By Richard Warrington, teacher teaching on call, West Vancouver
It’s 7:30 a.m. As recommended, I’ve arrived extra early at the school. So early in fact, that no one else is here yet. Normally, the main door would be unlocked. But this is COVID time, and being a TTOC just got a whole lot more complicated. I try the phone number pasted on the window. No answer. Office staff aren’t likely to be here until around 8:00 a.m. I wait, hoping to be able to get into the classroom soon. Luckily, the vice-principal comes out of her office and lets me in. I can get started—and there’s a lot to do. First order of business is to complete the daily health check. This one is online. Then I’ll need to find the office, sign in, and get directions to the staff and photocopy rooms.
I’m in my fourth year of TTOC-ing for both SD45 West Vancouver and SD44 North Vancouver. What I love about this job is the constant variety. Normally, I cover a range of subjects in both elementary and secondary schools. I was used to getting a new “job” every day, but even that is different in the time of COVID. Much more often, it’s week-long dispatches, covering teachers who need to self-isolate because of infection or the risk of potential transmission. This change in working conditions has also affected other TTOCs.
I met Melanie, a first-year TTOC, in a school staffroom while she was preparing for her first day on the job. As a new teacher, Melanie was eager to get experience but also to get her own class and classroom and begin to build her career. I spoke with her again recently:
“Although I am happy to gain the experience as a new teacher, I find it to be quite an overwhelming time to be entering the field. Not only do I find myself navigating typical new-teacher challenges (learning classroom management strategies, curriculum content, building student-teacher relationships) but the added layer of COVID safety protocols is a lot to absorb. Bouncing from school to school, I find that I am constantly trying to keep up because every school and every teacher has their own way of implementing safety protocols. In addition, TTOCs are exposed to more individuals than anyone else in the profession. I just kind of put my head down and do my job, but it’s hard not to be hyper-aware of this. I had the opportunity to take a full-time contract in January and jumped on it. I was interested in the role, but to be honest, the idea of staying in one place with the same group of students seemed like a much safer option.”
Both Melanie and I are concerned about our personal safety when considering which dispatches to accept. We both feel a sense of responsibility to help out where and when needed, but there is the added risk of exposure to a disease that for some is fatal and for many others carries serious consequences. TTOC-ing is never easy and the addition of health and safety protocols, which are vital for safety, makes moving through the day feel more like progress through molasses.
Everyone knows what a TTOC does, and many of us have been TTOCs at some point during our careers. Often, you arrive at a school you don’t know to teach a class you’ve never seen before and a subject you may not be familiar with. None of this is new. It’s part and parcel of the nomadic working conditions of a TTOC. What is new is the added risk imposed as a result of contact with multiple classes in the course of a day. Sometimes, dispatch information isn’t clear on how many different classes are involved in an assignment. This makes it difficult to assess the level of risk when deciding to accept a dispatch.
Many TTOCs are isolated from school communities and don’t have established professional networks to lean on. The pandemic has made even normal day-to-day socializing with colleagues much more difficult. Ever-present is concern for the safety of students, one’s own personal health, and the risk to family at home.
The uncertainty and stress of these unusual times has taken a toll on many teachers, and perhaps TTOCs especially. During a recent BCTF meeting, attendees were treated to a guided tour of Starling Minds, the free online wellness program available to all BCTF members and their families (see below). It was like a spa visit, just virtually. I found it very calming and reaffirming. It felt like curling up with a warm cup of tea while listening to relaxing music and getting a sense that the universe is unfolding as it should, despite everything going on. I’m going to go back and listen again.
It’s also very welcome news that the vaccine is finally on its way to all staff working in schools. Because of my age, I’ve already been able to get my first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine. I will of course continue to observe all protocols for others’ safety, but now, two weeks after my shot, I find the protection provided by the vaccine gives a huge sense of relief.
Despite the challenges of the past year, TTOCs worked hard every day to support and encourage students and provide effective teaching. As we all slowly move toward whatever our “new normal” is going to be, it’s good to know there will always be great teachers ready to support students. A lot of the great teachers I know are TTOCs.
When I finally get to the classroom, I spend some time reading and re-reading the TTOC notes so I have an idea of how to do what the classroom teacher has planned. I write my name on the whiteboard next to the date and plan for the day. I make a note of where things are in the classroom and preread the class list, so I don’t stumble on too many names, as well as any medical notes on individual students. I check the emergency procedures in place for COVID as well as those for fire, earthquake, and lockdown. I’m ready. And just in time too. The first bell has gone and I can hear students coming down the hall. The first few students come into the classroom, hang their coats and look over at the stranger sitting at their teacher’s desk. Tentatively, a couple of students come closer.
“Are you going to be our teacher today?” asks one.
“Yes, yes I am,” I say, smiling and looking forward to the day.