How far would you go to realise your dream? What personal rules would you bend and break? Canadian teacher Tshari Mulrain never ever dared to think this far.
There was always a plan
There are many things in my life that I knew for sure I would do. I knew I would graduate high school. I knew I would go to university. I knew that no matter which area of interest I decided to explore in university that the route would always guide me to eventually becoming a teacher.
I knew from the age of 6 that being a teacher was what I wanted to do. Inspired by my love of kids, I always knew that it was my calling. What I did not know, however, was where that path would take me or how I would even get there.
Toronto’s Teacher Grind
In Ontario, becoming a teacher in the last 10-15 years has been, for lack of a better word, a nightmare. For many years, graduates of teaching programmes in Ontario knew the odds of getting a teaching job, even just a supply teaching job, were slim to none.
Unless you were one of the lucky few who were qualified to teach French, unless by some miracle you managed to get on a supply teaching list that got your foot into the very heavily barricaded door, you left teacher’s college with a very expensive piece of paper and no teaching job to show for it. I’ve had conversations with many young teachers in the past during my volunteer days, hearing their stories of how they finally made it to the promised land of a permanent teaching position.
I volunteered in one teacher’s class while I was in university whose story always stayed with me as the years have gone on. She graduated her teaching programme like everyone else. She was one of the many who decided to take their teaching abroad for a little while – teaching in China for a few years.
When she came back, however, after having a few years of teaching in an accredited international school, she was forced to work three jobs just to get by. She did get on the list to be called for supply jobs, but there were too many supply teachers and not enough jobs.
I recall this story often. I even recall this story today, 7 years later. But this story in a way, sheds a little light on where my story begins.
Time to change Tact
In 2018, 6 months after graduating from my teaching programme. I was lucky to get a position on the supply teaching list that past September, however, the schools were located over an hour away. An hour isn’t bad when you can have a nice drive, enjoy the sights, listen to your favourite tunes and just chill out. But that definition is not synonymous with driving in Toronto.
Driving in Toronto is a special breed of driving. Anyone who has spent any time at all in Toronto will know, Toronto driving isn’t for the faint of heart. Highway 401, the main highway in the city, is considered the worst highway in Canada, and one of the worst in all of North America, with drivers spending an average of over 140 hours in traffic each year. And lucky for me, this supply job took me right through the middle of it. One of the things I used to say that I knew for sure that I would never do. Strike 1.
I did it a couple times a week in the beginning, leaving between 6:30am to 6:45am to arrive by 8:00am to a place that when there was no traffic (so the hours of 10pm and 4am, if we’re lucky) would take maybe 40-45 minutes, would often take over an hour. Most mornings, I was lucky and actually gave myself too much time, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
One accident or one lane closure due to construction and you were done for. I couldn’t say the same for the afternoons. I would leave immediately at 3:40pm and zoom out of there. It didn’t matter whether there was construction or not, an accident or not. Once it hit 4 o’clock and everyone was leaving the city for the suburbs, you would be stuck.
Tack an accident or construction or lane closures or accidents causing lane closures or construction causing accidents or accidents causing accidents…well good luck arriving home before 5pm.
On a really bad rush hour day, I’ll never forget a day I got home at the back of 6pm. Suffice to say, I hated it. I hated everything about it. The constant traffic was one thing, but to top it all off I was supplying in schools where I felt unappreciated by staff and absolutely disrespected by the kids. The whole combination had me completely defeated.
I stopped taking supply calls and eventually quit because it just became too much. My ambition of being a teacher, the one thing I always wanted to be, the only thing I was qualified to do, slipped further and further out of my grasp. I was qualified to teach basic French, but that was the last thing I wanted to do. The only reason I did it was so I could get a job, but it wasn’t worth it. I was miserable.
