An in-depth interview that could help determine whether you'd like to become a high school teacher.
I meet Kim Leary for our interview at Britannia Secondary, where, for the past eight years, she’s taught English and History to one of Vancouver’s most diverse groups of high schoolers. Britannia’s students come from a broad range of cultural, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and often differ greatly from one another in terms of academic ability and interest. And because the school also offers several alternative programs in addition to the “standard” curriculum, teachers at Britannia are left with a difficult—but Kim thinks exciting—challenge: engaging a classroom of students who couldn’t be more different from each other.
Grappling with that challenge has taught Kim many things over the years, but perhaps most importantly, it’s taught her the importance of being flexible. “If you get into teaching thinking that you’re going to be the boss and that you’re going to control things,” she tells me with a smile, “you will be sadly mistaken. I make plans every day that I throw out the window.”
Tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do.
I teach high school English and History at Britannia Secondary School. Generally I tend to teach seniors: Grades 10 to 12. I also run an out of school program called Homework Club that supports students with private tutoring. Within the school I’m on a number of committees, like Professional Development, that help my colleagues feel supported in their jobs.
How long have you been a high school teacher?
Since September 2007.
And what led you to this career? How did you get into it?
It was kind of a circuitous route. I used to be an accountant, and I was very bored. One day I just got it in my head that I was going to take a year off work and go to college and read books. That was my goal: to read for a year. And after I had been there for about six months, and had been watching the professors, I started to think, “I’m really interested in what they do and how they do it. I think there’s something to this.”
So I started to volunteer at Britannia—at Homework Club and also in a teacher’s classroom—and at Burnaby Youth Custody Services centre. By then I was starting to feel like teenagers was the age group I wanted to work with, and I got it into my head that if I could work with incarcerated teenagers, I would probably be good with everybody else. After that, I pursued a Bachelor’s Degree with a double major in History and English (because I couldn’t decide which to choose). Then I went to teacher's college at UBC with a major in English and a concentration in Social Studies.
I got it into my head that if I could work with incarcerated teenagers, I would probably be good with everybody else.
So to become a high school teacher, you need some sort of Bachelor’s Degree?
An undergraduate degree and then a year to get your Bachelor of Education degree.
Was it difficult to break into the industry once you finished school? How did you find your job as a teacher?
I actually have had a very charmed experience as a teacher, which is unusual. Especially because I’m an English and Social Studies teacher, which are a dime a dozen, I was told that I would have a really hard time getting a job. But in the summer that I graduated, I was hired as a Teacher On Call (TOC) by the Vancouver School Board, mostly because of somebody I knew. I got a two week gig as a TOC at Point Grey Secondary that ended up lasting until Christmas time. Then I got a call to come to Britannia, because a teacher retired over Christmas and with such short notice they couldn’t really get somebody in time. I’ve been at Britannia ever since.
So I was really lucky. But that’s not the normal route, though. I think teachers, nowadays, should expect to be on the TOC list for a couple years, no matter what subject they teach—unless they teach French. French is the way to go. Or if they’re going to go into the independent system; if they want to teach in private schools, there’s probably a lot more opportunity. But in the private school system, you don’t really become a teacher right away; you become a teacher’s assistant. They make you work with another teacher for a year before they’ll let you have your own classroom.
Teachers, nowadays, should expect to be on the TOC list for a couple years, no matter what subject they teach—unless they teach French. French is the way to go.
What drew you to teaching?
Like I said, I was drawn to teaching because of the professors I had. Again, I think I had a strange experience, because I was older when I went back to school and so I was able to get to know my professors very well on a first name basis. I got to talk to them a lot about what it’s like to work with young people. I started thinking about who I was as a student and what kind of teacher I wish I would have had then.
Also, I knew from my history in accounting that I get bored easily. So teaching was good for me, for my rhythm, because every year you get a new batch and you start all over again. It’s always a new challenge. So that’s kind of how I figured it out.
And what drew you to teaching high school, as opposed to some other age group?
