Teaching on Call, Temporary Contracts, and Transitions

I took the above picture near the peak of Eagle Mountain, in Coquitlam, on my last day of employment at Simon Fraser University. 

On the last day of our contract with SFU’s Faculty of Education, supervising Faculty Associates are given an administrative day to clean out offices, submit expenses, and otherwise transition between our work at the university and whatever will follow. As the university semester concludes at the end of April, and the school year in the districts from which we have been seconded doesn’t until the end of June, many of us are faced with the prospect of returning to the Teacher-on-Call rolls, ‘subbing,’ and searching for temporary contracts that might see us through the end of the working year.

It is an enticing challenge that I embraced and encountered head on last spring as my work life saw itself about to change in profound ways come September. Where last year I TOC’d for a little more than a week before joining my in-laws for a family reunion in Barbados, and then worked on a temporary contract at a local high school through the end of the year, this year I more or less subbed for eight weeks (save a two and a half week period where I taught grade 6 and 7 at a middle school). I was able/forced to see my district as our newest employees might, got to work in almost every one of our middle schools, many elementaries, a few new high schools, and built more than a few new friendships with teachers, office staffs, and administrators around town.

I had a lot of great days: I taught French, and music, and kindergarten. PE and chemistry, and dance. I walked, ran, and biked to work a lot. I taught at my neighbourhood’s elementary school, my old junior high, and Gleneagle, where I worked for more than ten years before leaving for SFU and teacher education. I went to Playland with four hundred middle schoolers, and got to celebrate the end of the year with many of the grade eights who will be coming to Centennial with me in September.

And I was also exhausted by often not being ‘a person in a place.’ There is an anonymity to Teaching on Call, a lot of times: unknown entities to our students, the teachers next door, or many whom we come in contact with throughout the day, the TOC road can be lonely, and requires a lot of unprompted extroversion, day in and day out. It can be a little like the exhausting first day of school, every day of the week.

Exacerbating this sense of loneliness is the contrast drawn against the experience I’d left behind with SFU, where not only had I been a ‘person in a place,’ but a central person in a central place. Our work with the university not only recognized our unique gifts and experiences, but allowed us a privileged position from which to travel through schools: for two years I have been able to drift through countless schools, “a teacher of teachers,” The Guy from the University, with his name tag, and his business card, and his feedback and conversation following the day’s lessons. To arrive back in schools at the entry point of a teacher teaching on call, or competing for temporary contracts (on more than one occasion, and unsuccessfully, I might add, against my fellow returning Faculty Associates), was an often humbling and somewhat jarring experience.

But it was unique: there are only so many circumstances that put veteran teachers back in the shoes of new hires, and it has been fun, challenging, and invigorating to bring my skills, experience, and temperament to this work. Before the ‘new work’ begins later in the summer, I wanted to set down and record some of what happened during these singular few weeks.

A Different School Every Day 

Most days, I worked at a school I’d never set foot in. I met new students, new teachers, and secretaries. I learned about new subjects, new classroom procedures, new ways of doing the announcements, collecting student work, and submitting attendance. I got to see new buildings, old buildings, and buildings that had been old but had then been Frankenstein’ed with new wings, gyms, or annexes. In two months I have built a new mental geography of the district.

When you go to work in a different place every day, it can be easy to drift toward a kind of equilibrium though: one with low risks, and low rewards. Teach the lesson and carry out the plan as left by the teacher; keep a “lid” on things in terms of behaviour; and make sure the students have a safe, productive, and fun day. Often in high school this is easy enough to fall into: teachers leave movies, worksheets, projects-in-progress, and it is easy to not put a lot into the daily work when teenaged students are more than happy to quietly work or study for the end of the year.

As it turned out, this spring I didn’t wind up taking all that many calls to secondary schools (save a few days at Gleneagle where my friends had me in to teach their classes). And so it was that much of the remainder of my school year provided an education in teaching and working with elementary, and primarily middle school students, who demand much more in the way of relationship, engagement, structure, and scaffolding in order to be successful, even if only for the day that I was there.

