The gig economy goes to class

A new Uber-esque school model turns teachers like me into on-demand contractors for the children of the 1 percent

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published June 3, 2017 7:30PM (EDT)

 (Salon/Flora Thevoux)
(Salon/Flora Thevoux)

At the beginning of our second interview, the vice-principal asked me why I wanted to be a teacher. The paychecks, I thought to myself, then made something up about feeling a responsibility to society. The social responsibility thing was half true, but mostly I was broke and desperate for work; it was October 2010, and one year out of college, I was still struggling to find an entry-level job in an anemic economy. My savings were gone, and I was subsisting on food stamps. My rent-controlled sublease in San Francisco had expired — I had been staying with a girlfriend in a small town outside the Bay Area, and had driven four hours for the interview. Getting hired as a teacher seemed like a huge leap up from my previous low-wage part-time jobs, which included going door to door for the U.S. Census double-checking records (and angering residents, usually); and, prior to that, working at a minimum-wage Americorps job for a tree-planting nonprofit in San Jose.

In my résumé, I did my best to spin these previous jobs as somehow related to my interest in teaching. Suffice to say, I had no teaching credential, nor had I ever taken an education class. Fortunately, this job didn’t require either. “You only need a bachelor’s degree to teach at a private school,” he explained.

“It looks like you’d fit in well here,” he added, flipping through my résumé and cover letter. My stomach turned as his eyes scanned the exaggerated sections. Then he said, “we have a lot of people from humanities and science backgrounds. Me, I’m into history of science and continental philosophy.” To my relief, he spent the next 20 minutes talking about Kant.

We were sitting in the small principal’s office on the second floor of a strip mall in Silicon Valley. It was a strange site for a private school — situated above a weight-loss center, whose patrons stared at me from treadmills as I walked up the stairs; and adjacent to a Starbucks patronized by well-heeled Menlo Park techies. The vice principal explained that the school operated on a model known as “one-on-one” education — classes took place in small cubicles, with one teacher and one student working in 55-minute increments, at the student’s own pace and to her strengths. The individuated model, more akin to tutoring, was advantageous, he added: many of their students had different learning needs, or were retaking courses they’d failed previously at other schools. Indeed, four-fifths of the school's 120 students went to a traditional high school or middle school, and came here to take just one or two classes.

The job paid $25 an hour — more than twice what I had ever made in my life — and had a flexible schedule. Hearing the wage made all my financial and housing problems feel surmountable.

As I signed the paperwork confirming my status as an “at-will” employee, the math ran through my mind: If, as implied, this became an eight-hour-a-day job, the hourly wage multiplied to $200 a day, $1,000 a week, 52 thousand a year — provided the work was steady. (Yes, summer school was quite busy, he confirmed.) I had never heard of an hourly, at-will teaching job — most teachers I knew were salaried and unionized — but any second thoughts disintegrated into daydreams of all I could do with my new income. I thought of a new bicycle, an apartment . . . my grandfather, who had lived in Silicon Valley for his entire life, was under threat of eviction. Perhaps I could put my newfound wealth toward a down payment and save his home.

As soon as I’d inked the contract, the principal stormed into the office, shook my hand and congratulated me. “We have a student who would like to take an accelerated statistics course,” she said. “Can you start tomorrow?”

I said yes. I needed money ASAP, and was eager to please. I took the stats book with me, drove to Redwood City and rented, for $225 a week, a small motel room. It was the most affordable short-term housing I could find. I tried not to touch the peeling, moss-green stucco walls, or walk barefoot on the carpet, which reeked of roach spray.

* * *

That night, lying in the springy motel bed and listening to the argument in the parking lot, I contemplated what my life had become. “High School Teacher” would sound impressive, surely, to friends who would see the announcement of my new job. Still, I felt like a fraud.

In college, I’d double-majored in physics and English, and while the English degree wasn’t opening any of the doors the Great Recession had welded shut, the physics degree seemed like a potential crowbar. But upon graduating, I found that, unlike other science majors, there are few jobs earmarked for people with just a bachelor’s degree in physics. The exception was science teaching, which seemed to be permanently in demand.

