Friday, December 5, 2014

Life as a Freeway Flier: University ESL teaching in California

            Today my co-worker strolled into our wing of desks (there are numerous wings of desks in a gigantic space of 50+ teachers) and said “Marie’s here today!” I sarcastically rolled my eyes at him and said, “I’m here! At least I think I am.”

            This semester, I have almost forgotten that I am a freeway flier because I have partly become very comfortable with my schedule and partly because I don’t even know what planet I’m on most days anyway. During my first months shuffling between 2 schools this year I actually got on the wrong freeway in the morning-- 4 times. But for the most part, I’ve been pretty successful sticking to the 5 North and 8 East. A while back in 2012 I was working at 3 schools in one semester. I taught in a tiny language school in La Jolla from 9am-1pm. Then I drove 20 minutes east and worked for 3 hours tutoring in an ESL/English lab from 1:30-4:30pm at a local community college. After that I hopped right back on the freeway to go teach a 3 hour night class at another community college up north. The drive up there was during rush hour traffic and it took me 1 hour. I usually ate dinner and relaxed in my car from 5:30-5:45pm and then rushed inside the teacher’s room to make copies for my class. Class went from 6:00pm-8:50pm and I drove home. 45 minutes later I wound up home around 10:00pm and started planning my classes for the next day.

            I drove 90 miles a day. The total time ended up being 2.5 hours a day with the 5pm rush hour traffic thrown in. I was a true freeway flier.

            You may be asking me, why on earth did you sign up for that kind of schedule? It just kind of fell in my lap and I couldn’t say no. As a part timer, I had classes canceled on me earlier in the semester that were my main source of income. So I kept tutoring for a little cash, got another gig at a language school, and a few weeks later was asked to teach a night class. When you are trying to get into community colleges and universities in adult education, you never say no. You also never quit a job once you have begun a semester. Your students depend on you to succeed and you have a duty to serve them. So even with my outstanding history of being a no girl, (because I know my worth) I had to get over myself and say yes.

            Luckily my schedule as a freeway flier now is nothing like it was during that wild spring in 2012. I teach at a community college up in northern San Diego 2 days a week. The 45 minute drive up there does take a toll, however I skip all of the traffic these days since I leave at 7 am. I lucked out with 2 back-to-back classes, which never happens in the part-time world, and I’m back home by 1:30 – 2:30 everyday. I cut out right after my office hours to avoid the 3pm deadlock. When I get home I immediately start planning lessons/grading for the next day.

            The next morning I get to sleep in since I teach in the afternoon at the other University 2-3 days a week. I usually feel pretty relaxed because I’ve had time to unwind al little and I drive a quick 20 minutes to the campus. I teach from 1:00-6:00pm and go straight home to pig out. The quick turn around from Tuesday night classes to Wednesday morning is sometimes tricky, however if I’ve planned ahead and made all of my copies I’m usually fine the next morning.  The key to my success this semester is that I am not a “double dipper,” meaning I don’t do two colleges on the same day.

            The freeway flier life is definitely a tough one. I have no stability when it comes to classes. If a class suddenly has low enrollment and gets cancelled then that’s it. I’m simply out of a class to teach until the next semester rolls around. Once you have been in the part-time game for a while, you start to learn which classes and schools do and don’t have issues with enrollment. Luckily I’ve gotten set up with classes now that seem to always be fed by eager students. We actually had students’ waitlisted this semester for an introductory academic writing class.

            Some days I feel like I’m a crazy person and don’t know where I am. I’ve not only been a freeway flier, but a plane hopper over the past 4 years. Hopping from Korea, to Japan, to Macau, and to the U.S. in between, working so many gigs in a short time frame, has been intense to say the least. However, I feel so blessed to have learned about so many different programs, curriculums, and projects along the way. Some mornings I wake up and still think I’m in China. Other mornings I remember waking up in China and asking myself “What on earth and I doing here right now?” So when my co-worker made that comment to me this morning, I had the same question. I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was.

            Some days aren’t so bad at all as I cruise down the freeway and slowly make a mental transition. At some point while I’m driving home for 45 minutes, I begin to leave the college classes I taught behind and start thinking about the university classes at the other school for the next day. A gradual shift happens where I debrief from the days’ lessons and start to focus on planning the next day’s events. I don’t even think about my classes up north until the next day comes to an end and vice versa. My mind shifts and I feel just fine.  I get to reflect on what went well in my lessons and what didn’t and I usually come to some kind of realization that what I accomplished was meaningful. Some days I’m even happy to be a freeway flier because the sense of freedom that comes with not having a salary. I don’t have to be at my job from 9-5pm everyday. I make my own hours and show up whenever I want. When I decide its time to go home, I leave. That is something that I see as a great benefit. If I want to go home and lesson plan and grade in my pajamas I can. Though I’m not salaried, I make a pretty good combination of paychecks that allow me to live decently in San Diego. My patchwork of jobs has somehow worked out.

            I definitely won’t continue as a freeway flier forever; though job market for full-time ESL teachers in California is virtually non-existent.  I’m happy to serve my time in the departments that have given me so much support and training as I  patiently wait out my turn for a full-time position. I’m young, and with only 4.5 years of teaching under my belt still have much to learn. So for now, life goes on. I’ll keep flying around on freeways and flying around on airplanes as much as I can to support myself in this insane field. I have no plans to go back abroad right now, but who knows. The last time I came home from Japan I told myself I was back in California for good.  My days abroad were over. However, after the 90 mile a day driving schedule and class cancelations, I hopped right back on a plane headed to Macau. And my year in Macau was the most rewarding year abroad yet in terms of my profession and personal life.

Time will tell if I can make my mark here in California and get hired on as a contract instructor. Until then, I’ll be flying up and down the I-5 and I-8 and everything else in between all while enjoying the coastal views and some techno music too. (Gotta get pumped up for class right!)

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  Creative Commons License  Gone Seoul Searching by Marie Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

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