part-time teaching 

Good hiring and compensation practices attract quality people to the field and help to retain them, thereby building a strong profession. We are still a work in progress. 

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