The next day I had the morning to myself, as the stats class didn’t start until late afternoon. I walked to the public library down the street to get online and do some research on what I’d gotten myself into. Previously, I had never heard of “one-on-one” education; to my surprise, the school was one of many in the Bay Area (and hundreds in the country) — all for-profit enterprises. In the Bay Area alone there was Halstrom Academy, Tilden Preparatory School, Lydian Academy, Merit Academy, the School for Independent Learners, and Fusion Academy. The sticker price varied depending on the school, but seemed to hover in the $20,000 to $40,000 range, annually, for full-time enrollment; most of the schools billed parents hourly. One school in the East Bay, Halstrom Academy, exhibited a price comparison table on their website, boasting that they could undercut other schools’ prices. None offered scholarships — everyone’s parents paid sticker price.

I arrived at the school at 2 in the afternoon. My class wasn’t until 5, but I endeavored to come early to read the statistics book and prep, off the clock. I had never taken a stats class except indirectly — via thermodynamics — but I was fairly confident that, as long as my student wasn’t too scrutinizing, he wouldn’t be able to tell that I was new to the material.

The students looked like pretty normal teenagers, and were dressed to fulfill time-honored high school archetypes: jock, metalhead, emo kid, et cetera. I walked through the school, surveying my new digs. Cubicles, each with a little whiteboard, a computer and two chairs, filled the big main room. Because the cubes were squat, you could look out and see the entire room when standing — the 20-ish cubes in the main space, plus a study table and the principal’s office by the entrance. The room buzzed with the sounds of lecture. With the hot afternoon sunlight, the school had a specific smell to it — an odor that I can’t pin to a specific chemical, but which is characteristic of cheap carpet and tile ceilings.

Just before the start of class, the vice principal introduced me to Jacob*, a senior who had failed statistics at his high school and was re-taking it here in order to graduate. I asked him his interests — he thought for a while and named two: football and "Halo." I smiled.

I started the course in earnest, switching between browser tabs I’d pulled up to show interesting colloquial uses of statistics and statistical reasoning. He seemed bored. I had to explain to him again what mean, median and range were. I relaxed. This was easy to teach; at the least, there was no danger that Jacob would expose me as having no idea what I was doing.

For homework, I asked Jacob to find an article that mentioned statistics in any way whatsoever, and write a two-paragraph summary. He seemed keen on it, but the next day he forgot his homework. I let it slide that day, and went over what I could of the lesson, then told him to do two homework assignments for the next class. He forgot to bring any homework the next day — and the day after that. Eventually I had him do his accumulated missed homework in class. At a “non-punitive” school, as we were, the students could do this continually with no repercussions. They all knew this.

For the next month, I had only two students: Jacob in the evening, and a chemistry student in the morning named Marshall, whose Beats headphones were perma-glued to his skull. I thought I would have no problem relating to him: Like me, he was a short Jewish kid with a penchant for late ’90s hip-hop. I tried to convey chemistry topics by relating them to hip-hop, analogizing West- and East-coast hip-hop scenes to repellant noble gases. It didn’t seem to work. As with Jacob, we spent much of class doing homework he never did at home.

After the first month, the $52,000-a-year job didn’t seem likely to materialize; for three paid hours a day — plus the two or more unpaid hours a day I spent on prep — I was making about $330 a week after taxes, with no benefits. If things continued this way, I’d be lucky to clear $17,000 a year, which wasn’t even enough to go off food stamps.

I needed to be able to write a budget for my own sanity, but my future salary was difficult to predict more than a day in advance because of the school’s absence policy. Parents were allowed to cancel up to one hour before class for a full refund. Sometimes I’d show up to work assuming I’d get three hours of work, and leave having only worked one.

