I started teaching in September 1986, three weeks before my twenty-first birthday. I taught high school English and History at Kingsway College, a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school in Oshawa, Ontario. I was young and naive and did everything wrong, but it was the beginning of a lifelong journey as a teacher.
When I walked into my classroom at The Murphy Centre this September, it marked the thirty-year anniversary of the first time I stood in front of the classroom as a teacher.
For a teacher here in Newfoundland, that anniversary has some weight. For a long time the set-up for teachers with the public school board here in the province has been “thirty and out,” meaning that after 30 years of teaching, you can retire and draw your full pension.
So, this would be it. I’d be done, finished, retired with a full pension while I’m still young and healthy enough to do lots of writing and travel, or even take up a second career. I’d be livin’ the dream.
Except I’m not. Not living that particular dream, the one where I retire at age 50.
In order to get “thirty and out,” you’d have to have been teaching in the public school system here in the province for all those years, consecutively. I think if you take maternity leave, that time counts towards your years of service, but other than that you have to have been working all that time. And that’s not what my career path has looked like.
First off, I started teaching outside my home province — and in a private school, where the years I worked weren’t even eligible for any kind of buy-back scheme. After teaching outside the province for five years, I came home and taught for a few years in the school system here, racking up 5.5 years of pensionable earnings.
Then I had a baby. And instead of taking my (then) six months of allowed maternity leave and going back to work, I decided to put off going back to work. Jason had just graduated from Engineering and gotten a job, and we were used to living on one paycheque anyway, so I took some additional time without pay. Then I had a second baby. When I finally had to decide whether to go back to the school board that was still holding a position for me after three years of unpaid leave, I chose instead to give up the coveted full-time position. I spent seven years at home with my kids, earning a master’s degree part time, writing, and being a stay-at-home mom.
When I did go back to work, I didn’t apply for a job back in the school system. Instead, I went to work teaching young adults at The Murphy Centre — again, a private institution outside the public school system, where my years of service don’t count towards a pension from the Newfoundland government.
So I started teaching 30 years ago this fall, but I’ve only actually taught for about 22 years. And of those, only 5.5 years were pensionable. So there’s no question of me retiring with a full pension this year. (I do have other retirement savings, in case anyone’s worried. Just not enough to retire this early).
That’s not a huge loss, because I still love my job. I love this time of year, a month into the school year as I’m really getting to know new students, finding out what their abilities and challenges are. I love the organization I work for, and my co-workers. Yes, as I said in my last blog post, I do sometimes think wistfully about being a full-time writer, but that’s a dream for the future, not what I want to be doing right now.
But here’s the thing: I do not have one second of regret for following a twisty, turning career path that did not lead me to the obvious goal. I know there are some teachers who put in 30 years in the public system and still manage to be both engaged and engaging in their final year of teaching, and they are wonderful, gifted human beings. I’ve also known some who drag themselves across the finish line in those last few years, with little energy to spare for their students or their subject matter. I’m afraid I might be in that latter category if I’d stuck with the same job in the same system all those years. It’s a stressful job, and it wears a lot of people out.
I don’t regret starting my career at Kingsway — not only did I get the valuable experience of living on my own far from home at 21, but during those four years I met some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I don’t regret a minute of the seven years I spent at home when the kids were small. I’m thrilled to have had those years with them, and I’ve always been grateful that our financial situation allowed us to do it. And the job I’ve held longest, the ten years I’ve spent in adult education, is the richest and most rewarding teaching I’ve ever done.
I guess my take-away here, the advice I’d given any young person starting out, is that you don’t have to commit yourself to decades of doing something you’re not enthused about, just because it promises financial security or a pension check or whatever at the end. It’s OK to take side roads and unexpected turns, if life offers them to you.
Yes, financial security matters. And I recognize there’s a huge amount of privilege involved in even talking about choosing between the career path that’s most fulfilling versus the one that gives you the best retirement plan. Lots of people don’t have that choice; they just worry about finding the job that will enable them to pay today’s bills.
But if you ever are in the lucky position where you can make these kinds of choices, remember that a pension cheque is nice, but loving what you do matters, too. And I am grateful for every working year (both working at school, and working at home) that I’ve put in since September of 1986.
I’m looking forward to seeing what this year will bring.