Behind the Desk

Tim Rose on the Life of a Community College Instructor 

I am a long-time student, and I have a deep respect and gratitude for the community college system. After seven years of sitting in classroom chairs, I am curious to know what life is like on the other side of the desk. What would it be like to work as a community college instructor? How much money can you make with a career in this institution? Is it as rewarding as I imagine it to be?

To learn more, I met with Tim Rose, a tenured history instructor at Berkeley City College, who has been teaching in the Peralta system for 15 years. At first glance, Rose seemed the embodiment of what I hoped my future self working at a community college would experience. He was relaxed, had a peaceful presence, demonstrated interest and fulfillment in his work and was eager to share the resources of his success.

Rose has two kids and a wife and lives a convenient four-to-five block walk from his work. Although we chatted in his shared office on the fifth floor of the BCC building, his youthful vitality, and sun-tanned glow gave the impression he worked outdoors. When asked about his home-work-life balance, he described it as “terrific.”

It turned out that we both shared a story of struggles and insecurities throughout school, due in part to our learning disabilities.

“I went to UMass right out of high school; I did not like school. I had severe dyslexia, so I went through it dismally. I took seven years off, then went back to community college at Cabrillo at the age of 27. One of the reasons why I didn’t do well at University of Massachusetts is that I didn’t know what I wanted to study. So, when I went back to college, I knew I liked reading and thinking about history. We jokingly called it Cab-rehab, and it was this sort of renaissance and rebirth for me. Not just intellectually, but just recognizing that ‘I can do this.’ I’m sure many people were giving me that message, but I did not internalize it until I went to Cabrillo.”

I wanted to know how discovering what he liked to study changed Rose’s relationship to school.

“So there’s this part of the school that almost becomes a retreat, a site of pleasure. I can remember when I first started at Cabrillo, I had never done well at math, it was too complex a puzzle, but I had to take two classes of algebra before I could even take a class that I wanted to. And I hated doing that stuff, but I had to, so I just made it a routine every night. So when I was done, I could read my history book. It became almost a reward after grinding out through all this crap I couldn’t stand, the reward of studying was history. And that sort of pulled me along.

With diligence, one week went into the next month, one semester went into the next, and I started to put in the work and receive 4.0’s, one semester after the other. I transferred to Colorado and made dean’s lists and was distinguished well enough to get into the number one history program in the U.S. to receive a doctorate. When I was 12-18, I would never have imagined that was possible. I thought I was dumb.”

When I asked if his career felt rewarding, Rose shared that one of the reasons he wanted to teach at the city college level rather than at a four-year was because he enjoyed “being with people who didn’t do well in high school and came back after two, three, four years out and ready! They have struggles and remarkable things they’ve overcome.”

There are different ranks in teaching positions at the Community College level, and those differences have a tremendous impact on instructors’ overall well-being, career satisfaction and financial security. I learned from Rose that the primary differences in instructor positions at the community college level are between those who are on the tenure track or already tenured and those who are working “part time” as adjuncts. Rose explained that, “Tenured faculty means the instructors are full-time faculty, who have a great deal of job security, their pay is good and benefits are good. Once tenured [an employee] is secured, it’s a life-long job and is a fairly comfortable job.”

“An adjunct is someone who is not tenured, and not on the tenure track. They don’t have job security, and they could only teach three classes per semester within the entire district. They might teach at a number of different colleges. So they might teach at Laney, De Anza, DVC. Contra Costa, Berkeley; they kind of move around throughout the semester five days a week. The life of an adjunct/part-time instructor is a pretty rigorous and anxiety-laden experience. If you were talking to an adjunct right now, they would have a whole litany of grievances and all very valid and worthwhile.”

Rose shared that he started his teaching career during graduate school as an adjunct at Vista, which was the old BCC. After doing that for one year, he applied for a full-time tenure track position at Laney college. He got the job and worked there for seven years, until a position for a history instructor opened at BCC. He attributes his initial success to the fact that he was in with the union and had two semesters of teaching as an adjunct.

“That makes a big difference, when you get your toe in the door with different institutions, it can make a difference whether or not you are well in line when a job opens up.”

My selfish curiosity about the hiring process for tenure made me want to understand more about how competitive the hiring process is and how many people receive tenure annually. It turned out I was asking the right person; Rose turned out to be the tenure coordinator at BCC. Score.

Rose explained that hiring for new tenure positions goes in cycles.

“It depends on how robust the hiring process is within the district. There’s not a set number that’s going through tenure. Because of the four college system, hiring is ostensibly spread equitably throughout the district.”

“There’re four times as many people on tenure review at Laney because it’s a much bigger school. The review process is four years; you never have to start as an adjunct instructor to get a full tenure position. Sometimes people stay as an adjunct for their entire careers; sometimes people go from graduate school and jump onto a tenure track for a tenure position.”

The issue of pay disparities between adjunct and full-time instructors prompted me to probe for more details into the actual salaries of who gets paid what.

Rose explained that there is a scale that determines how much instructors get paid — things like the final degree and how much experience they come in with. Interested readers can find more information about the pay scales on the Peralta Federation of Teachers websites.

When I asked Rose how much he gets paid, he was initially shy to answer, but understood that this knowledge would shape how I approached my career choices. He offered a rough number of about $100,000. “That’s without teaching summer. But remember, this does not go very far in the Bay Area.”

He goes on to explain that even though the pay may not be so terrific for the Bay Area, he has a lot of latitude with time.

“When my daughters were younger, I was able to pick up them up and bring them to school every day, coach my daughter’s soccer team. I don’t know many people who have that. I have five weeks off in the winter, don’t work holidays, weekends off, and I can take three months off in the summer. This summer, I’m going to be teaching online and traveling in Spain with my family. We can do this regularly; very few people have this sort of schedule, where they are given the luxury to spend time with their family. I can’t imagine a better lifestyle.”

I couldn’t either. Rose’s career-life balance was not only ideal, but I also witnessed many of my motivations for pursuing a career as a community college instructor in Rose. Getting to know a community college instructor, I realized why, in large part, my experience as a student was so transformational. It was because many of our teachers in the classrooms shared a background with us, thus, they were invested in relating to their students’ diverse lived experiences and our individual journeys as students and professionals.

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