Yet there was no way to request more hours. Since students could begin and end their class hours whenever they wished, and since, as a business, the customer comes first, students and parents picked a class schedule that benefitted them, not the teachers. I was left with a work schedule that resembled Swiss cheese — what is known in the service industry as “split-shift.” Hence, the five-hour unpaid gap in my schedule between classes.

The vicissitudes of the Bay Area education “market” — if you can call it that — determined my salary at any given moment. I was hired because the administrators had reached capacity and anticipated demand for more math and physics teaching. But their math was off. I remained on food stamps for the next three months, as I never made enough money to disqualify.

After a two-week unpaid winter vacation, a few more students had enrolled, and I was assigned to teach classes in chemistry, biology and geometry. I had never taken a college-level bio course, but I desperately needed the hours and the pay. I didn’t confess my fear to the vice principal, but he seemed to sense my hesitancy. “You’ll be fine,” he assured me, dropping a fat biology textbook on the desk. “If you know physics, this stuff is way easy — just holler if you have any trouble.”

The students for these courses were similar to Jacob and Marshall: bored, allergic to homework, resistant to any attempts to engage with the material. One in particular, Joelle, got angry with me when I tried to elaborate on the ways in which chemistry explained the way that objects felt to the touch. For the first week, she was a little colder to me every day. On day seven, she snapped.

“This doesn’t matter to me,” she seethed after we’d watched a video on quantum mechanics. “Can you just give me a test to do or something? I want to finish this class.”

All courses had a pre-set number of assignments, set in stone. Joelle clearly knew this. I understood then what she wanted me to do: give her one assignment after the other, until she had finished them all. I kept teaching, with videos and interactive applets depicting atomic interactions. She resisted these. Three-quarters through the semester, I gave up teaching her. Joelle wanted to do busywork, so that was all I gave her.

* * *

Does the phrase “the customer is always right” still apply if the business is a school? I may have technically been a “teacher,” but my job, really, was to please students — or rather, please parents, since they held the pursestrings. Requests to speed up a class in order to finish in time for vacation were common — many of these students’ families summered in Europe.

At the going rate for a one-on-one education, a full course load could run over $400 a day. If students were truant or did not do homework, their parents would need to pay for more classes to make up for that. And yet in many cases, parents, understandably, were hesitant to do so, or would try to hurry the instruction to avoid paying beyond what they were quoted. “My mom says I don’t have to take this class anymore,” said Avril, a geometry student who needed remedial algebra catch-up, when she went beyond the originally agreed-upon number of classes. I wasn’t sure what to tell her.

“You still have three units left in the class,” I said hesitantly.

Later, the vice principal assured me I did the right thing. “They signed a contract,” he said. “We have to teach them until they’re done.” Her mom sent me increasingly angry emails until we’d finished, guilting me into skipping whole sections.

As the days ticked on, I kept applying for other jobs, but never got so much as a call back. With an unstable job and income, I yearned for the only stable life I had known: being in school. I applied to masters programs, got accepted, and left that summer. Coursework and student debt was preferable to the precarity of being an on-demand teacher.

* * *

In 2013, when I returned to the Bay Area with my M.A., I expected to have more job opportunities — after all, the recession was supposedly over, and I had a higher degree. This time, I thought, I would find a job doing something I actually liked.

Yet most of my job experience was in teaching, and in tutoring, which I had done while in grad school to make ends meet. I did not want to go back to high school teaching, but as my savings dissipated I grew desperate. I needed a stopgap to buy me time. A month after my return to the Bay Area, I chanced upon a Craigslist ad for another one-on-one school, Fusion Academy. It sounded like the same job I’d had before, with the same pay, only with a better commute. Again desperate for work, I braced myself and applied. After one interview and a sample teaching session, they hired me.

Fusion’s pedagogy was identical to my last job, yet as a large corporate franchise they had a slick marketing team to hone their image. Letterhead and brochures were set in “funky” fonts, with bold slogans in royal purple. The marketing bible, a two-inch-thick spiral-bound book that was given to me at training, specified furniture choices, interior decoration, and minor aesthetic details down to the school’s smell: “scented sprays, air fresheners (preferably a sandalwood variety) scattered throughout.” Like Starbucks, all Fusion schools had the same aesthetics and decorating, yet different floor plans.

