Teaching in a freelance economy
The word “career” comes from the Latin “carrus,” meaning “wheeled vehicle”. When it first appeared as a noun in the English language, it meant “racetrack”, which only later changed to the modern “course of life”. When I was growing up in America, a career was something to be chosen and then followed “to the end”. There were good examples all around me – first and foremost, my father, a typical 9-to-5 family man proud of having worked in the same place for 25 years. He never got up in the morning wondering if it was his last day at work, and he never went to sleep worried about his retirement pension. This feeling of security allowed him to focus on a job that he learned to love, and without which he would have felt an incomplete human being. Stability and long-term commitment were more desirable than dynamic growth and “new challenges”, and a college degree was the ticket to a decent career which did not involve spending 8 hours a day on an assembly line (not that there is anything wrong with physical labor – been there, done that, and learned to appreciate it).
Now the word “freelance” (meaning a „self-employed person”) has a much more interesting past. Originally, freelances were medieval Italian and French knights. Similar to today’s mercenaries, these were free men who would sell their military skills to the highestpaying master, whether the cause was considered to be good or bad. Sir Walter Scott was the first to coin the term “freelance” in “Ivanhoe” (1820).
When I was in high school, freelancers and 9-to-5ers lived on diff erent planets. Freelancers were creative and entrepreneurial. Salaried workers were sensible family people. Those with steady jobs had health insurance, a retirement plan, and a paycheck every week. Freelancers were forever (sometimes on an empty stomach) chasing down opportunities, but they had a fl exible schedule and the outlandish luxury of being their own bosses. Today, freelancing has become the new 9-to-5. According to many business analysts, we will see the number of contingent workers (self-employed, freelancers, or „accidental entrepreneurs”) outnumbering full-time employees in the near future. Unfortunately, numbers are not available for Poland, but American statistics show that around 30% of the U.S. workforce currently can be labeled as contingent. The general consensus is this will become the way the majority of people work between 2020 and 2030. The reasons are pretty clear: (1) technology makes it easier to hire and manage contingents; (2) it is cheaper; and (3) it provides companies with increased business flexibility.
In the previous century, businesses were attached to the ground, as were the employees it engaged. Modern business people need nothing more than a briefcase, a mobile phone and a laptop. They can stopover almost anywhere, and stay as long as local conditions are profi table. The workforce, on the other hand, remains as immobilized as it was in the past, anchored to a reality where almost nothing is stable and everything is subject to change at a moment’s notice. Some of the world’s residents are on the move, but for the rest it is the world itself that refuses to stand still. How can we speak of choosing a career, a course of life, when the landscape is forever shifting before our eyes? Road signs disappear and new ones are put up overnight, usually pointing in a direction opposite to one we planned. Ever listen to weather predictions on TV? Have you noticed that sometimes forecasters can predict the weather accurately for the next 15 days? Other times, they can only really forecast a couple of days. Sometimes they can’t predict the next couple of hours. Planning for the future follows this same pattern, and if you look too far out into the future, you are basically just wasting your time.
What does this have to do with us? I see two good reasons for dwelling on this subject. First of all, I get a lot of questions about life in America, specifi cally about the American Dream. Is it still as grand as Hollywood and President Obama say it is? My students increasingly talk about their fear of becoming losers. They are afraid to ruin their lives pursuing fi elds where there are few decent-paying jobs. They don’t talk about what they would LIKE to do with their lives, and they are concerned more about what they will HAVE to do to make a lot of money. This leads me to believe that Poland has become a money-centric society. When you think only about money, it becomes easy to neglect everything else necessary to build and maintain self-respect. Worst of all, when you are willing to do whatever it takes to make money, you start thinking that others are doing the same thing, destroying any hope for trust and teamwork in the process.
So, what advice can a teacher give to a young person afraid to make a career decision? Should we just ignore our roles as mentors and continue to review phrasal verbs? I would like to suggest a strategy that treats English as an essential part of the “solution”. I don’t limit it to just another subject on the final exam, nor do I present it as the ultimate job interview “clincher”. Instead, I do my best to demonstrate that a good command of communicative English will lead to more life opportunities, simply because it gives us the ability to communicate and collaborate with millions of people all over the world. No matter what the young will end up doing to make a living, their English skills will never become obsolete. Now that’s a powerful reason to master English (and maybe a little Chinese as well).
