The University Professor: For the Love of the Art

At the beginning of the year, Higher Education Digest devoted a space to the alarming decrease in university professors, a situation that grew substantially worse with the arrival and end of the pandemic. This and remote teaching are the main contributors to teacher stress. However, this shortage is not only present in the United States but also is beginning to be evident in other parts of the world.

This panorama is not new. For over three years, Paulette Delgado has alerted that teaching is confronting a worldwide crisis due to high levels of resignation caused by stress, insufficient pay, disrespect, and excessive workload. In Mexico, this has resulted in a budget decrease never before seen in public universities.

Why is this situation so worrying?

Higher Education

Sandy Hook, the renowned American philosopher, points to the teacher as the heart of the educational system. This affirmation is not surprising; in our country alone, there are more than two million teachers, of whom more than 269 thousand teach in higher education.

According to the United Nations Organization, this educational level allows individuals to expand their knowledge and skills and favors oral and written communication. At the university level, people come to understand and master abstract concepts and ideas and increase their understanding of their communities and the world.

UNESCO emphasizes the importance of this level because it favors personal development and the economic, technological, and social transformations of countries. Higher education equips students with the skills required in a constantly evolving world of work. In addition, UNESCO highlights that for those students who are in a vulnerable situation, higher education allows them to aspire to economic security and a stable future.

Information corroborates the UN because studies show that university graduates have “a longer lifespan, better access to health services, better food and health practices, more stability and economic security, more stable employment and job satisfaction,” so they can also devote more time to leisure activities.

Considering the importance of this level, how bad it is to take the value of the university teacher for granted and not imagine the demands on him or her! Esteban Venegas, the Director of this Observatory, says it well: “Being a teacher is a huge responsibility.”

What makes a good university teacher?

In a study performed with families of higher education students, Tapia Ruelas sought to describe university teachers’ best practices. In this research, the Doctor in Strategic Planning for Performance Improvement highlighted the role of good teachers in student learning and pointed out the “irreversible damage” to such learning when their performance is not optimal.

The results suggest that teachers must have a mastery of the subject they teach and that their performance in the classroom is at its zenith (classroom environment, explanation, enthusiasm, and student support), i.e., the teacher should perform remarkably, both disciplinarily and didactically.

Likewise, other studies, such as those done by Sanz Blas, Ruiz Mafé, and Pérez Pérez, indicate that in addition to the traditional functions of the university professor (teaching, research, and administration), higher education teachers must master at least five types of knowledge that allow them to perform their functions satisfactorily: specialized scientific knowledge, cultural knowledge, psycho-pedagogical knowledge, knowledge of teaching practices, and personal knowledge about themselves.

To meet this profile, they need adequate training and develop abilities in pedagogical skills, creativity, vocation, awareness of their social responsibility, and specific personality traits (patience, tolerance, flexibility, sense of humor, among others).

In addition, university teachers must master the subject, be enthusiastic and innovative, use appropriate methods, have excellent oral and written communication skills, and be continuously updated.

Thus, excellence is expected from the university professor, but what is it like to be one?

Being a university professor

Hector G. Barnes explains that university professors used to have a privileged occupation, with a good reputation and remuneration according to the position; currently, not only have the professors lost their social category, but their salaries have decreased while the stress and workload have increased.

For example, the basis of the Bologna Plan (in the European Union) was to offer quality education that would serve university students in their transition to working life; however, as Rosa Caramés mentions in an interview with Barnes, “it has only been possible to spend time preparing for classes and devote more time to purely administrative tasks.”

Problems in higher education

Although the Bologna Plan only affected European teachers, Dr. Hugo Morales, interviewed by The Observatory, highlighted a similar situation in one of the Mexican universities where he works, where bureaucratic tasks make the job exhausting. The university requires signed receipts from each student for each partial exam during the semester, which must be scanned and uploaded one by one onto the institution’s platform.

Information corroborated by Dr. Daniel Jiménez (a pseudonym to respect his privacy) details that one of the main problems is the administrative burden: the university changes specific processes from one semester to another, representing a lack of organization that affects professors’ teaching practice.

