I recently completed a course in ‘mental first aid training’, that I thought might help me with better responding to my students’ needs, and situations I seem to find myself in as a confessor and ear to students with various serious issues impacting on their studies and their lives. As a sessional, I had to battle a bit to get accepted into the course, which was for ‘all those who have direct contact with students’. Hmm, sounds like something helpful for we casual teaching staff that take on a huge amount of the face to face work with students.
I completed the two day course and enjoyed it. I didn’t learn a whole lot I didn’t know about mental health issues, but I did learn a whole lot about myself. I learnt that this is part of my calling, that being an ear and a consoler for those suffering mental health issues, and in helping to support and encourage them through their course, is a large part of why I do what I do. And why I do it in the way/s that I do. And why I pine for collaborative and supportive work environments, rather than competitive, dismissive and nasty ones.
As a sessional, I have been told – by unions and by sessional, contracted and tenured peers, that I am doing a disservice in spending my time with students when I am not paid for it, not expected to do it, and increasingly, not even entitled to do it. This role belongs to those for whom it is written into their job descriptions, and no matter that they are overworked, have no prior or working relationship with these individuals, or do not have the personality or desire to be a counsellor, I should leave it to them. Somehow this will show that sessionals should be paid for this responsibility if they take it on, that managers and unit chairs are somehow better at this role than sessionals, and administrators are cleared of responsibility because this is made clear to all involved.
Again, as a sessional, I want my story to be heard – that is, a huge part of my satisfaction from my job, and recognition that what I do means something to someone, is through my contact with students. Yes, unpaid time that I put in responding to emails, meeting with students and staying after class, that give me an opportunity to use my skills and to help a student in their time of need. This is time well spent. And I can come home to my family and tell them about this, and they feel proud – that their mother/daughter really cares about who she is working with – they see that this is what gives me some feeling of worth, so different to the rest of the frustrations I come home with.
I have been teaching sessionally for a long time now. I am no longer a poor student trying to support my way through to my PhD. I am an experienced, thoughtful, critical and reflexive practitioner and I am able to use my life experience to both teach and support my students in their journeys. I am not looking for more money, simply some recognition and security in continuing the damned good job that I am doing. But most of all, I do not want my role as mentor, as a willing ear, as a supporter, adviser and voice for my students’ needs and rights to be taken away from me because I am not a ‘real’ or tenured employee.