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Lessons from a high school teacher

It’s back to school season. Here’s what I wish my students knew about their future.
September 15, 2017, 11:46am

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Life’s hardest lessons can’t be taught in the classroom. As a high school teacher, I try to help my students with the daunting concepts of chemistry and biology, but I know there are some things I can’t help them understand. Some lessons can only be learned by living them.

It’s exam week in June as I write this, and that always means the seniors are anxious. Anxious about exams, anxious about prom, anxious about grad ceremonies and their final grades, and anxious to get out of school and into the real world. I find myself having the same conversations with them: You’ll only get things if you work hard; the only person who can help you to succeed is you; mommy and daddy won’t be able to protect you forever; the list goes on.

But I know this won’t be enough to prepare them. Nothing prepared me for what I had to deal with after receiving my last diploma.

I chose a profession that I was very familiar with. We all know teachers. After all, we spend a good chunk of our lives sitting in front of them. But I grew up with two educators as parents. So when I told my parents I was going to go to teacher’s college after completing my Honours Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience, they weren’t surprised.

Teaching made sense to me, and I knew the deal: lots of gifts at Christmas, taking evenings, weekends, and the summer off, and earning enough money to go on holidays and live in a nice semi-detached home in the core of Toronto. I later found out that none of those things would hold true for me.

Life’s hardest lessons can’t be taught. But I figured I’d give it a try.

Lesson #1: Your goals will take work. A lot of it.

I knew a lot of people who were going into teacher’s college around the same time as me, and although we’d all heard the rumours about how there weren’t any jobs, it didn’t deter us. And after graduation, I was able to land a teaching position. However, the job I got wasn’t the one I expected. Upon being hired, I was told that the rumours really were true: there were no permanent jobs anywhere, and I was to be a substitute teacher. This meant that from 5 p.m.-11 p.m., or 6 a.m.–9 a.m., I might get a call informing me of a job location for the next (or same) day. I got paid about $200 a day, which worked out to about $30,000-$40,000 a year, depending on how often I got the call. I did this for five years.

I later found out that I was one of the lucky ones. I knew so many teachers (including my husband, my sister, and a friend I’ve had since childhood) who simply weren’t able to find a job teaching in Ontario.

During those early years I also worked at a community centre as an evening receptionist, picked up night school courses (twice a week), taught summer school in July, and worked at a camp in August. That’s five years of no Christmas gifts, no evenings off, and no summer holidays.

But I’m not complaining. If you want certain things, you’ve really got to work for them. Sure, I could have done my substitute work and then gone home, but I wanted to go on holidays and eventually afford that semi-detached home with a nice backyard in a nice area. So I sucked it up and I worked. Many people thought I was nuts for working so much. But I wanted certain things, and I was going to work to ensure I could get them.

There’s a happy ending to this story: I finally became a permanent teacher (six years after graduation) at a lovely school, with lovely students and an awesome staff.

Lesson #2: You can’t always get what you want.

I still haven’t gotten that semi-detached house. And I’ve realized that I might never be able to. My husband and I make decent amounts of money, but when we were looking to buy two years ago, we just couldn’t afford my dream house. We decided that condo ownership was possible, and purchased (well, with a 25-year mortgage) a condo near my work for $320,000. Our down payment — which all but drained my bank account — was half of what my parents had paid for our family home in Greektown in the 1980s.

I was floored. My parents were floored. My husband had a more realistic outlook: We don’t live in the 1980s, so what did I expect?

It’s so true. I see so many young people disillusioned with the housing market today. My closest friends have all moved to the suburbs to afford their houses, but that wasn’t an option for a TTC gal like me. Yes, the market right now is ridiculous, but feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to change anything.

Lesson #3: Be grateful for what you have.

My husband and I work very hard to be able to afford what we can, and I don’t try to have the lifestyle that my parents had. Do I wish it were different? Sure. Will I ever be able to live in that little semi-detached house in the heart of Toronto? Maybe, maybe not. But what I have learned from this situation is that I need to be happy with what I have, and with what I can afford.

I always try to explain to my students, especially those leaving the safe confines of high school life, that the grass will always be greener on the other side. We can’t expect life to hand us all that we desire. I mean, why would it? Many young adults expect life to be what they see on Instagram: parties and fun. I’ve learned is that yes, you can have fun, but expect to work hard for it. That lifestyle won’t fall into your lap.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue working during the summer, and at night school, so that I will be able to get the lifestyle I want. Who knows, maybe I’ll get that backyard one day.

The writer is featured in Part 2 of VICE Money’s video series on how young people in Canada navigate a hostile financial landscape. You can watch it here.