Too educated to be needed in a new society
How a Ph.D. found herself working at a third-rate coffee shack post-Covid
Education is an interesting field. Since I began teaching in 1990 I have witnessed every possible iteration of meet-the-standard-but-differentiate in policies — always from the top down. Always with good intentions, but we all know where those lead.
After 25+ years in the field, I thought perhaps I could do more good teaching teachers. I always managed to adapt to whatever came my way; maybe I could show early career teachers how to maintain their individuality while still finding ways to appease the politics inherent in administration, districts, states, and national boards of education.
The Masters in Education degree was fun. Really fun. I loved being a student again and the four-semester program flew by. Midway into the M.Ed. I decided that to really do what I wanted to do, I needed a terminal degree. I chose Ph.D. I’m a thinker and a visionary, so the theoretical and philosophical aspects appealed to me. And a Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning had to have applications beyond education, right? One would think.
I had taken out student loans for my Master’s degree and was adamant about not adding any more debt. I landed a perfect graduate assistantship that gave me great experiences working and advising students while still allowing time to do my studies. The dissertation decision was a hard one. I was really interested in using online space for English Language Arts, and the general topic was new and exciting. It just took forever for me to settle on a study that was feasible and teacher-focused, not student-focused. I finally came up with an idea that would match my desire to include online spaces, my interest in arts-integration, and teaching. In fits and starts, I got it done and defended. I was a newly minted Ph.D. at 54.
What I didn’t know at the time was that my years of classroom experience weren’t enough to land a university position. Universities want and need people with specific research agendas, multiple publications, and the ability to successfully write grants. I had a couple of publications and several professional presentations, but my goal of teaching teachers how to meet imposed standards while maintaining their professional identities through arts-based projects in online spaces just didn’t sell. It may have been the way I packaged myself. It may have been my personality; I can come on pretty strong when I am enthusiastic or passionate about something. It may have been my age or the places I interviewed with already had someone in the department with a similar interest in the “new literacies” of the internet. Or it just might have been my limited publications and failure to write any grants ever, not even for my dissertation study. There’s no way to really know why I wasn’t ever the “right” fit; I just wasn’t.
And then from nowhere, I get a call from a university 2000 miles away desperate for someone to fill a hole, and would I be willing to relocate temporarily? I was willing, and, leaving my husband and adult children behind, took a one-year contract teaching teachers. I taught courses on how to teach writing, write unit plans, create research, compose literature reviews, and how to be a rock star teacher. It was fun and rewarding and I was in my element. I left class happy. I had fantastic colleagues who were a pleasure to be around.
And then Covid19.
My experiences with online education came in handy as I was able to quickly revise my lessons to meet the needs of my students, most of whom were having to also transform overnight into internet-based teachers. I stopped grading, turning every assignment into complete/incomplete, and eliminating every possible stressor. We all survived the semester. When the university decided to remain remote for the 20–21 school year, they also extended my contract and I moved back home to continue my career as a remote assistant professor. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked. Sadly, for me, the contract ended when the university decided to return to face-to-face instruction. Still, I had two years of university experience on my resume, and I was confident I would have a position by the beginning of the 21–22 year.
2020 changed things. Covid interrupted everything, and the fallout (political, mental, medical, social) altered perspectives and realigned priorities for everyone. Add to the pandemic an unleashing of racial strife and violence, and suddenly a professor whose research agenda is arts-based and online just doesn’t meet the need. New literacies in digital spaces fade into obscurity when the country is reeling from a global pandemic paired with national distress over race and gender and identity.
So I planned for a gap year. Time to write and think about what comes next in education. I needed to do something part-time to continue paying on my student loans (which I have already repaid twice over, but that’s another story), so I revised my resume and hit the virtual road. I tried tutoring services, online academies, craft stores (I am an ardent crafters/painter/art hobbyist), and running stores (I am a runner, too). I tried restaurants with “help wanted” signs posted. Nothing. How is that possible? So many places complained about being short-staffed, but no one was interested in a middle-aged woman from academia.
I finally figured out that being over-educated equates to being mostly unemployable. Part of the issue is the skill set. I can corral a classroom full of hormonal teenagers, but I don’t know the first thing about being a restaurant server, and every place I applied wanted experience. The running store likely assumed that I wasn’t an athlete, given my age and non-athletic appearance. Finally, I saw an ad on Facebook, of all places, for a barista position at a tiny little coffee shack in the middle of a parking lot. On a whim, I applied and the owner contacted me almost immediately. His first question, the one no one else bothered to consider was “Why would you want this kind of job with your background?”
I told him. He hired me and paid me well. I worked for exactly two weeks. I signed on to make coffee and espresso drinks. Serve ice cream. I spent most of my time cleaning. Floors. Counters. Dishes. Freezers. Refrigerators. Things that should have been maintained by every person who worked there, but evidently had not been thoroughly cleaned in weeks or months or, in a couple of cases, years. I had to show the people who had been working there how to clean the espresso machine; they didn’t know how. I know hard work. I know how to clean. But I am not 20 anymore, and my body was quite clear that this level of physical labor was not sustainable.
Why am I writing this? I’m not sure. Partly to process my path. Partly to illustrate a path between “employers don’t pay enough” and “people are too lazy to work.” Sometimes the job is not what is advertised. Sometimes expectations are unrealistic for all parties: employers, employees, and customers. Assumptions are always a bad idea. The “new economy” is not “back to normal” and may never be.
It’s been an interesting season, this pandemic economy. It will continue to be interesting to watch how the next season unfolds.