don't retire, change careers


You got to know when to fold ’em
by Dan Ehrlich

For seniors well past retirement age who think they can offer the present generation the benefit of their experience, one such person had to learn a late-in-life-lesson the hard way.

If you’re a living member of the rapidly declining WWII generation, the biggest challenge you may face is fitting into this Brave New World where just being friendly and doing your job can be one’s undoing in a time of petulant entitled young people who take to the streets when an election doesn’t go their way.

Doing your job? Shouldn’t you be happily retired, attending computer skills lessons at the local senior center? No, not me. But to be honest, some of those desktop publishing classes would have been helpful in an era of media convergence.

I was a 75-year-old journalist of some note who, instead of retiring to AARP ocean cruises, had the self deluded idea of spending my golden years teaching the younger generation about the career field that had given me so much. But, I made the mistake of ignoring today’s reality that the journalism I practiced for more than 50 years had changed and broadened into something out my skill set as had many of the students.

I had to travel nearly 400 miles from Los Angeles to Fremont, California for what was billed as a part-time job as a student newspaper adviser, to learn this hard lesson and one more present day reality: Today the inmates are running the asylum. No that’s not PC…Today the students are running the schools in the classic “customer is always right” working environment, the end result of growing competition among schools for students.

I’ve had a long and often distant love affair with the San Francisco Bay Area ever since attending San Jose State (Class of ’68). The last fun job I had in America before leaving for a long news career in Europe was as sports editor of the Fremont News Register. That paper’s closure in 1972 was my catalyst to a career largely as an international freelance journalist.

That’s why a chance to move back there was a temptation I couldn’t resist even for only a part-time job as an adjunct instructor at Ohlone Community College in one of America’s most expensive rental accommodation areas. Fremont is sort of an annex to Silicon Valley a few miles across the Bay. But with a salary quoted to me of $13,900 for a 17 week semester, why not? After all, I had taught some survey courses at a London university and had been a frequent guest journalism lecturer at various colleges.

I’ll tell you why not. For a newbie to college teaching in the USA there are pitfalls, one of which is the fine print on your contract. It’s one thing when the dean’s assistant writes you what your salary will be and another after a week or two of classes, when students begin dropping those classes and that assured salary begins to disappear. In my case, I wasn’t alerted to this until five weeks after the start of the semester. But that’s for later.

My initial problems were not knowing exactly what my duties would be and about the students whom I would be advising. Being a WWII kid, I had absolutely no experience of the current generation, which is a key to success in teaching now.

Gone are the days of boisterous students standing in a metaphorical corner or being sent to the dean’s office. Today there’s something vaguely reminiscent about Nazi Germany where students are quick to report you to the department heads for any actions or language that deviates from the millennial PC handbook.

And how do you inspire or relate to some students at a two-year college who had been attending four or more years, using it mainly as a safe comfort zone with no serious intention of moving on to a university? I recall one student saying after four years there she was thinking of leaving because students weren’t given Ohlone email addresses.

My idea of the job was that of a watchdog and guide making sure the students didn’t produce libelous stories and kept the school newspaper, The Monitor, running smoothly. And, yes I was also eager to coach, even mentor some aspiring journalists.

Aspiring journalists, a term I found rare at Ohlone since the college didn’t have a well developed journalism program, just one course in news writing. Most of the staffers were pickups from related majors looking for an easy and fun-filled three units. Things became so tough for the Monitor it had to advertise for writers. And that was a major part of the problems I encountered.

When, as with many college and university newspapers, the staff is populated solely by journalism majors who have to work for the paper as part of their degree, they usually make a strong effort to follow instructions, knowing that their grade may depend on how they react to the instructor. Yet, since the Monitor was being composed mainly by non – journalism students who had no intention of a career in the news media, their strongest motivation when hit with criticism of their work wasn’t to speak to me but to drop the class and complain to the dean about the instruction or course content. No student ever complained to me about anything even though I verbally encouraged feedback.

Now this didn’t apply to everyone, just a few students, but enough to cause concern at the dean’s office, which was another curve ball thrown at me. The dean who negotiated my contract and hired me was not the person to whom I would depend on for support, something that would complicate my salary.

When I heard which department I would be under I could only think of Woody Allen’s lines from his film Annie Hall: “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.” Yes, the dean was a gym teacher. For some bizarre reason the same day I arrived the news media classes were transferred from humanities to the Athletics Department. This was my first warning shot of things to come. Who in their right academic mind would place a creative communications class in the Athletics Department?

I began the semester with 16 regular students and three so-called special projects students, people who couldn’t attend what was a workshop class, usually because of other work, but contributed stories to the paper for class credit. After a few weeks that number fell to 11 regulars and two specials. In fact, I never even met or saw some of those who dropped. They were like phantoms on the class roster. My worries were dampened by knowing the former adviser had only seven students on the staff.

Yet, the main problem was having those students attend the Monday, Wednesday, Friday workshops. Normally between nine or 12 would show up. These sessions were mainly to assign stories and allow the staff members to work on them. But, since so many students had to work at outside jobs, for some attending every session was a premium. Recent studies show that most community college students have outside jobs that keep them from full-time attendance.

To help Monitor staff members have access to the newsroom, what was billed as a part-time job instantly became a full-time one with me in attendance from 10 a.m. to around 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. five-days per week, with the exception of Wednesday, the paper’s layout day, which meant around a 13 hour stint ending at midnight or even later and all of this without any additional pay. This was not what I was expecting from retirement work.

As I said, I came from a different generation when a journalist was a reporter/writer and an editor supervised reporters. In an age of media convergence, all that is out the window as are the teaming publication composing rooms staffed by numerous layout artists. Today, it’s all done upstairs by journalists skilled in desktop publishing. I wasn’t one of those people. And in hindsight, I can’t see how I was hired for this “part-time” job. As a noted educationalist explained, millennial students tend to rate a teacher by his or her techno knowledge. I can only guess I received a D grade on this score.

