Academic Workplace 2013

Flexible Jobs Mean Happy Instructors

Laura Segall for The Chronicle

Rebecca Chase, who teaches communications at Rio Salado College and has two young sons, appreciates being able to work from home.
July 22, 2013

Sixth Annual Survey

Great Colleges to Work For 2013

Flexible Jobs Mean Happy Instructors

By Ben Gose

Flexible Jobs Mean Happy Instructors

Laura Segall for The Chronicle

Rebecca Chase, who teaches communications at Rio Salado College and has two young sons, appreciates being able to work from home.


With two young children and a new job teaching communications classes online, Rebecca Chase could be forgiven for sounding a little harried. But instead she has an air of serenity throughout a 45-minute phone interview—even when her 4-year-old son bursts forth to complain about his injury du jour, from their cat, Schrodinger.

Adjunct instructors are often a disgruntled lot. But for Ms. Chase and other instructors at Rio Salado College, based in Tempe, Ariz., the low pay and lack of benefits are more than offset by the flexibility of the job, and the professional way in which the college prepares new instructors to teach online.

Chronicle Vitae

Rio Salado is among the colleges that received high marks in the category of job satisfaction in The Chronicle's sixth annual Great Colleges to Work For survey. The college, part of the Maricopa County Community College District, has 67,300 students, about 40,000 of whom take classes only online. Ms. Chase, who has a master's degree from Texas A&M University and teaches exclusively online, signed on at Rio Salado last fall so she could supplement her husband's income from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, while also staying home with their two children.

"The expectations of me were very clear," Ms. Chase says. "I don't recall ever feeling stressed or overwhelmed or unsure. And now I can work in between naps, during play dates, and after the kids go to bed."

Job satisfaction doesn't always revolve around high pay, a prestigious title, and generous benefits. Rio Salado offers none of these, but employees say it does give them the tools they need to succeed and the ability to fit work around their lives, rather than vice versa. Ms. Chase received a two-hour orientation session when she was hired last fall. Then she was required to take "Introduction to Human Communication"—the very course she is now teaching—to get a feel for how students experience the course. Once a course has been created, all instructors teach the same material, students work at their own pace, and new students can start every Monday.

"You need to be prepared at any time to grade a Lesson 5 or a Lesson 10," she says.

New instructors are formally evaluated in each of their first three semesters on how well they prepare materials, manage the course, and provide feedback to students. After that, formal evaluations are conducted once every three years, but each instructor receives a "mini-evaluation" from another adjunct once a semester, with a goal of finding ways to improve students' experiences.

Ms. Chase is teaching two classes, but that hardly means all work and no play. When the family went to Disney World this summer, she was on rides with the kids during the day and grading papers on her computer at night. "I was able to go on the trip, but I didn't let my students down," she says.

Janet Montoya, another Rio Salado instructor who teaches online courses, spent 15 years as a computer scientist at NASA. But she says her seven years teaching anthropology and history at Rio Salado easily trump that experience. Every day, she says, she hears from students about the difference she's making in their lives. Many of her students are older, and either dropped out of college when they were younger or never got started.

"We're helping people who fell off the bus," Ms. Montoya says. "This is by far the most rewarding job I've ever had."

Rio Salado has 22 full-time faculty members (all except two are faculty chairs), but the remaining 1,300 instructors are all adjuncts, most of whom work out of their homes. "They're the heart of the college," says Patricia S. Case, a faculty chair in the social sciences. "For our students, they are Rio Salado College."

The faculty gathers for on-campus meetings only a few times a year, but Ms. Montoya says she never feels isolated. Even after the training that Ms. Chase received, the college continues to provide plenty of support, she says. Rio Salado offers online students both an "instructional" help desk and a "technical" help desk. When a student places a call, a ticket is generated that brings the instructor into the loop.

"There's good communication between the support staff and the adjuncts," Ms. Montoya says. "You don't feel like you're out there in the ether all by yourself."

Like Ms. Chase, Ms. Montoya prizes the flexibility the job offers. Ms. Montoya and her husband are avid tango dancers; they recently rented a home in Buenos Aires for a few months, where Ms. Montoya interacted with Rio students online when she wasn't out with her husband perfecting their dance moves. "I've taken my students with me all over the world," she says.

At Mitchell Technical Institute, another institution that scored high in the category of job satisfaction in the Great Colleges survey, employees are happy because the college helps them keep up with the technical skills they impart to students.

Most instructors at Mitchell Tech, a two-year public college based in Mitchell, S.D., work on nine-month contracts, but the college gives them 12 "flex days" each year. The instructors are paid for those flex days and can use them on weekends or during the summer to attend conferences or for job-shadowing at businesses that hire Mitchell Tech graduates.

"With technology changing every day, it's nice that our institution realizes that we need to continually be adapting what we do to remain relevant to the students," says Tammie Munsen, a full-time adjunct instructor who teaches classes on office technology and computer networking. "You can teach out of the book, but the students need to experience what it is that they're going to be seeing."