Fusion Academy took up the entire third floor of an old brick building near San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid. It was an upgrade from a Menlo Park strip mall, certainly; in addition to the school, the building housed lawyers, travel agents and consultants. The school’s teenagers and the building’s professional class commingled only in the elevator.

Once again, I had a cubicle, a whiteboard and a computer; once again, I had no health care plan, no benefits, and a split-shift schedule of varying, unpredictable hours. Though we were paid for a small amount of planning and prep time, apparently due to years of teachers’ complaints; for every hour we worked we were paid for five minutes of prep time at the same rate.

Curious about how this compared to public school teaching, I reached out to my high school calculus teacher, Chris Yetman, to ask how much prep time he has as a salaried public school teacher in Arizona. Yetman said that he taught for 25 hours a week and spent 13 hours on “grading, planning, meetings, paperwork, etc.” not including the four to six hours he spent working at home after regular work hours. In other words, about one-third of his day job was dedicated to administrative and prep work. Other public school teachers I spoke to corroborated this 1:2 ratio. For 25 hours of teaching, a public high school teacher might be paid for 13 hours of prep; for 25 hours of teaching at Fusion, I would be paid for two hours of prep. While one-on-one teachers don't have as much grading as traditional teachers, it takes just as much time to prepare a lesson for a class of one as it does a class of 30.

In any case, there were other slightly improved aspects to Fusion. We had sick days and vacation time, so a day sick wasn’t a day without pay. Yet these benefits were the result of San Francisco’s progressive city laws, not of my employer’s largesse.

But other, bigger problems loomed. Shortly after starting, I was assigned to teach eighth grade science to Dylan, who had been diagnosed with both Asperger’s and ADHD. I had no training whatsoever in special education, and was skeptical of my ability to manage Dylan’s needs. I pleaded with the vice principal to let another, better-equipped teacher take him. The vice principal pleaded with me to keep teaching Dylan. Yet without any training, or mentorship, or compensation for what would surely require a long and laborious study of child psychology and special education, I had no one to fall back on for help.

* * *

From verbal hints at staff meetings, I was able to discern that one of the other new teachers was similarly dismayed at our working conditions. In the middle of her career, Katherine had taken a teaching job at Fusion, hoping for steady work; she, like me, was appalled at how teachers were treated.

We met outside of work to brainstorm. Katherine, a former union member, thought a union drive would be a great way to get benefits, guaranteed hours and a more equitable work week. We got in touch with the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), who were receptive, and asked us to come in to their North Beach office.

Kim, our contact at CFT, was an organizer and former public school teacher who had been with the union for a decade.

“Have you heard the expression ‘churn-and-burn?’” Kim asked me. I hadn’t. “It’s a labor strategy that some charter schools and businesses — including Fusion, clearly — use on their employees. They work you so hard that you burn out after a year or two, but they don’t care because there’s always a new supply of employees coming in through the door.” Katherine and I eyed each other.

I could relate to the experience, having witnessed the career trajectories of my Millennial friends. The bulk of the “sharing economy” jobs, for companies like Uber, Lyft or TaskRabbit, were similar to Fusion: You work odd hours for precarious pay and no benefits and burn out after six months. I had many friends who hadn’t lasted a year working for these kinds of sharing economy companies; statistics show that one-half of Uber’s drivers quit within a year. Higher education, too, has been “adjunctifying” for decades, and courses once taught by professors are taught by contingent faculty at lower wages and with no guaranteed work contract.

Kim gave me an assignment: See if I could find online parents’ reviews of Fusion Academy that we could use to help get parents on board. Some reviews were enthusiastic. But what I found was largely negative. “[Fusion Academy] is just out for the money,” wrote an anonymous poster on  “The academia is a joke. They talk a big game, but they just have great marketing teams and wealthy investors.”