Aside from helping the students with their Monitor assignments, I was supposed to help them layout pages via the Adobe InDesign computer desktop publishing program, which I have never seen before and on iMac computers which I had never before used… On top this I was also expected handle the paid and unpaid advertising in the paper.

When I took over the Monitor class, all but two of the staff from the previous semester had left. The two remaining students were the core of the paper, in as much as one was the editor and both were skilled in the desktop publishing program. Luckily a few of the 14 new staffers were computer design majors and had some knowledge of InDesign.

But I wasn’t out of the woods. It turned out the editor worked during the day and could only attend the class Friday, after the paper had already been published, with her using a green 19 year-old student as her deputy during her absence. In essence, for much of the time the editor became one of the phantom staff members, seldom seen but whose presence was known. This was another curve ball that I hadn’t expected.

I, myself, had hoped to be sort of a phantom, allowing the staff to have total editorial freedom except when I was needed for advice, instruction and the all important post mortem Friday critique of the Monitor. Dream on…The absence of the 22-year-old editor meant I had to be more visible during class hours, including maintaining order at the late Wednesday sessions.

What I found bemusing was that in high school it usually was the fabled jock guys who created havoc in class, yet at college it was a few young women, often acting in class as if they were at a sorority mixer,while the male students worked quietly and diligently. This placed me in the position of a traditional grade school teacher, attempting maintain order and a work atmosphere which some students would dispute. They felt they had the right to behave as they wished. And the customer is always right.

Part of the Monitor experience was teaching students about the workings of a professional news media operation. My attempts to press this idea were apparently rejected by a few staff members who objected to my “heavy handed” methods and the fact I appeared to be taking control of the paper.

What I failed to realize was the power individual students have in a nation where colleges and universities are have sprouted up like weeds. Today the ethos appears to be keeping students happy at all costs. That’s one reason why some students are allowed to endlessly change their majors in an almost eternal attendance at Ohlone. The school can’t afford to lose students. In such a competitive environment the student, while not always right, often has power over the teacher. They can dictate the manner in which they receive instruction and then rate the instructor.

Ohlone College is one of four community colleges within a 12 mile radius. The campus is literally being rebuilt and currently has an enrollment shortfall. This means intense competition for students. So when a few students dropped the class it caused concern among the administration. And when a few of those few complained, not to me, but to the dean, it meant an investigation by the Campus Gestapo, the Human Resources Department.

While I didn’t think there was much to this probe, it coincided with the even more shocking revelation that the salary I was supposed to receive was subject to conditions of which, largely due to being a novice adjunct, I wasn’t aware. When I originally applied for this job I was under the impression it was to be for one class, three days a week, part-time lasting 17 weeks.

It wasn’t until some time after I was hired that I saw the school course listing as having me advising eight classes…that’s right, eight classes…But reading the fine print I learned most of the classes were combined. This still left me with three or four classes, the newspaper, photography and an advertising course, a subject of which I knew little. Ohlone, to enhance its media course offerings, had obviously padded up the classes ascribed to me, classes that, as with some of my students, were phantoms.

“No worry,” is what faculty members told me…They assured me I would only be advising the Monitor class and I left it at that. I left it at that until I was told I wouldn’t be receiving a second paycheck for my second month. What I didn’t know was my gross $13,900 salary was based on teaching two classes, one real one and one phantom class.

My first check netted me $2,299, which was fine…I could pay the rent, expenses and put money in the bank. A month later I was told there had been an error during the departmental change to Athletics. I had been paid double since I was now only teaching one course. I wouldn’t be getting a check at all that month with my ensuing checks for $1,150…meaning after rent I would have $150 per month for living expenses.

It worked like this: If the 16 students I originally had were divided up in two classes, I would be receiving the salary originally quoted to me in writing. But, since most of my students wound up in one class, I would now be getting half of that salary. Had I known better I might have been able to make sure students registered in two different classes.

According to the latest stats, while colleges keep charging students higher tuition fees, they have been drastically cutting back on full-time tenured professors in favor of part-time adjunct instructors. Current figures place tenured full-time instructors at only 35 percent. With a majority of non tenured part-time instructors, schools such as Ohlone can play fast and loose with such faculty.

Looking back at my experience I can’t help thinking of the faculty union rep’s amazement that had I traveled 350 miles for a temporary “part-time” job. Well, again I guess there’s no fool like and old fool, especially in a job dealing with millennial brats who have little respect for their elders, yet expect the world from these very people. One of the late-in-life problems facing my generation is realizing our self-reliance, straight-talk and social interaction isn’t necessarily compatible with today’s entitled youth.

On one hand I wound up doing something I didn’t expect doing for students who complained of my behavior (raising my voice to stop them from raising hell in class) and on the other hand to be told my salary would be half of what I was expecting for doing double the work, with no overtime pay or relocation expenses.

Elder abuse is a crime in California. It’s physical or emotional abuse of elderly people. In the millennial parlance I felt somewhat emotionally abused by my altruistic experience. I was literally thrown in the deep end without any coaching in how to deal with today’s students and the workings of the school.

Given all this, with the new reality I would be losing money and living off my savings staying at Ohlone, I decided to cut and run with a quick contract buyout, a sad lesson learned: I should have taken an AARP ocean cruise. It would have been cheaper and a lot more fun. On the other hand, financially, with the buyout, I wound up in clover.

My advice to seniors who would like to work in education:
• Be sure you know what the job entails
• Be sure you have all the skills needed
• Be sure you know the the type of people with whom you will be dealing
• Be sure you know the conditions of your salary

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