This was not how I intended for my road to teacherdom to pan out. Throughout university and teacher’s college, I would get comments from friends and family about going to teach in the UK. Loads of graduates did it, it wasn’t uncommon. It was just something I knew with every fibre of my being that I absolutely, without a doubt, was not going to do. That was one thing in my life I knew for certain. How could I leave the country for a year or two and miss out on possible opportunities to get my foot in the door? I just couldn’t. And I wouldn’t do it.
Except that I did. Much to my own surprise even to this day. I, who had always put my foot down about ever going abroad, with one of the main reasons being that everyone did it, I did just that.
After those first few months going back and forth in the delightful Toronto traffic and then finally quitting, I had no idea what to do. I wasn’t getting interviews in my own area, many if not all weren’t even hiring at the time. I had no plan, and for a perpetual planner, it did not sit right with me.
One day in late January I was scrolling through Instagram (as you do when you don’t have a job) and came across a sponsored post about teaching in Scotland. Posts like these weren’t unusual. In fact, there are countless Canadian companies recruiting teachers for the UK, however, when they say the UK, they typically just mean England. I thought to myself, “Oh that’s interesting. I’ve never seen Scotland advertised before.” And I scrolled passed.
Days later, a friend of mine was messaging and she sent me a post that she’d seen on Facebook…looking for teachers to teach in Scotland. The same post that I’d seen. I hadn’t even told her about. I’d never even given Scotland a second thought. Living in North America, when you hear United Kingdom you automatically assume England first. But, Scotland? I knew nothing about Scotland.
I’d been to England at the age of 6 for Christmas one year, right in the middle of Spice Girls mania, so I was absolutely delighted on this trip. My mum and I were also headed that way for Harry and Meghan’s wedding in just a few months. But what did I know about Scotland? Haggis? Kilts? Harry Potter train? That was the extent of my knowledge.
Something in me, however, told me that I couldn’t just ignore this. I’d seen the post and my friend had seen the post…well it couldn’t hurt to just enquire. So I did. I didn’t know from the moment that I clicked send on that enquiry form that my life would change forever.
I’d sent in my enquiry some time in February and within a matter of days I’d spoken to a recruiter, made a profile and had my name on a list for interviews that were taking place in late April in Toronto.
Council representatives along with some of these recruiters would be present at a recruiting fair doing interviews. At this time, I happened to be studying French and living with a host family in Quebec, so at the time I felt pressured to agree, but with no real commitment. I thought I’d just cancel when the time came, because like I said, I was not going to the UK to teach.
Fast forward to the end of April, having just returned home from my stint studying French, having forgotten all about these interviews, I began looking forward to my trip east over the ocean, when I got an e-mail asking if I would still be attending the interview. Oh yeah, that. Crap. What was going to do? I’m not going to Scotland anyway, so what’s the point? I’m sure I made up some lie about working that I knew karma would get me back for, but ultimately, I was not going.
Destiny doesn’t let you off lightly
The interview day came and went, and I had rid it from my mind. Until the next day…I thought this was over. But no, I got an e-mail saying that whoever from the council (what council? Who?) still wanted to interview me, would I be available on Tuesday? Are you kidding me? I thought this was over. Okay, yes fine, I will interview. I have no experience and will likely not get hired anyway so sure, let’s just get this over with.
Well Tuesday came. I spoke to the UK/Canada recruiter, who transferred me to the Scottish education person, who then interviewed me for about 10 minutes over the phone. The UK/Canada recruiter phoned me back within about 10 minutes and informed me that the Scottish education rep wanted to hire me. Come again…? I was shocked! For one, was not expecting a response within 10 minutes of finishing! But number two, who thinks that my very much unprepared answers were sufficient enough to warrant me teaching their children over the ocean? But someone did.
For an entire week this UK/Canadian recruiter, who was actually based in the UK, e-mailed and phoned trying to convince me to say yes to this job. I didn’t know what to do. This wasn’t part of the plan. Remember, I said one of the things I knew I for sure would not do was leave the Great White North for a year or two to go teach in the UK. It was one of the things I absolutely knew to be true.