Really—little kids? [Laughs] Too many fluids! Not for me. I mean, little kids are lovely. My mom always says that I made a mistake, because with little kids you really get to see the light turn on. But you also get asked to wiped somebody’s butt. The tradeoff is just not there for me.
With little kids you really get to see the light turn on. But you also get asked to wiped somebody’s butt. The tradeoff is just not there for me.
I’m sure there are some inspiring things about teaching high school, as well.
There are. You get to see people grow up; you get to see the moment when the penny drops. When you get to help students with their problems, whatever they are, it’s really rewarding.
What would you say is the best thing about your job?
The relationships with students. I like when students are into it, I like when you can engage them, but generally speaking, it’s just the talking to young people every day and being a part of their world that I like best. Having some part, large or small, in the direction of where they go. It’s a totally relationship-based job.
Is it difficult to build new relationships each year? To let go of the past year’s students and start all over again?
I do find September is always hard when the Grade 12's are gone, because by that point, you’ve been working with them for a long time. I find that teachers often have the same experience as the kids when we come back in September. You ask each other, “Oh, hey, what did you do all summer?” But then they’re gone (i.e. they graduate), you wonder, “Oh, I hope everything’s okay!” I sometimes have to resist the urge to Facebook friend them; it would be inappropriate, but I just want to know how they are.
Do you ever hear from any of your students after they graduate?
I’m lucky that the kids don’t travel very far and that a lot of them do keep in touch with me. I get to hear how they are and sometimes I get to be a part of what they’re doing in post secondary as well.
What’s the worst thing about your job?
Marking. Hands down, the worst part of the job. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. I procrastinate like crazy, and then when I sit down and do it, I have to stop because I’ve left it too long and I start to get angry and I’m giving angry grades and then that’s not good. It’s truly the worst part. Partially because the work is usually not good, and also because I have such a hard time judging students, such a hard time saying, “You are this and you are that.” That’s what their paper is, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with who they are. I find that part is really hard to do. It’s dehumanizing; you’re trying to build all these relationships, and then you hand them a piece of paper with a letter on it that often damages that relationship.
Could you walk me through a typical day?
Usually I try to get there about half an hour early to see students, get any photocopying done that has to be done, that kind of stuff. I have to sort of ease into being on. As a teacher, you’re on all day. Teaching overall is a marathon, but it’s also a series of sprints. Every day is a sprint. You blast through a class, you have a ten minute transition, you get your next group of kids, and then you blast through that class as well.
Teaching overall is a marathon, but it’s also a series of sprints. Every day is a sprint.
Then you have lunch, during which you almost always have to attend a meeting of some sort. Whether it’s a council meeting to talk about students who are in trouble or a staffing meeting, a department meeting, or a planning meeting, almost every day you’re at a meeting. Or you lead clubs with kids. So you scarf down food really quickly and then sprint through the rest of your day.
After school, most teachers usually spend from an hour to an hour and a half every day trying to put their room back together, because every classroom always looks like something exploded in it by the end of the day. You mark what you can, plan what’s going to happen for the next day, and then take all the marking that you’re going to do that night home. It’s an ongoing job; very few teachers go home at 3 pm. And most teachers don’t just go home and go home. Most teachers go home and, at some point, whether it’s right away or later on in the evening, mark and plan for the next day. Mark and plan and mark and plan and mark and plan.
Does it work out to more than 40 hours a week?
It works out to way more than 40 hours a week. I read a statistic recently that said that an average teacher works about 70 hours a week. The tradeoff is you get summers and a lot of holidays off. Before you become a teacher the summer sounds a lot better than it actually is, though.
And why is that? What’s wrong with summers?
Well, first of all, we don’t get paid. So you have a lot of time off and no money—especially when you’re starting off and you have student loans and all those sorts of things. Most teachers work summer school, because they can’t afford to live through the summer.
