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Shifting Gears

Second-career teachers are making their mark in Ontario.

By John Hoffman
Photos: Matthew Plexman; Illustrations: Marlo Biasutti/Studio 141

A teacher stands with hands in pockets. Behind the teacher are the illustrated words, 'professional', 'hello class' and 'trust'.
John Barclay, OCT, enrolled in teacher education at age 39 after several careers including director of a theatre company.

"Last year when I was teaching Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to a high school English class, I was having amazing conversations with students about Internet censorship. I couldn’t have conceived of those kinds of conversations when I first read the classic more than 25 years ago, but they are relevant to the themes of the book. I love discussing these concepts with the students, and taking them through new experiences.”

John Barclay, OCT, is enthusing about his new profession — one that he didn’t find until he was 40. Barclay’s early career trajectory was speckled to say the least. By the time he enrolled in teacher education at age 39, he had worked at eight different jobs since graduating from university. Those jobs were so diverse that each one was almost like a separate little career: director at a theatre company; office manager for an arts collective; head of HR for a computer design company; owner of a make-your-own wine business; manager of a Cinnabon franchise; video store owner; mailroom co-ordinator for Gillette; and data entry for an insurance company.

It’s not hard to imagine Barclay’s sense of relief when, at the age of 43, he landed a full-time teaching contract with the Toronto District School Board and could finally envision a consistent career path. After quitting a particularly discouraging job in his late 30s, Barclay found himself at a crossroads. “I talked to a lot of people about what to do with my life,” he says. “I realized that of all the things I really liked to do, the common denominator was teaching.”

Barclay, who teaches at Parkdale Collegiate Institute in Toronto, has no doubt that he made the right choice. But like many other new teachers, his first few years in the profession included some uncertainty. “After graduating, I was able to get on a supply list fairly quickly, but for the first year-and-a-half I didn’t get a single call,” he says. He had to scramble for other kinds of work including a stint answering phones for the Parkinson Society Canada. Barclay was wondering if he’d ever get a teaching job when, out of the blue, he landed a long-term occasional (LTO), which kick-started his career. He would go on to do three more LTOs on the way to his full-time contract.

That’s a fairly typical early career path in Ontario’s job market, where the supply of new teachers greatly exceeds the number of retirees to the point where 50 per cent of new teachers are still underemployed or unemployed three or four years into the profession. Other data from the Ontario College of Teachers shows that, in recent years, about one-third of all newly certified Ontario teachers say that teaching is a second or subsequent career, while 12 per cent to 15 per cent of newly qualified graduates from Ontario teacher education programs were age 35 or older.

An Ontario Certified Teacher standing confidently with thumbs in pockets. The teacher is surrounded by the words, 'Patience', 'Perspective', 'Care' and 'Integrity'.
"Life experience is very helpful — you can't buy it. I've raised kids, and I've gone through good times and bad times. I think I have more patience and perspective because of that."Danielle Breau, OCT, a fight attendant for 17 years before become a teacher at 37.

Obviously it’s one thing to go through a period of unstable, uncertain employment in your 20s. It’s quite another to experience it at age 40-something, when you’re supposed to be on the threshold of your prime earning years.

Take Samantha Simpson, OCT, for instance. At age 45 she worked less than 90 days as an occasional teacher during the 2014–15 school year. That’s not a lot of income for someone who spent 11 years in a successful and reasonably well-paid career in retail publishing. “Finding yourself back at the bottom after being successful in another career is pretty hard for an older person,” she says.

Simpson had originally planned on a teaching career. However, her university academic counsellor advised her not to go into teaching because of the tough and competitive job market. That advice prompted her to forgo the idea and take a college course in magazine publishing instead. Simpson landed a job in publishing shortly after graduating and a year-and-a-half later was editing the Sears Catalogue, working her way up the company ladder. But six years ago, Simpson lost her passion for the work.

“It was a good job, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t really care if Sears ever sold another fridge,” she says. “And the opportunities for advancement were all in marketing, which didn’t really suit me.”

So in 2009 Simpson switched tracks to pursue the career she’d always wanted, enrolling at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. After graduation Simpson had trouble finding a job in the tight southern Ontario market. She did, however, find a job in Garden Hill, a First Nations community in northeastern Manitoba. “It was a great, life-changing experience, and it showed me that teaching really was where I wanted to be,” says Simpson.

After three years in the North, she decided to return home, hoping that her teaching experience would help her land a job in Ontario. No such luck. Along with the supply teaching she did in the 2014/15 school year, Simpson also found work scoring the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test and teaching summer school, but it wasn’t enough. So she decided to head north again, this time to teach Grade 8 in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

Second Calling

You might wonder why someone would trade a successful career for this kind of uncertainty. Simpson’s simple answer, “I always wanted to teach,” reflects one of the themes found in research about second-career teachers. A 1990 study out of the Bank Street College of Education in New York City identified different categories of second-career teachers. One category was “home comers,” people who saw themselves as finally getting to pursue the career they had originally wanted.

