Photo of Sir William Perkins's School (from www.swps.org.uk)
Moving to another country involves drive, resilience, and flexibility
In early 1980, our family was happily settled in Ottawa. One day my husband Ryan* was offered an exciting new position with a Canadian bank in London, England so we discussed the pros and cons of accepting. The timing felt right.
I was just completing a Masters in Education so had no job to quit; our boys were only six and nine so their biggest change would be from French Immersion to all-English school.
And I thought, “When I’m in my 80s I don’t want to have lived my entire life in Ontario and Quebec! The world is a big place.” We said yes, expecting to live overseas for two to three years.
In mid-May we stored most of our belongings, bid adieu to our aging-but-encouraging parents, and flew
away. The bank put us up in a swanky two-storey flat in Chelsea (with a spiral staircase, no less) while we searched for a house to rent. As Ryan settled into his new office, I took the boys to exciting places like the Tower of London and Madame Tussaud’s.
Putting Down Roots
We settled in Woking, Surrey. Summer term ran from June 1st to mid-July, so the kids were soon back in the classroom, which freed me up to start a job search. Determined to start using my new counselling skills, I researched local psychologists, counsellors, and Marriage Guidance – a huge challenge because I had zero contacts on which to draw, and the Internet didn’t exist.
Two factors may have worked against me: my degrees were from McGill University and University of Ottawa, and it seemed Brits felt off-shore studies were inferior; the concept of sharing highly personal traumas with a stranger didn’t fit the English “stiff-upper-lip” culture.
After school restarted in September, the futility of my job search became depressing. The boys’ school
day included lunch, afterschool sports, and supervised homework until 6 pm. As our fully furnished house came with gardener and cleaner, I had nothing much to do and no friends to play with while the rest of the family was meaningfully occupied.
Noticing a poster about MIND – a mental health charity in England and Wales – I applied to be a volunteer counsellor, hoping to build my credibility. Better than doing nothing, and a chance to practice.
Case 1 was Anna* who suffered from agoraphobia. MIND set up our first meeting in the form of a
get-acquainted coffee near her home. Only 19, she lived with her parents above her dad’s butcher shop and had a three-month-old baby!
I never did find out how she overcame her fear of open spaces long enough to get pregnant, but our
weekly drives and counselling sessions produced positive changes over the next months. I was finally doing something worthwhile, although I was dying to be busy fulltime.
One Friday evening in November, Ryan walked through the door with a copy of The Times Educational Supplement tucked under his arm. He realized, before I did, that I had to bite-the-bullet and go back to teaching. No one around Woking valued my counselling skills enough to hire me.
During my first post-university job, I taught high school Physics and Mathematics for three years. His unspoken message: “Just give up your counselling dream and go back teaching.”
The Times listed all openings in the British Isles in its bi-weekly publication. The first that caught my eye was at Charterhouse School about 18 km away. Founded in 1611, this highly esteemed high school for boys needed a Physics Teacher, so I mailed in a carefully composed letter and resumé and was ignored. No reply at all. Probably sought male applicants.
Two weeks later, Ryan produced another copy of The Times Educational Supplement where I read, “Mathematics Teacher at Sir William Perkins’s School.” It was a private high school for girls. My greater confidence in teaching Maths rather than Physics was likely evident in my application. I was invited to an interview.
Having now lived in the UK for six months I was relatively confident in driving on the left side of the
road to Chertsey. Being the relaxed 1980s there was no security guard to prevent my wandering through the big front door of the two-storey red brick building. After I located the school office, a friendly secretary suggested I sit on a wooden bench in the tiled corridor until Miss Timbrell, the principal, was free.
As I waited, I gazed at about 20 enormous framed black-and-white photos of the whole student body and staff posed on the school grounds. What an undertaking to get several hundred girls (aged 12 to 18) to stay still at the same time for the click of the shutter! This school reeked of history having been founded in 1725, before Canada even existed.
Slender and dark-haired, MissTimbrell was both formal and welcoming. She explained that the school was in transition from comprehensive state school to fee-paying (private). Many graduates from Sixth Form sat Oxbridge exams and went on to Oxford or Cambridge – to me, the gold standard in British universities.
The current male Maths teacher was leaving at Christmas, so I would teach one class in each of five years (grades). I drove home thrilled with the place, with crossed fingers. Within a week I received an offer letter and joyfully accepted. Rather fun to be the only non-British member of staff.
A Fabulous Position
On my first day, I explained to the 14-year-old girls in my homeroom class that I was Canadian, living in Surrey temporarily, and the mother of two boys aged seven and ten. I later learned that I was the talk of the school for being so open about my background and my family! Other teachers just kept quiet about their non-school lives, I guess. After hearing about my counselling credentials, several girls approached me for informal afterschool sessions which I loved providing.
When moving back to Canada 19 months later, I was given an unforgettable send-off by the girls of Willy P. I treasure a cartoon book by Charles Schulz (creator of Peanuts), “Love is…Walking Hand-in-Hand.” It’s inscribed, “Love is…Mrs. Butler… from your loving 4thYear. S.W.P.S. 16th July 1982.”
By tradition, the whole student body celebrated each leaving teacher with no other staff present in the
hall. Because my class knew I loved the hymn Jerusalem, all 450+ girls sang to me while standing on their chairs, as one played the piano. To hide my tears, I busied myself with a camera, taking their photo.
Setting aside my immediate goal for a couple of years paid enormous dividends.
* Names have been changed.