And then the other thing is that it takes you the first month—a whole month—just to calm down and get your head back into your life. For me, I always sleep. For the first week, I literally sleep all day, every day. Then by about three weeks into July, you’re back into yourself again; you’re all rejuvenated and ready to go. That’s the best part of summer for me. But then, two weeks into August, you’re back getting your classroom ready and everything. You don’t get paid for that, but if you don’t do it, then the first week of classes will be hell. There’s a lot of unpaid work.
What are the most common misconceptions about your job?
The idea that it’s just this 9 to 4 thing. Most teachers are there later because, like I said, it’s a relationship based thing. You get to know kids; you sponsor clubs, sponsor teams, chaperone dances, and plan grads. You also do a lot of administrative work that people probably don’t know about. My first day as a teacher, I had to collect all of this money and assign books and all of these things, and I thought, “It’s a good thing I used to be an accountant and actually have a system for doing this!” You don’t get trained for that; you just have to do it. And it’s all volunteer—a ton of your job is volunteer.
How would you describe your work life balance?
I would say that I personally am poor at it because of the other work that I do, but that it’s also something that other teachers struggle with. I very rarely see people who are successful at doing both at the same time. What you’ll often see in schools are teachers who are really committed to the school and to all of these volunteer things until they have kids of their own. Then they disappear off the scene and they become one of those 9 to 4 teachers and you don’t really see them participating in the school again until their kids are 13 or 14 years old.
What’s the social culture like as a teacher? How would you describe your relationships with other teachers?
The social culture is hard, because, in many ways, we become who we were in high school. The jocks are still the jocks, you know? You can tell who you were by what job you have; I was the English nerd in high school, but then there are the science nerds, the artsy weirdos (whatever “weirdo” means), that kind of thing. And within that, you fall back into some patterns from high school.
The social culture is hard, because, in many ways, we become who we were in high school... You can tell who you were by what job you have.
The other thing that is really challenging is that in teacher college they stress collaboration and working together, so you spend all of this time with your friends or your fellow teacher candidates sharing information and talking about the act of teaching and all of that. But then you get to school and, like I said, you’re sprinting all day long. You just wave at people and say “Hi!” as you run past them. In the first few years I was really lonely. Because teachers are in their rooms all day, you don’t really see anyone unless they walk past your door; you have to make a conscious effort. I was very busy and I couldn’t really figure out how to have lunch and things like that.
How did you break out of that loneliness?
Some older teachers took me aside and said, “Lunch is sacrosanct. You must have lunch.” I started to heed their advice. I used to think that if you’re going to be a teacher, it’s all about the students. I spend a lot of time with kids who are kind of troubled, so I used to spend a lot of my lunch hours eating with kids, helping them sort things out. I was very, very burnt out and I never had anyone to talk to about it. But once I started to heed my coworkers’ advice, it helped a lot. Now, I try to have lunch in the staff room at least twice a week so that I get to talk to adults.
What makes a teaching career a good fit for you?
The cyclical nature of it, the fact that I always get to change and improve with each new class. That at the end of the year, if something didn’t go the way you thought it would, it doesn’t have to be a failure. Next year, you can try it again; you can do something different.
It’s also a good fit because of the new students, and because I like to be busy. In my life I’ve always had multiple jobs, and as a teacher, I have multiple jobs in one building. And I just love the relationships with kids. It drives me everyday.
I like to be busy. In my life I’ve always had multiple jobs, and as a teacher, I have multiple jobs in one building.
What do you do when you’re having a really bad day and you have to teach class?
One of the things I learned to do was recognize that I’m having a bad day before I leave the house and stay home. I used to think I had to be there, that my class would fall apart without me. But then I realized that instead of coming to school and being short with people, snapping at kids who I’ve established trust with, it’s probably better to stay home.
What kind of person succeeds as a high school teacher?
