Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Ask the Administrator: Timing a Departure

A new correspondent writes:

I have just started a new term at a community college where I've been teaching for a year (this is my third term), but we may be moving out of state before the term ends, and I really don't know how best to handle it. There are two things going on: my husband has been offered a great work opportunity out of state (he is the primary bread-winner), and we have an offer on our house. At the moment, we don't know if we will be able to come to an agreement with the prospective buyers, and if we don't, I don't plan to say anything to the college, as we would then be here indefinitely, until we do sell the house (very slow market). If we do get the house in escrow, that still doesn't mean we will end up leaving, as houses in this market fall out of escrow for any number of reasons. My husband, therefore, thinks I should wait until we are closer to closing for me to notify the college that I am leaving. However, I feel that it will be a real hardship for the college, as they will probably find it difficult to get someone to fill in for the last two months of the term I would miss. I, therefore, feel that I should let them know as soon as it looks like we have a deal. The downside of doing that, of course, is that if our house falls out of escrow, I won't have a job. They already have two classes lined up for me for next term, as well, so I would be giving up all of that. Either way, I'm pretty sure the college is going to be furious with me, and I certainly feel bad about it. There is a remote possibility that I could find a place to stay with a friend or something and finish out the term, but that would make things very difficult for my husband, as we have farm animals who are my day-to-day responsibility. I would certainly appreciate hearing from you or anyone else who might want to chime in on this situation. I hate the idea of ditching my students in the midst of the term, and I hate the idea of causing difficulty for the school, but I'm not sure what I can best do in this scenario

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with so many variables in play.  I’d start by winnowing them down based on what you actually know.

You have an offer on the house, but you haven’t closed the sale.  That means that there’s no guarantee that the house will actually sell, nor is there any guarantee about when.  You refer to having two months left in the term when you move, but you don’t actually know that; maybe it’ll be two months, maybe three, maybe one, or maybe the sale won’t happen.  

As the seller, you have some control over timing.  You could make the sale in October with a move-out date in December, if the buyer is willing.  You could sell and rent it back for a month or two.  That’s contingent on a willing buyer, obviously, but it can’t hurt to ask.  It might be worth sacrificing a little on the price to get control of the move-out date.  It’s still cheaper than renting, and you could time the move to the gap between semesters.

If your buyer balks at those and wants to move in quickly, and you’re intent on selling, then you hit the ethical questions of when to leave and when to tell.  It sounds like you aren’t confident that you have the kind of relationships with local admins that you’d feel confident telling them about your situation and trusting them not to react badly.  That’s a shame, but it happens.  Certainly don’t give notice until you actually know you’re leaving; if you believe that even the prospect of leaving will be held against you, you’re within your rights to guard that, too.  

Students are another matter.  Whatever you may or may not think of local administration, I’d argue that you have an obligation to the students.  If you believe that a mid-semester departure is plausible, I’d advise constructing the syllabus to minimize the potential damage.  Are there elements of the latter part of the course that could be done online?  If so, maybe you could minimize your trips to campus during the second half of the term. You probably couldn’t eliminate them altogether, but you could get them down to a briefly manageable level.  

In any event, I think it’s unlikely that you’d only have a couple of days’ notice.  If you have at least a couple of weeks, that should give time for folks to scramble for coverage.  It’s not ideal -- I’d expect some people to be annoyed, and reasonably so -- but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Whatever you do, though, own it.  Don’t try sneaking out in the dead of night, leaving students and colleagues abruptly marooned mid-semester.  Once you have solid dates, assuming you do, tell people.  Until then, it’s not their business.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better way to handle the possibility of a mid-semester departure?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

One idea:
If you're comfortable confiding in a (teaching) colleague you might see if you could informally line up a replacement on your own (without telling the administration). That way if you need to leave abruptly mid-term you could then tell your boss "I'm very sorry to leave you like this, but it has to be done . BUT - Prof. X has already agreed to cover my sections for you!"

It would show that you're concerned about the college's success, the success of your students, and that you're proactively trying to minimize the disruption to all of the above. Obviously you'd need to find someone that you can trust not to tell anyone else too early. You'd probably need to find someone who's already teaching at the school to make the transition as easy as possible for the administration.

So - there's upsides and downsides, but if you've got the time and this seems reasonable you it might be worth thinking about
Well, for two (or one or three) months, she could rent something (even an inexpensive motel room) and finish the term. ranted, there might be reasons why that's impractical, but apparently it's not (currently) on her list of options.
Dean Dad's advice seems sound to me, as does the suggestion of informally lining up a potential replacement.

One thing neither the correspondent nor DD mentioned is the potential need for references if/when you search for a similar position in your new location. If you're planning to do that, now or sometime in the future, that might tip the balance in the direction of doing the things that might maintain goodwill with potential referees (which probably means trying to find a way to stay in the area, at least part time, through the end of the term; second best would be the ready-to-go replacement). I think most lower-level administrators/potential referees (i.e. the people who're going to be most inconvenienced by the departure, and in fact may end up teaching the class themselves) are going to think as Don Coffin does: that the term is really pretty short, and professional responsibility demands making significant effort to make oneself available through the end of the term. Even as a faculty member with no administrative responsibilities, I tend to think that way.

