Facing the tough dilemma of whether to work for free

5th January 2018 at 00:00
No job has made Sarah Simons happier than teaching adults in the community, but the prospect of a cut to funding for the classes has caused her to consider the previously unthinkable

It’s hard to share this story without sounding like I’m fishing for a round of applause. Don’t get me wrong, I always want a round of applause, but for impressive accomplishments, like sporting a questionable outfit with unapologetic pizzazz or doing the splits.

My career has always consisted of a variety of activities, but teaching adults in the community is by far the happiest. Let’s be honest though, I won’t get minted from it. It pays a fair sessional wage, but then there’s the travel, sourcing equipment, and the usual admin, all of which adds huge chunks of unpaid time to the paid hours. When I teach sessionally in a college, I fit in seven or eight hours back-to-back in the same venue. In the community, there’s travel, then two hours’ teaching, more travel, and another two hours. Any more is pushing it.

I’ve worked week in, week out with a couple of groups. I’ve got so attached to learners and staff that I really miss them if a class is cancelled. The strength of my attachment was tested recently when I learned that funding to continue with those groups may be cut.

I had an emotional response to this news. I’ve been battling depression for ages and, though now I mainly have good days, that day was not one. I’m usually crystal clear that teaching is a job, but this felt different, like I would be cutting ties with friends.

The value of our skills

I whipped through a cost-benefit analysis of offering my services as a volunteer. The cost was loss of wages and the potentially higher rate I could earn in those hours. The benefit was knowing that without doubt I would feel happier after spending time with my groups, dancing or making some art. Where else could this middle-aged, chunky-yet-funky teacher cut loose in a movement class without any concern for being judged negatively?

I don’t feel judged by my learners for not conforming to a stereotype. That’s not to say that I’m not judged by them – I’m not inside each individual’s head. The “all people with disabilities are rays of sunshine” thing is insultingly reductive and, in my experience, inaccurate. The point is, I feel like I’m valued as an individual and measured by the skills and qualities I bring to the table, nothing more or less. I concluded that the therapeutic transactional nature of those sessions is worth more to me than the wage.

The decision to offer to work for free felt like a big one. I do not take my skills lightly, nor should any professional. I’ve been asked to work for free in the past, which I found highly offensive – I was out of that principal’s office faster than Usain Bolt.

I know that I’m in a privileged position to be able to consider volunteering and balance it with more lucrative work to pay the bills. That position doesn’t come without donkey’s years of 80-hour weeks, grasping every job offered. But, if there’s a place in my world where everything makes sense, even for a few hours, then why would I miss out on that? It’s worth more than money.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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