It’s hard to say, because I don’t know what successful means. There are teachers who don’t necessarily like what they’re doing, but they’ve been doing it for 30 years. So that’s a kind of success, right? They don’t necessarily ever form relationships with the staff or with the students; they show up, they do their job, and they go home—and they feel good about that. But then there are teachers who put it all on the mat every single day, then leave after five years because they can’t do it anymore. You might say that they were successful while they were teaching. It’s really hard to define the “successful teacher.”
Is teaching an all or nothing profession, then?
I don’t think it has to be either or, but I also don’t see a lot of teachers who have a ton of balance; they’re either weighted one way or the other. A lot of people’s life circumstances change during their career, and the job does have the ability for you to withdraw and do those things. And I don’t think that the people who withdraw feel guilty about that; they’re having their own kids, and that’s life.
What kind of person really struggles in your career?
People who can’t see young people as just people and who become teachers because they want to have power. Any time that I’ve ever gotten myself into a dynamic that I didn’t like, it was always out of my need for power or my need to control something. Students don’t like to be controlled—nor does anyone. So if you get into teaching thinking that you’re going to be the boss and that you’re going to control things, you will be sadly mistaken. I make plans every day that I throw out the window, because the people that show up in the classroom aren’t ready for those plans. It’s a lot of changing on the fly.
If you get into teaching thinking that you’re going to be the boss and that you’re going to control things, you will be sadly mistaken. I make plans every day that I throw out the window.
What kind of advice would you give to someone considering a career in teaching?
To do it. I think it’s good work. The kids are great, and you get to be a part of shaping people’s lives. What more could you want?
In terms of the career trajectory, what kind of opportunities for promotion are there? Do people move around a lot?
It’s hard to move from school to school, because you have to take a leap of faith. You have to give up your job without knowing whether there’s another job for you. There’s this thing in spring called the Spring Transfer Process, where you have to do what’s called “turning in your card.” You say, “Next year, I will not be at Britannia,” but you don’t know yet where you’re going to be; it depends who else turns in their card. So it’s a gamble. Most people only do it if they know that there’s somebody else leaving another school. So moving between schools is difficult.
However, there are a lot of places to go. You can transfer to working for the school board, you can work for the union, you can move into administration, you can become a program administrator or a program coordinator like I am. There’s lots and lots of room to move in that respect; you don’t have to stay in the classroom forever.
Of course, there are teachers who love it and thrive on it. There’s a teacher retiring this year who’s been doing it for 40 years—who’s only ever been a classroom teacher.
What do you wish you’d known before going into this career?
How emotional it can be. I used to think that was just because of the school I work at, because of our location in the inner city. But it turns out that it’s just like that, all the time. Also how much patience it requires. I have this thing on the wall of my classroom called the “Ten Parables of Teaching.” It says things like, “Students will disrespect your time, but put your time in anyhow.” It’s there for me as a reminder; it’s really hard to remember that kids often don’t see past the end of the room.
Does that happen a lot? Students disrespecting you?
Every day. Every single day. Mostly it’s fine, but some days, all you can think is, “Why do they hate me?”
Some days, all you can think is, “Why do they hate me?”
What makes you good at your job?
I’m committed, I often have a good gut for what’s going on with students, and I’m always willing to go above and beyond if I think that person is worth it.
What was your worst classroom experience that you’ve ever had?
[Laughs] I was probably about two years in, and one of my students was very brilliant. I worked in the music industry for a while, and I listen to hip hop, so in my early days of teaching—and even now, sometimes—I would try to connect with students through street cred. This kid was a little hip hop head, but whenever I tried to connect with him at that level, he would look at me like, “Go away, old lady. Who are you?” It was so withering! Even if I think about it too much now, I get embarrassed. I turned myself into a pretzel trying to impress a 15 year old, and I was never able to do it.
Does he like you now?
No! [Laughs] No, he does not! I dream about that kid still to this day.
Do you always remember your past students so vividly?
Sometimes. But often I just remember someone as a student; I don’t remember what year, or whether I actually taught them or just knew them. That kind of gets blurred. But there are some watershed moments that just make you go, “Wow.”