The part of the letter that Don Coffin may have missed, however, is that the letter writer, like many part-time teachers, has a second job, and it's tied to her (I'll assume "her," though there are men with husbands these days) household: care for farm animals. Presumably the animals can't be temporarily accommodated in the old location (and, unlike with children, there's no argument for trying to keep them there until winter break), so one job moves with the husband, and one stays in the old location. That's hard.

For me, I think it really would come down to responsibility to the students (which DD has covered pretty well) first, and the possible need for references second. The second might be a justification for expending some money -- for lodging at the old location and/or fill-in animal care at the new -- in order to make it possible to finish the semester.
I'm sorry, but I think that planning to leave one's students in the lurch mid-session is indicative of someone who doesn't care for their students. It is one thing to leave a part-time position on short notice BEFORE a session starts, but it is entirely another thing to just up and quit in the middle. Cassandra makes a good point; if a teacher who I supervised bailed on his/her class mid-session, they better not then turn around and ask me for a positive reference.
I'm sorry, but most of these people offering advice have clearly never worked a farm.

Students will not die if you don't take care of them, farm animals could.
I will grant that asking the husband to take care of them puts him in a difficult position, but given that the couple is moving for his job, I'd argue it is not an unreasonable sacrifice to ask him to make. So that would be the plan A, in my opinion.

But for plan B... there are a LOT of unemployed academics out there who can fill in teaching a class, if you structure it well and set them up for success. On the other hand, have any of you folks ever tried to find functional farm labor on short notice? There's a reason cow-milking robots are the new thing.
People leave in the middle of term all the time. Pregnancies, deaths, illnesses… it's not like it's the first time this has happened. The correspondent appears to be either part-time or an adjunct, so the college isn't really offering them a lot of stability.

I'd wait until things were definite (husband has job, house has sold) and then inform the college. Make certain marking/planning is up-to-date, so that a replacement can just walk in and start teaching. Don't assign work that will be due after the probable change-over date. There's no legal obligation to do more. And frankly, that's a lot more than most of my colleagues who have gone on maternity leave have done.
If they're moving out of state for the husband's new job, are they planning to take their farm animals with them? I find that idea pretty strange, honestly, but I guess it makes a big difference if you're talking about, say, 200 beef cattle or 2 pygmy goats. If the former, I'm totally boggled by the idea of not selling them before you move and if the latter it's really no different than any other pet care in terms of foisting it off on a husband or friend for a few months while you finish out your responsibilities.

When my folks moved from Alaska to Oregon, they boarded out the various pets with assorted relatives for a few months while dad kept working and trying to sell the house in Alaska and mom house-hunted in Oregon. If it's only a few animals (say, 2 goats or 4 chickens) that might be pretty do-able here, too. If it's a full-scale farm, I'm still boggled at the idea of taking it with you when you move. If you're not emotionally attached to the individual animals, surely it'd be easier to sell them and buy new ones to suit your new property when you got there? Anyway, I'd start by trying to find someone to take the animals for the transitional period. It sounds like they could then rent something or stay with a friend and finish out the term, which would look much better on references in the future.

You might discover that they can fire you in the middle of the semester, and you would definitely know what notice, penalties, etc might apply if you resign. I doubt if there are any, and certainly not any that exceed the cost of losing out on a sale of your house.

Remember, you do not have a contract guaranteeing you those classes next semester. They could vanish like the wind.

Second, your husband is right. Do not give notice until the papers are signed on the sale of the house. Anything else is a huge financial risk. Plan for it, like others suggested, with a good lesson plan and clear grade notes and rubrics, but don't talk about it until the odds get closer to 100%. That is when you can approach the Dean or Chair with the possibility that you might have to move on short notice but won't know for X weeks. Just lie about how quickly the job offer and sale happened.

Three semesters isn't long enough to gain a perspective on what Deans see over the years. I have seen an adjunct fired a few weeks into a semester where the person taking over had to start from scratch because nothing had been done in those weeks. I have seen a professor killed in an accident near the end of a semester, leaving a weekend of ungraded papers, no hint of where the gradebook is being kept, and an entire set of classes to be taught the next day. I've seen a professor suspended immediately when college funds were misappropriated. You are not even close to a Dean's worst nightmare if you have your act together to make a smooth transition. Your case is more like when a baby is expected in mid semester and the leaving instructor can introduce the replacement to the class a few weeks before giving birth.

They always find someone to teach a class. All they need is a warm body. Anyone who's adjuncted for a while knows we are totally replaceable within an hour. They just get someone with a master's degree and a body temperature approaching 98.6 degrees. This is 2014, people.

In 20 years they'll just get a robot to do it.
Don't worry about the school or the students; they'll all be fine. Take care of yourself and leave good course notes if the move goes smoothly enough that it happens mid-semester.

CCPhysicist is 900 different kinds of right about reading the contract.

Seriously, though, you need to be cynical here. The school wouldn't hesitate to cut you off mid-semester if it were good for it to do so. And the students will be fine, seriously. So don't expose yourself to politics or retaliation by saying anything you don't have to.

I agree with DD. Do not say a word until plans are solid.
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