The second reason I have for elaborating on our flux economy is a purely practical one. My career in ESL is not the result of premeditated action and choice. I was simply in the right place at the right time. My friend (who was a teacher “by preference”) convinced me to contact a newly-opened teacher training college in Eastern Poland. They were desperately seeking a native speaker to “teach” conversation. 20 years ago it was very easy to land a job teaching English in Poland. “Oh, you’re a native speaker? When can you start?” It was the shortest job interview on record. It was supposed to be a temporary position but I stuck with it and made it into my life’s passion. Then came time for change. Around 5 years ago, I joined the growing number of Polish “accidental entrepreneurs”, people forced into self-employment by employers unwilling or unable to shoulder the burden of hiring full-time. During my many visits to the Tax Office, I discovered that were many other folks in the same boat – hairdressers, truck drivers, janitors, recent university grads, and, of course, teachers of all shapes and sizes. I shared their anger and disappointment at becoming part of a contingent workforce. Many of them had families to support and loan payments to make. You could feel their lives coming apart at the seams as we chatted in the queues. As I made the shift from teaching to making money, I realized that I knew nothing about my new position in the world and that there was no instruction manual available to help me along. Before, I only needed to teach, which basically meant following my schedule, preparing lesson plans, and attending the occasional methodological conference. Now it was time to worry about the “practical” side of life as well. No more long, paid, summer vacations. The season of the year I enjoyed the most, had become a horrible time to be dreaded and feared because there was so little work to be found, while the “lucky ones” were busy relaxing and collecting seashells at the seaside.
Today I realize that I am one of the “lucky ones”. Along the way, I’ve had the unfailing support of my wife (who still has a 9-to5 job that she doesn’t like) and I’ve met some really incredible people – educators, journalists, community organizers, activists, thespians, and everyone in between. They taught me valuable lessons about combining economic survival with doing work that matters to me. I borrowed a little something from each of them and they gave me insight into the kind of person that I wanted to be. As if growing up once was bad enough, now I had to do it all over again. Unfortunately, none of them had all the answers. I had to become my own mentor and coach.
How does this work in practical terms? First, I actually have a master plan and I modify it as the landscape unfolds in front of me. If I get a job off er that I’m not sure about, I can check to see if it fits into my strategy. Is this how I want to spend my energy, or will this be a distraction from the bigger picture? Of course, an important part of the bigger picture is my projected income. Should I jump on everything and anything that comes along, or can I be a bit pickier about the jobs I take on? There’s nothing like realizing you don’t have enough money for basic expenses to teach you that keeping track of your projected income is a vital part of the freelance “lifestyle”.
Sometimes new projects just don’t come along by themselves. You may have to be more proactive and go after a collaborator, share ideas with strangers, or join a discussion online. This front-work takes time and involves considerable risk that you are wasting it, chasing down dreams that don’t produce sorely needed income. I have a hard drive full of materials that have taken me hours to produce, only to discover that I have been barking up the wrong tree. Not all investments pay off but there is no other alternative than to keep moving forward. Unfortunately, I’m not big on networking (Has anybody ever made a penny on the userend of Facebook or LinkedIn?) but I do believe in having a “crush” on someone who does work I admire. Short of stalking, I will absolutely go out of my way to get to know them, but without a set goal in mind. I still believe that putting a bunch of remarkable people in my orbit will lead to exciting opportunities down the line. In the very least, it certainly has lead to some very interesting relationships.
Finally, my strategic plan includes all kinds of lists: work that’s in process, work I’d like to do, work I need to do, people and organizations I’d like to hook up with, the kind of work I really hate, the kind of work that really enjoy, all sorts of deadlines and, last but not least, opportunities to obtain vital new skills. Somehow putting things in writing makes them more powerful and it defi nitely helps me stay motivated and clear of total chaos. Much of what I’ve written down in my plan has come to pass because of stubbornness and determination, not by dumb luck or favorable astrology. Other projects and ideas have had to be painfully abandoned by the wayside. It is hard to fi nd anything more disappointing than completing a perfectly good piece of absolutely useless work. I have found that sometimes knowing when to quit can be just as important as being on the look-out for the next opportunity. It’s good to formulate an exit strategy at the beginning of a project and stick to it. How much time will I invest and how long do I wait for measurable results? Once that time is up and things are at a standstill, get up and move on to something else, no matter how much it hurts. The experience gained is invaluable, even if you still can’t aff ord to replace your badly beaten laptop or go to the theater once a month. It was never my intention to make a living one little piece at a time, but now that it’s happening, I’ve learned to accept and enjoy it. Sure, it would be wonderful to have a secure 9-to-5 job again with health insurance and a paid vacation, but that’s just not going to happen. The truth is, I’m probably too “Independent” for my own good. Recently, after one of my “inspired” monologues about living in an everchanging world, a dear friend of mine asked me out of the blue: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” I had to admit to myself that I am neither, yet some little bits of wisdom do pop up once in a while. For example, I can proudly say that I stopped paying attention to weather forecasts, and, like in the old Marianne Faithfull song, I never buy umbrellas, for there’s always one around.