In addition to the excessive administrative burden, Dr. Morales highlights the extra work necessary when universities assign subjects to professors who are not experts. In his case, his Ph.D. is in linguistics, but his branch of expertise is sociolinguistics and phonetics. However, due to financial instability, he has had to instruct Spanish Teaching in Telesecundaria (online high school) and even History of Education in Mexico, which implies instructing and reviewing topics of which he is not an expert.

He is not the only one. Dr. Frida Hernández (another pseudonym), in an interview for The Observatory, comments that despite her subspecialty degree in Medicine, she has to teach classes that are not related to her branch, and the teachers who do give those classes do not have the same credentials as her. These conditions speak of the mismanagement of higher education schools that significantly affects teachers’ lives.

Be a full-time teacher

Similarly, Dr. Jiménez, a pediatrician, highlights the difference between being a contract professor and having a permanent position in higher education institutions. He realizes that those with permanent positions are saturated and do not show interest in sharing knowledge collegially. Also, universities give preference to those professors. He adds that he does not seek a permanent position because his primary source of income is his office. However, the university demands time outside his contract for courses and merely bureaucratic meetings, activities that distract him from his true interest, teaching.

Dr. Hernández corroborates this situation since she must work unpaid overtime (work beyond class or planning hours). However, she also affirms that teaching is not her primary job but an extra activity supplementing her private practice, so she is not looking for a permanent teaching position.

Differently, Dr. Morales is interested in making university teaching his life career. He is aware that, despite his credentials, his teaching career is just beginning. He knows that one of the reasons he is given subjects to teach outside his area of expertise is that a contract teacher has to teach subjects that no full-time teacher wants to do.

This is a distressing reality. Many teachers who work by the hour in higher education institutions are not entitled to the basic benefits under the law: social security and paid vacations. Worse, it can take months in many public universities for them to receive payment for their services.

Job and economic precariousness

According to the most recent data published by the Ministry of Economy of the country, more than 269 thousand people are university and higher education professors. However, 42.2% of them are considered informal workers.

The average monthly salary of a university professor in Mexico is around 7,510 pesos. Sinaloa is the state that pays its teachers the best, granting an average salary of 17,500 pesos, while Guanajuato is the state whose teachers receive the worst monthly salaries, 1,610 pesos; it is also the state with the highest percentage of informal workers.

On average, a higher education teacher works 29.2 hours a week; however, this reported time does not include lesson planning, making exams, and reviewing and grading them. Morales and Hernández emphasize this aspect since these overtime hours are unpaid.

Behind each hour worked, many hours of documentation, planning, and review are not accounted for in the payment. The average schooling of higher education teachers is around 18 years, while the average schooling in the country is 9.74. In other words, their preparation is twice the national average, but their wages can average 50 pesos per hour.

Other aspects to consider

On the other hand, Andrea Sánchez comments in an interview that students’ attention and her connection to them are some of the main problems she currently faces because the classes can become extremely large, and many students have no particular interest in the learning process. She also points out the deterioration of students’ mental health. And no wonder: Studies highlight the anxious and depressive tendencies of those who experienced the pandemic during the formative stage of adolescence.

From another angle, Esteban Venegas points to the generation gap and the excessive use of technology in the classroom as other problems he faces as a teacher in front of a class. However, these problematic points of teaching practice take a back seat to the other aspects that affect professors’ working lives and quality of life.

For the love of art

Despite all these problems and shortcomings, the university professors interviewed highlighted the great work they do and how much they enjoy teaching. After all, they become guides and learning companions of the new generations, and this approach allows them to establish a dialogue in which they also learn. Jiménez highlights the social conscience of the new generations and how they raise their voices, which surprises him and provokes his admiration.

Day by day, higher education teachers fill university classrooms and give their best. In the words of Hernández, “It is for the love of the art because I like to teach, continue refreshing my knowledge, do research, and share my knowledge.”

It is a huge responsibility of undervalued work. As Dr. Hugo Morales mentioned, giving sufficient and necessary attention to each subject is impossible if teaching two or three classes does not provide enough to eat. He ends with, “Financial Instability affects the teaching work.”

If higher-level education and teachers are so important, how much can we ignore that the professors’ job insecurity does not allow them to provide quality education?

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