Another category of second-career teachers identified in this study was those whose decision to pursue teaching was influenced by a pivotal event. John Barclay, OCT, Sylvie Forest Palkovits, OCT, and Danielle Breau, OCT, fit into that category.

Breau perhaps straddles both camps. She had originally planned to be a teacher, but after one year of university she took a job as a flight attendant. “I thought I’d get in a few years of travel before completing my formal education,” says Breau, who is teaching Grade 3/4 French Immersion in Lakefield, Ont., this year. That few years turned into 17.

The issue that began to nudge Breau back toward teaching was the increasingly ramped up security procedures in the airline industry. “That took a lot of fun out of the job and I was ready for a change,” she says. Breau’s growing disenchantment with the airline industry, plus a severance package that helped pay for her university education, provided the impetus she needed to take the risk of career change at the age of 37.

After a checkered first few years, which started with several LTOs with the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board, Breau is thrilled to have landed a permanent position at Ridpath Public School in Lakefield.

For Sylvie Forest Palkovits — who spent 13 years working as an esthetician, receptionist and dental assistant — the decision to pursue a university education and, ultimately, teaching, was influenced by two separate pivotal events. One was her husband’s layoff from his job with a mining company. That layoff proved to be temporary, but it prompted Palkovits, who had never been to university, to pursue a degree in liberal sciences.

A portrait photo of Samantha Simpson, Ontario Certified Teacher. Samantha is smiling.
“[Teaching in a First Nations community] was a great, life-changing experience. It showed me that teaching really was where I wanted to be.”
Samantha Simpson, OCT, moved from publishing to teaching; landed her first teaching job in the First Nations community of Garden Hill, Man.
A portrait photo of Sylvie Forest Palkovits, Ontario Certified Teacher. Sylvie is smiling.
“My mother had been a teacher, so I was familiar with the profession. And I had always worked in jobs that included a caregiving role. I enjoyed that role, so teaching seemed like a good fit.”
Sylvie Forest Palkovits, OCT, spent 13 years working as an esthetician, receptionist and dental assistant before pursuing a career in teaching.

She had also considered a career in medicine, but after looking at all the factors, including post-secondary options in Sudbury, she chose teaching.

“My mother had been a teacher,” says Palkovits, who is currently a curriculum consultant in Special Education with Conseil scolaire public du Grand Nord de l’Ontario. “So I was familiar with the profession. And I had always worked in jobs that included a caregiving role. I enjoyed that role. So teaching seemed like a good fit.”

The value of life experience

Palkovits feels that her past experience stood her in good stead as she transitioned to teaching. After an initial stint as a resource teacher, which she got shortly after graduating, Palkovits was hired as a teacher in a Section 23 class at École publique Jean-Éthier-Blais in Sudbury, where she worked with students with behavioural, emotional and mental health issues.

That’s a pretty challenging assignment for a second-year teacher. Palkovits says her experience working for a dentist who specialized in treating children with special needs was a big help. “I had worked with children with Downs syndrome, autism and other challenges, and I was the mother of two teenagers,” she explains. “That gave me a lot of confidence in dealing with the children in my class.”

The value of life experience is something that virtually all second-career teachers agree on. Breau says, “Life experience is very helpful — you can’t buy it. I’ve raised kids, and I’ve gone through good times and bad times. I think I have more patience and perspective because of that.”

When it comes to being an older newbie teacher, Barclay feels that his multi-faceted job experience, including some periods of struggle, gives him a valuable perspective when talking to students about possible career paths and post-secondary education. “I know what it’s like to look for a job and not be able to find anything,” he says. “I’ve run a business where I knew that if I didn’t do my job I wouldn’t make any money. That gives me lots of experience to draw on in teachable moments.”

But it’s not really a question of comparing the relative merits of older and younger teachers. “I think schools need a mix of younger and older teachers,” says Breau. “One of the best teachers I’ve ever seen went into teaching straight from university. I have learned a lot from teachers who are younger than me.”

Mid-life career switches, in various professions, are nothing new and may well increase given the mobility of today’s workforce. “Boundaryless careers, where individuals move between organizations or switch occupations are more common than in the 1970s and ’80s,” says Eddy Ng, professor of organizational behaviour and F. C. Manning Chair in Economics and Business at Dalhousie University. “We’ve seen an increase in career mobility among Gen Xers and Millennials even in the last 10 years.”

Barclay and Breau are glad they rode out the challenges of establishing their career switches. “I think the most important thing was to just take whatever I was offered, whether it was an LTO, teaching day on/day off, or teaching a new subject,” he says. Each step, however small, helped bring Barclay to where he is today.

Breau knows some colleagues who gave up after several years of underemployment in teaching. “I thought about it myself at one point,” she says. “But instead I decided to take more Additional Qualification courses, get qualified in more divisions and keep checking the job listings. I’m really glad I stuck with it a little longer because I got that contract I wanted. I couldn’t be happier.”

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