Feature

Are You Ms Green Today? Identity and Occasional Teaching

Maureen Coleman

Looking back, I realize my teaching career was blessed by a unique and wonderful combination of factors; so in February 2003, when I decided to retire the following June, I surprised even myself with my quick decision. After 34 years of teaching, I still felt alive and vital.

I had taught at Brown School in Toronto for most of my career, and had loved my split-level, balconied kindergarten with its enormous picture windows and a door to the yard. I loved the neighbourhood, and I enjoyed the children and parents. Debbie, my assistant, and I had shared the room successfully for 22 years. We were known in the community as 'maureenanddebbie. '

I had been active in the Federation for most of my career. After Elementary Teachers' of Toronto (ETT) founded our newspaper Dialogue in 1999, I became the editor. A number of passionately committed classroom teachers became involved in writing excellent research articles for the paper, and with Premier Mike Harris continuing his rampage against teachers, there was a lot to write about. This collective passion would eventually win us the 2003 ETFO newsletter (multi-sheet) award.

My retirement party was held in a large light filled venue. The party raised $2,200, which was given to the Campaign for Public Education. It was the least I could do to support Brown's activist parents. On the last day of term, one of my student's father had tears in his eyes as he thanked me for my work with his children. I felt validated.

I considered the positive aspects of occasional teaching, as a retired person, and the list grew.

There will be, for example, no report cards to write when you are an occasional teacher, unless you choose a long-term assignment. You are also limited to 95 days a year, but this was more time working than I would need. You don't have to be part of a committee. You are not expected to do extra-curricular activities. You rarely have to fill in forms. You can decide, at any time, to change your mind about how much you want to teach. You can take a two-week leave any time. You can even refuse an assignment without explanation. What other postretirement job has such flexibility? The extra cash is handy. If you teach half a day in a pleasant neighbourhood, you can enjoy a nice walk after class.

In September I arrived at my first school. There were no fanfares. I had no status. I had to adapt, quickly, to whatever situation presented itself.

Over the next few months I learned what it meant to be an occasional teacher. It meant that almost every day at work you would be the new teacher on the block. I had crossed over into a different world* I was no longer one of us. I was now one of them. My identity was changed, but to those who might enquire if I was someone else - "Are you Ms Green today"? - I'd say, "No, I'm Maureen Coleman, actually, but I'm in Ms. Green's room." "Are you the occasional"? "Yes, I'm here for today."

Nobody on staff knew how much experience I'd had or what I'd done in life. This wasn't important. The job needed doing right now, and everything needed to be synchronized, fast, especially when classes had to be moved from one room to another. In one particular school the music teacher was so impatient with the speed of my attendance taking that she took the attendance book right out of my hand. Did she know about the wonderful choir I used to direct?

In another school, I went to the wrong stairwell for stair duty. I had not managed as yet, on that particular day one, to differentiate the southwest from the northeast stairwell, but now I definitely know the difference, thanks to the passion with which I was reminded. I'll be ready if I ever return.

John Bertram is a well-known speaker on occasional teaching, health and wellness, new teachers, and managing the curriculum. He has been invited by ETFO to speak in Windsor, Renfrew, Essex, and Perth, to name just a few places. He is currently writing a book on survival in the classroom for occasional teachers. I met his wife on a visit to a school where I was teaching kindergarten, and she was kind enough to facilitate an interview with John.

During our interview, he suggested that on first meeting students, you "set the curriculum aside for the first 20 minutes, and get to know the children. It is time well spent. Respect is something you give and you get back. You get to know the helpers, the shy ones, and the problematic ones. The children are like piranhas. They smell blood."

The occasional-teaching playing field, he suggested, is not level in Ontario. "There is a lack of consistency in regard to hiring criteria for contract and occasional teachers. For example, in Renfrew, most occasional teachers are retired; in Ottawa, there is a mix of retired teachers, and regular occasional teachers; while in Essex, the board does not allow any retired teacher on its list."

To complicate the matter, many aspiring contract teachers on the occasional lists feel vulnerable to what they feel is their board's mixed message in regard to the hiring of long-term occasional teachers for contract positions. Bertram's response to my question was to say that "the general perception that occasional teachers who wish to be full-time contract teachers might be passed over by boards if they take long term occasional positions is currently just a rumour."

The rules for occasional teaching vary from board to board. In some boards, he said, it goes on your record if you turn down an assignment. In others, a school does not have a choice of which occasional teacher to request. "Inconsistencies throughout the system are a big issue."

The survival kit is something Bertram takes with him to teacher workshops. It contains important items like a pen and paper, Tylenol, bottled water, cough medicine, and some germ-fighting waterless hand wash.

There are a number of unofficial subgroups of occasional teachers. In Toronto, the retired teachers make up 30 percent to 40 percent of the group. There are also the career occasional teachers, who spend many years dedicated to a few schools. They are like full-time staff in their loyalty to their school or schools. Then there is the newly hired group of teachers, many of whom are hoping to find a contract job as soon as possible. There are also those who do not have a particular niche but are available for many positions.

Retired occasional teachers can be extremely outspoken. This is the group which has "paid its dues" to the board. Retired teachers pick and choose their schools with an eye to the all round congeniality of the environment. Many will refuse to work with an administration they perceive as highhanded and/or condescending.

Career occasional teachers identify with their schools to the extent they feel they belong there. They become very unhappy when they suddenly fall out of favour with a school because their jobs have been taken over by returning retirees. I have not pursued jobs at my old school because the school has at least three career occasional teachers on the 'preferred' list. Stability of employment is crucial to these teachers' wellbeing.

One occasional career teacher lamented the absence of sick days and other perks for career occasional, and not being paid for experience. She has watched the children in her care grow from year to year, and she is familiar with the school's entire curriculum. She would bargain, if she could, for increased board recognition for the work she does. Occasional teachers are often the first to fall prey to any misunderstanding that might occur in regard to their assignment.

In Toronto, so many calls are dispatched to so many teachers that the calls are still going out 15 minutes after class has started. It is important for occasional teachers who accept late assignments to call the school to say they will be late, and even then it is important to realize there will be some administrators who may still blame the teacher for being late, regardless. Occasional teachers in Toronto should be aware that the board keeps an accurate time log of all calls made to occasional teachers, so the call can always be traced if necessary, and the teacher's statement confirmed.

It is now several months into my retirement and my occasional teaching career. I have grown used to the change. Despite some of the pitfalls, I find each day to be an exciting challenge. I enjoy the changing scenery on my way to work. I am now able to adapt to teaching a variety of grades, whereas in the past I would only teach kindergarten or music. I also enjoy visiting different schools and experiencing their culture. I have been in a number of truly inspiring classrooms and have learned a lot about program delivery. I have also enjoyed meeting different teachers, most of whom I find welcoming and friendly. I don't care any more about identity or about the idea of status.

Would I recommend occasional teaching to others? For retired teachers, if you enjoy a little variety in life, and can use the money, then I would say it offers more flexibility than most part-time jobs. For potential contract teachers, it is an excellent way to learn about the "system". For career occasional teachers, it can be rewarding if you can collect a few schools and feel you belong to a couple of them.

ETFO has developed an extensive resource for occasional teachers entitled The Occasion to Lead; available from shopETFO for $15.

Maureen Coleman retired in 2003 from Brown Public School in Toronto. She received the 2003 ETFO Editor's Award, (multi-sheet) for Dialogue, published by Elementary Teachers of Toronto. Maureen is now an occasional teacher in Toronto.