Except after one week of sleepless nights and uncertainty and a phone call with the recruiter who was clearly very good at her job, I heard myself saying to her “Okay, I’ll do it.” The thing I knew for sure that I would never do, I had just agreed to. I guess I was going to Scotland. Strike 2.
Glasgow, Edinburgh…The Highlands?
The icing on the cake of this whole thing was that I only found out after I had agreed to this that the position would be not in Edinburgh or Glasgow or somewhere outside of the only two places in Scotland that I knew. I was going to the Highlands…wait what? Where? The Highlands? You mean that’s a real place? People actually live there?
I thought it was just a place with lots of mountains and trees. So you mean it’s like an actual place? Huh, who knew. When you over the ocean and you think of the United Kingdom, you think England. When you think of Scotland, you think Edinburgh or Glasgow. The Scottish Highlands? Other than the fact that it’s green and has mountains, no concept whatsoever. For the next few months, this idea had never really hit me. I went through the motions of getting visas, booking plane tickets, connecting with my now dear friend, Tony, who at the time I only knew to be the Head Teacher of the school. It was a strange few months.
I’m not even sure it really hit me even when I landed by myself in Inverness Airport with three suitcases and no freaking clue how I was getting to this little Highland town called Tain. Looking from above in the airplane I remember thinking “Where the hell am I? What have I done?” And not because I thought I would dislike it, I thought it was amazingly beautiful from above. But as a person who thrives on knowing exactly what is going to happen and when, this brought me completely out of my comfort zone.
I had never even been to Scotland before. I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know anyone. Luckily I bought a SIM card at Tesco Express next to my hotel during overnight layover at Heathrow Airport. But I had no clue. Where do you get a bank account? How was I going to get to this little village called Bonar Bridge when just by looking at a map from Tain to Bonar Bridge, it did not seem like it was even possible. I was completely alone. And yet, as I look back almost 3 years on, I was never alone.
The experience of a lifetime
My years in Scotland were some of the absolute best of my life. Despite the challenges and all the things I had to overcome, the little village school that meant absolutely nothing to me in July 2018, now means everything to me. The names that were just names – Tony, Lisa, Sandra, Linda, Dawn, Mrs. Lockie, Jen, Joan, Karen, Janice, Val.
All these names of people who 3 years ago today were not even a thought in my mind, whose faces I could not pick out of a crowd. The people who embraced me, the little Canadian. Who helped, supported, guided me. Who became my family while my own family was 5,000 miles over the ocean. These people, every single one of them, they mean the absolute world to me.
The ups and downs that we went through in the last 3 years, they have all forever left an imprint on my life and in my heart. I will never be able to thank them enough for everything they did, and continue to do for me, even while I’m now 5,000 miles away. The love that I have for all of them, for the Highlands, for Scotland, while something that I knew for a fact that I would hands down, over my dead body, couldn’t pay me enough to ever do, it’s become the one thing in my life that I would do over and over and over again. And I have them to thank for that.
I have them to thank for my newfound understanding of life. It doesn’t matter what you think you say will happen or what you say you will or won’t do. Life leads you to where you’re meant to be. Or as I have since learned and heard many a time from my Scottish family ‘What’s for you, won’t go by you’.
My journey to the Highlands and back again has been one that when I look back when I’m old and grey, it will be one that will have made one of the biggest impacts on my life.
I’ve since returned to the other side of the ocean, with things not quite looking the same as when I left (though the pandemic has a lot to do with that). And while I look the same and feel the same, I know deep down that that experience has changed me for the better. It’s made me a better person, and has turned me into the teacher I am now. My current class knows all about my adventures in Scotland and I’m happy to oblige when they ask to hear stories.
I hope that they internalise my story and that when it’s time for them to make decisions on their own lives that they remember that the plan doesn’t always have to be the plan and you can take the unintended road and end up with some pretty amazing outcomes.