With the news that the strike will be continuing for the foreseeable future, I did the prudent thing: I checked job postings. Not because I have plans to leave teaching, but because I wanted to remind myself that I have options. That my career is a choice.
And I choose teaching.
I consider myself fortunate as far as career prospects go. Yes, I hold the two degrees that BC requires in order to become a practicing teacher in this province, but I also hold half a lifetime’s worth of work experience and transferable skills. If I wanted to leave teaching, I could.
But I don’t want to. Five years ago, I decided to take those skills and transfer them all to teaching. And I thought I knew what I was getting into. I really did.
My sister had been a teacher for years at that point. I had heard her and her friends chatting about work. I watched the news; I knew about disagreements between the BCTF and the Province. I knew about needing to do work outside of class time.
I knew all of those things. But I still had opinions – opinions that make me laugh at myself these days. I mean, I really have no other choice. I was so naïve, even when I thought I wasn’t.
I can admit that now, after a few years of teaching full-time, but back then? Well, I thought these were truths:
1. I’ll just work 7-3:30 each day.
Okay, so I never thought that I’d be able to do a teacher’s job during the school day. I knew that I was signing up for marking and prepping before and after school, but that was no big deal. The typical instructional day is a couple of hours shorter than what I was used to working, so I planned to pretend that those contracted hours didn’t exist. I figured that I’d be able to take care of everything if I just kept working the 7-3:30 shift that I’d worked for my office job.
Oh, how naïve I was.
The only time I’ve come close to this actually working is when I’ve been teaching only junior French (so, no essays to mark), in my own classroom, and I’ve previously taught all of the courses at least a couple of times. And that’s more the dream than the reality. There are so many reasons that my old 7-3:30 shift just doesn’t cut it.
For instance, when I have three or four different courses to prepare for in a semester. This means that if I spent only twenty-five minutes deciding what to teach the next day and how to teach it, I’d already be pretty much at shift’s end, without even touching my marking, contacting parents, or doing any other duties. And prepping takes more than twenty-five minutes, so…yeah.
Or there were those years where I didn’t have my own classroom and had to do all my preparation in communal Prep Rooms, where chatting can eat into prep time – even if it’s teaching related chatter. These Prep Rooms also tend to have one computer, so if I couldn’t get on the computer, I couldn’t make tests or quizzes or research anything. So, I’d leave work to go work at home, since I couldn’t get work done at work.
I quickly learned that my old 8.5-hour day wasn’t going to cut it in this job, even if it was two hours longer than my contracted hours.
2. I’ll always work summer school.
I was accustomed to having two weeks of vacation time per year, so the notion of winter, spring, and summer breaks just felt…wrong.
I didn’t deal well with downtime when I only had two weeks of holidays; I couldn’t imagine taking this gluttonous amount of time off. Not only did I think I would go completely stir crazy, but the thought actually made me feel guilty. I mean, most folks – including my husband – don’t have that many days off in a year.
So, the solution was simple: cut the amount of vacation days I got by teaching summer school. So that’s what I did.
And I won’t do it again for a few of reasons. First, I taught full-credit summer school, meaning that I had to teach the entire course in six weeks. It meant taking out all of the “fun” (ie. engaging) things I would typically do throughout the semester and essentially lecturing at the students. Not my preferred way to do things. In addition, classes were three hours long. I was paid for three hours. But I worked eight, between prepping and marking essays, preparing them for a provincial exam. Neither of these things made the job particularly enjoyable.
But the thing that really made me admit that I had been so, so wrong about always teaching summer school? I got burnt out. Plain and simple. After a ten-month school year in which I’d worked more hours than I used to work in twelve months, and six weeks of full-time hours, I was done.
But I didn’t have the chance to be. The next year was about to start.
3. I’ll never need that insane amount of sick days.
Ohhh, yes. Sick days. I used to have five of them when I worked in the private sector. One week’s sick time per year. And it was enough.
So, when I heard teachers complaining about possible limits on sick time, I rolled my eyes. Big time.
Then I started teaching. And I had to eat my eye rolls as I ate into my sick days. It was like I didn’t even have an immune system. I was getting sick with things that I’d never even picked up when I was a student. No matter how cognizant I tried to be about not touching my face, or sharing pens with students, or washing my hands before I ate, I still got sick.
And, unlike when I was working office jobs, even something as innocent as a cold turned into a big deal. I tried to ignore the first cold that I got. I mean, it was just a cold. So, I went to work because, really, it was just a cold. And I went to work for a second day, even though my voice was getting a little raspy.
Bad move. I ended up with literally no voice – to the point where I couldn’t even squeak through my swollen throat – for five days. FIVE DAYS. Including a weekend, thankfully, but I literally (and I really do mean literally) couldn’t speak for the same amount of time as my former sick days allotment.
Not being able to talk is a much bigger deal when teaching than it was when I worked office jobs, too. If I was losing my voice at a desk job, I could still whisper into my phone to take calls or I could try to rely on email instead. Better yet, I could sometimes switch off duties with colleagues so they could do the speaking and I could do the paperwork. But that’s not exactly an option with this gig.
So I can’t laugh at the number of sick days we get anymore – especially now that I know that they essentially function as short-term disability, too. Of course, I hope to never need them for short-term disability, but the next time I pick up pink eye from a student, or have kids show up to class with hand, foot, and mouth disease? I’ll laugh heartily at my former self who thought that five days of sick time was plenty.
4. 50% of new teachers quit within the first five years? I’ll take their jobs!
I remember hearing this stat during my Bachelor of Education program. But instead of being worried, I was encouraged.
I thought it was great! It meant that the people who didn’t want to be teachers badly enough would quit. It would mean that only the really good teachers would remain, and that the dead weight was being culled – kind of like a professional natural selection. And, considering that I was enrolled as an English major, I had some pretty stiff competition for jobs in terms of sheer number of applicants. So, I took this stat and I made it work for me.
In fact, it became a kind of mantra: I’ll take their jobs!
It’s what I told myself every time I heard something about disillusioned teachers or the attrition rate of new teachers. Because I wanted this. And if others were prepared to give up their teaching jobs, well, I was prepared to step into them.
Until my second year of teaching. When I seriously contemplated quitting.
I loved teaching. Adored it. But I didn’t want to do it anymore. I couldn’t. Not the way it was going.
In one semester, I had been assigned four brand new courses that I’d never taught. I had four separate courses to plan for, and I’d only found out my course load a week before school started. So, I couldn’t have planned in advance.
On top of that, I was working in an overcrowded school, which meant that each of these classes took place in a different room. I changed rooms along with the kids between blocks, meaning that I had no time to get anything set up before class started. Oh, and I had to carry all of my supplies around with me – literally carry since my classes were upstairs and down, in the school and in portables.
I’ve tried to find a way to compare this workload to my previous office jobs, but no situation I was ever in during my corporate life created the same level of anxiety that I still feel when just thinking about that semester during my second year of teaching.
So, yes, I almost became part of that 50% of teachers who quit during their first five years of teaching – and not because I didn’t love the job or wasn’t good at it. I almost quit because I was in the position of having to give up my personal life and overall happiness just to do my job. And no job is worth that.
Luckily, my course load for second semester improved, or this blog probably wouldn’t exist.
Because I have options as far as career choice goes. And I choose teaching.
Even if it is a majorly different job than I thought it would be.