A day in middle or elementary school asks that a Teacher on Call projects confidence, order, and fun, providing that certain expectations are met. It demands that we always have one more activity, game, joke, or riddle up our sleeves; a consequence, lecture, or means of diffusing negative behaviours, interactions, or outbursts; and an ability to recycle this energy and knowledge in a new school, with new students, tomorrow. I feel like my ‘saw’ for this sort of work became quite sharp during the last few months; on more than a few occasions where teachers had to leave abruptly, or I was sent in to cover a middle school classroom on a Friday afternoon where there might not have been a plan to follow, I relished the opportunity to exceed (even my own) expectations of what might be possible. And I had a lot of fun.

Deep Dive: Middle School Contract Work 

Part way through May, I was successful in my application to take on a temporary contract in a grade six/seven class at a local middle school. I had already (unsuccessfully) interviewed to teach dance and drama at the secondary level, and for a short contract at another middle school closer to home, and was eager to take up work at a consistent location (and have my benefits paid as a contract-teacher). I hadn’t considered what lay ahead in terms of the actual work of joining a classroom of eleven and twelve year olds in mid-May, but would find out quickly.

The class I joined had been through a lot: their original teacher was new to teaching, taking over a maternity leave in their first year of work, and the class had passed through the hands of a series of teachers on call before the job had been posted to me after they had taken their own leave. Here, my ability to manage an unpredictable or amorphous day or afternoon with a group of tweens was put into the proper context that such teaching is a sprint, and that maintaining a class’ attention, engagement, and trust for an extended period – even a few weeks – is something more than a marathon. Responding to and creating the classroom contexts and environments for students’ needs to be met is an ongoing dance and praxis. It doesn’t end, really; but rather, is always beginning. Assignments, activities, interactions between students, both among themselves, as well as between them and the teacher are each moments of potential departure, and emergence, and the classroom teacher carefully observes and analyzes each in the service of moving the community and the individuals which compose it forward, onto the next question being raised through the collective inquiry.

I had long known this to be true, I suppose. My experience with the TALONS program had been driven by a similar spirit of collaborative inquiry and narrative-building. But in the context of middle, and elementary school, where a single teacher (or pair of teachers) works with a unique cohort of students all day, every day. The more I considered the opportunity of integrating the structure of each day, its intended curricular outcomes, and an exploration of the class expressing its own needs, values, and identities, I began to consider that the road ahead might lead away from the senior grades.

Job Seeking, and September as Reinvention 

Indeed, the idea that I might find my way into teaching grade six, seven, or eight seemed to crystallize late in the school year. Even while I had known for a few months that I had been invited to the ‘pool’ of vice-principals in the district, I hadn’t been appointed to a school for the coming year when the twice-yearly shuffle of administrators was announced in May, and eagerly awaited the rounds of postings for September positions that started being posted a week later. With only a few secondary postings in my teaching area, I cast my net wide enough to include a range of middle school positions, and interviewed for several jobs for the coming year.

Including the interviews I was a part of for temporary contracts in May and June, I was invited to interview for six teaching jobs. A couple of these interviews took place over the phone, while several were in person. They took place in offices after school, during lunch, and before school (on days when I was also subbing elsewhere, making for frantic commutes across town in morning or afternoon traffic), and were mostly brief occasions for principals to explain the dynamics of the posting, or school, and for me to make the case for myself as the best person for the job.

In the end I was successful in three of those interviews, losing out twice to former colleagues from SFU also returning to the district. And while there were the technical crafts of being interviewed that stood out in the applications for temporary posts in the spring, each of the discussions I had with administrators about jobs in the coming school year represented a diverging path after which my teaching career would contain all new worlds. Having spent two years moving through so many schools and classrooms, culminating in the last weeks of May and June taking me all over the district as a sub and temporary teacher, the blankness of the page that lay ahead was inspiring, if a little daunting, to contemplate.

Late Breaking Story on the CBC

As it happened, another page was being written at the same time, and as I settled into the idea of teaching grade eight this September, I was also invited to embark into the world of administration, and join the team at Centennial as a Vice Principal.  Those last few weeks of the year – and the few I spent as a summer school teacher – would be my last as a classroom teacher for the time being, after which things would all look a little bit differently. But I am grateful for the hustle of the spring: the students I got to meet, the offices I passed through, and the connections I made along the way. I learned a lot out there about what it’s like to TOC, to be a new person, here maybe only temporarily, and to be waiting on the call out every night. While there may have been easier paths I might have walked this year, as is often the case, they may not have been as educational.