Waiting for the call

Day-to-day uncertainty in the life of an occasional teacher

Illustration of a man sitting at a table staring at a phone waiting for it to ring.

Here’s a question and a Haiku for you:

Who am I?

Unsure of mornings
My yearning for a phone call
“Press 1 to accept.”

Have you guessed it? Let me give you another hint. While my work is widely recognized as a professional undertaking, I am, in truth, a member of the emerging precariat class. I’m sure you’ve heard of me before and many of you have seen me. I’ll be there for you, when you are sick and can’t get out the door. I’ll be there for you, when you have a meeting and need someone to review the Great War. I’ll always be there and hope you will too. My name is Occasional Teacher. First name, Occasional, last name, Teacher. Many people know me by my first name, for I’m not around much.

Every child is asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My response was, “teacher!” Believe me, that really was my answer; I even have proof. In Grade 8, we had to draw a family crest and one of the elements I had to include was my future career. You know what I drew: myself, all grown up, writing on a chalkboard. My dream was to be a teacher. So, throughout high school and university, I focused on that dream.

Dreams, however, are just unreal thoughts we have while we sleep. My dream was to be a teacher; I didn’t dream about being an occasional teacher, but being wide awake as I am right now, that’s what I am, an occasional teacher (OT). Occasionally needed, occasionally called, and, well, occasionally have a job. For many OTs, not in long-term positions, the morning phone call determines their happiness, financial decisions, and, in general, life choices. There should be a thriller film about this titled The Call. (Oh, wait, that title has
been taken.)

Having said that, how many individuals have a career, but don’t know whether they’re actually going into work or have an income that day? How many individuals receive a call at 7:30 a.m. telling them that they’re needed at 8:00 a.m. on the other side of the city, in rush hour?

According to Doug McAnally, President of the Occasional Teachers Bargaining Unit (OTBU) in District 19, Peel, “last year more than half of the job calls went out with less than 120 minutes before the start of the assignment.” That is less than two hours to get out of bed, get ready, eat breakfast (wait, no time for that), and get on the road. If an OT has any children, well, good luck. District 19 has over 950 occasional teachers, yet, many jobs go unfilled. For instance, in the month of November, 110 jobs were unfilled. These weren’t unfilled because OTs didn’t want these jobs—believe me, they’ll take them—but McAnally points out that often jobs are unfilled because it’s been strongly implied by some administrators that if an OT can’t get to the other side of the city in time, they should not accept the job at all. As a result, if the call went out too late no one picked up the job.

Now, let’s say that an OT does pick up a job and go in. If your day goes well, it’s probably because there’s a seating plan, a good lesson plan, and maybe a note that says, “Keep an eye on ________. If they are a problem, don’t be afraid to call the contact room or an admin.” Those are the best days in an OT’s life. However, sometimes, the OT will walk into the school and must roll with the punches, figuratively, of course. Sondeep, an occasional teacher, mentions that the most difficult times for her are when she’s expected “to know everything about the class,” but she doesn’t have any information about students with Individual Education Plans (IEP). This is a liability concern for an OT because they are expected to be aware of the IEP and make accommodations, regardless of the fact that they may only be there for a day. When surveyed at the OTBU District 19 Member Engagement Conference in October, many occasional teachers were clear about what they hope to find when they are to supply for a teacher: lesson plan, seating plan, list of important telephone extensions, and IEPs. These would help occasional teachers to be effective members of the board.

Here’s a new oxymoron: unpredictable career. According to Oxford Dictionaries, a career is “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.” With the unpredictability of the OT life, there are very few opportunities to progress. In this unpredictable career, the income that an OT earns cannot keep up with the increasing cost of living.

Through severe financial constraints, many OTs will continue to wait for the call. Why would they put themselves through this? Because if they’re anything like my Grade 8 self, they’ve always wanted to be a teacher, and they find it rewarding when they’re working with kids. That’s what motivates them to persevere through hardships of the OT life. They’ll even take on two or three jobs and “wait-it-out,” hoping that someday the system will favour them. For now, though, this is a system in which the OT is undervalued. And that is detrimental to the occasional teacher, to the many hopeful graduates who will keep dreaming, to the school, and most importantly, to the students, who may be left without a teacher. When asked about her experiences, Sondeep, an occasional teacher, echoing Drake, said, “OT, OT, there’s never much love when we go OT.” Sadly, that’s the sentiment of many occasional teachers of the precariat class. To allow these individuals to live saner, happier, and financially stable lives, change in the system is necessary.

About Manprit Ahluwalia
Manprit Ahluwalia is an occasional teacher in District 19, Peel. She is an executive member of the Occasional Teacher Bargaining Unit and serves on the Communications Committee.

2 Comments on Waiting for the call

  1. Manjit Sandhu // March 11, 2017 at 1:44 pm // Reply

    Your write up resonates my feelings

  2. I love the drake reference! lol

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