“There is HIGH staff turnover,” another poster observed (correctly). “Overall experience is very uneven. And the cost will take your breath away.”

Curious, I dug up the commentary on my first school, the one in the strip mall. One parent decried the “extremely inconsistent teaching staff... You could get one of the experienced teachers, in which case the experience is transformative. Or you could get a recent college graduate with a degree in a completely unrelated field (and for the same exorbitant price).”

Katherine and I returned to the union office the next week with our research. Kim was waiting for us at the union’s big conference table, a stack of papers before her. “Did you know this about Fusion?” she asked. “This is where they get their money.” She handed me a printout about Fusion Academy that explained that their major investor was Winona Capital Management, a private equity firm that also held major investments in a pet retailer, a skiwear company and a chain of burrito restaurants. Interestingly, another investor in Fusion was the state of Michigan: they awarded Fusion’s parent company a $10 million grant from a governor-decreed investment fund paid for by state workers’ pensions. Strange, given that Fusion peddled a model of education that seemed at odds — ideologically, and in terms of accessibility — to public education.

* * *

I wish I could say that I stayed until the union drive could be completed. Truthfully, I didn’t have the energy. I was far past the churn phase or the burn phase — I was extinguished.

One year after leaving Fusion, only eight of my 16 teacher co-workers remained. Three years out, only four remain. Since then, Fusion has expanded into five more states and D.C., spreading its “classroom of one” model further across the country. And as investors have smelled the money in the one-on-one school game, the market has gotten more competitive, and driven down teachers’ wages further. In 2016, I was recruited for a one-on-one teaching job at Merit Academy in San Jose; an administrator said that they paid $20 an hour for teaching, which dipped to $16 an hour for in-home tutoring. “We recently raised our rates for teachers to incorporate prep time,” he wrote in an email, “so it is essentially ‘built in’ to the rate we pay.” He assured me the job offered “no benefits or travel-time reimbursement for teaching.”

One-on-one schools are emblematic of an economic shift happening across the country: the reduction of salaried careers into precarious contract labor. You see the same model at play in the computer software Starbucks uses to call employees into work for just a few hours at a time, creating hectic schedules to maximize profit; the siphon of taxi jobs into Uber and Lyft’s worse-paid, precarious labor models; and the outsourcing of federal jobs to private firms, under whose  purview one-fifth of said outsourced workers make less than the poverty threshold wage.

When all labor becomes contract and/or service labor, the social aspect evaporates — governments become businesses, citizens become consumers. Even in public universities, climbing tuition makes students see their schooling as a paid-for experience, their teachers and TAs as people whose services they purchase.

In my experience, this consumer mindset affected the product — the kids' education — as well. Sometimes I was pressured to cut corners to get students through their courses on time or before their summer vacations. On other occasions I was pressured to end a class early, though the student was far from finishing standards, and give them a passing mark.

This wasn’t just a result of my own dispassion. I asked another teacher with whom I’d worked, and who wished to remain anonymous, if he’d cut corners the same way. “Oh totally,” he said. “Especially with certain students where they came in late in the year, the family paid cash up front and [we] guaranteed success."

Many career retail workers talk about the deadening effect of service labor. Their experience matched mine well. I was a teacher, but I wasn’t teaching. I wasn’t providing a social good in the way that classroom teachers do. I was providing an on-demand education, a customized, tailored scheme — an education made to order — exactly the kind of luxury product the wealthy have come to demand in other spheres. It wasn’t that different from being a Lyft or Uber driver: unpredictable hours, being ready and waiting when a customer needed me, and sitting on the sidelines without pay when they didn’t.

A classroom of one is not a space for socialization or communalizing. It changes the relationship of learning to one of servicing — one teacher, providing a service for a single student, modulated to the customer’s whims. It is a servant/served relationship. We were an expensive factory for rich children, delivering an educational “product” at an hourly wage. We were UberTeachers.

* Students' names have been changed for privacy reasons.

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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