3 First (Worst) Teaching Days – #3 – Shefferville – A New Teacher in an Uncharted Tundra

3 First (Worst) Teaching Days

As a teacher for over 8 years and in various schools around the country, my journey was filled with happiness, laughter, fear, nervousness and countless other emotions, often at the same time. Students have a unique way of touching your heart, driving you completely insane, and making you proud all at once. The first day of the school year can often set the tone for the entire year. It can be a stressful day naturally, but when you add a first day curse things can get out of hand. I’ve experienced the craziest first days during my career; including no heat over night in -50 degrees, going to the hospital with a concussion, and not making it to work because of a freak storm disaster. They are powerful enough to make you question entering the teaching profession altogether. Follow me on my first days of disaster and teaching.

#3 – Shefferville – Initial First Day Directly Out of University

While I was still finishing my education degree, I was offered a position at Jimmy Sandy School in Schefferville, Quebec and I owed thousands of dollars in student loans. I thought a position in the north would provide the financial support that I desperately needed and the teaching experience that I desperately desired.

The school board faxed my flight itinerary and I read it carefully. I was flying from Sydney to Halifax, Halifax to Quebec City, Quebec City to Montreal, Montreal to Seven Islands, and Seven Islands to Schefferville. It sounded like a lot of flights to travel two provinces, but I thought it would be an adventure. 

The first two flights were quick and I didn’t have any difficulties. It wasn’t until I arrived in Quebec City that I experienced my first setback. I boarded the plane and sat quietly in my seat. The flight attendants began to make an announcement in French and the expressions on people’s faces made me worry. I heard some people gasp and others talk frantically with their companions. I attempted to ask the man next to me what was happening but he didn’t speak a word of English; either that, or he just didn’t want to speak to me. I started to panic and I jumped from my seat to talk to an attendant.

“Excuse me. Is there a problem?” I asked the first attendant that I saw.

“We are experiencing difficulty with the air pressure on the plane. We are going to move the passengers to another plane just as a precaution.” She placed her arm on my shoulder as she spoke and her voice was calm. I felt reassured and comforted.

After 45-minutes of waiting, we were led onto another plane and I was back in my seat. I was officially going to miss my connecting flight, which meant that I missed all of my other flights that day.

Connecting flights were arranged until I arrived in Seven Islands, but making my flight was the last of my worries when I arrived there. My flight number was announced and I approached the gate for Air Inuit. There were only three other people waiting at the gate and I worried about the size of the plane. The doors opened and I stepped outside.

I felt like I was walking death row as I approached the plane. It was -51° C outside and the plane looked like it was used for cargo.  There were a total of eight passenger seats and only three of them were filled. The five windows on the plane would provide a perfect view if the plane were to crash, which was all that was on my mind. I was starting to think that Schefferville was neither a top tourist destination nor a stopping point for any sane person.

The spits and sputters of the plane were nerve racking, but they distracted me from thinking about just how far north I was traveling. I managed to focus long enough to glimpse out the window and I witnessed the northern lights. The brightly colored rays danced like beautiful ballerinas in the sky. I enjoyed nature’s free show and my body and mind began to relax. The colors and shapes created a new story like one I’ve never seen before. My time was consumed by the weaving and dancing of the lights and the plane ride quickly flashed before my eyes. I was traveling to a place beyond the northern lights and beyond my wildest imagination.

The plane approached the airport at 10:20pm. I was so wrapped up in the northern lights that I had no idea that we were almost there. As the plane began its descent, the pilot made a short announcement. “There seems to be a caribou on the runway and we are going to have to circle around the airport until it moves away from the landing area. We have lots of fuel and there is no need to worry.”

This has to be a joke! This can’t really be happening. Is he serious? A caribou on the runway! Where am I going?

“Do you want to see it?” The man next to me asked.

“The caribou? Can you see it?” I foolishly replied.

“Yeah, I can see it from my window.”

I leaned over and there it was. The caribou looked larger than the airport. Its long legs were stumps compared to its massive body.

So we can’t land because there is a large caribou blocking the runway. It’s official; I am in the middle of nowhere.

“Okay, it looks like we are clear to land,” the pilot announced happily.

The plane landed about 50 feet from the airport and the door was pushed open by the pilot. The crisp, cold air filled my lungs and I coughed uncontrollably.

“Thank you for flying Air Inuit. You might want to button up your jackets. It’s -56° C outside.”

I was the first passenger to step off of the plane and my head instantly ached with the cold. I tried to hurry into the airport, but the temperature was taking my breath away.

The school principal and vice-principal were both at the airport to greet me. I felt welcomed as they grabbed my bags and handed me a warmer jacket.

“Nice to meet you,” the principal said as he took my bag.

The vice-principal chimed in, “I hope your flights weren’t too bad.”

“I will be taking you and John will be taking your bags,” the principal said without giving me any time to reply.

“No, that’s fine.” I said. “I can carry my own bags.”

“I don’t think you understand,” replied the principal as he headed towards the door.

I couldn’t take my own bags because they were there to pick me up on ski-doos. The drive to my house was a short 4km, but it seemed endless. The cold air burned my face and I had to keep moving my fingers just to make sure they were still there. The open land was dotted with a house here and there, but mostly I just saw snow and more snow. I couldn’t see a road beneath the snow, but they seemed to know where they were going.

We arrived at my house and both men walked me to the door.

“If you need anything, here’s my number. You have a phone right?” The principal was talking to me and I was trying hard to listen, but there was so much to take in all at once.

“Yes, I have a phone. I called to get in hooked up and the agent said that it would be done this morning.”

“The bus will be here to pick you up at 6:00am. It will stop outside of your door. Good night.”

“Thank you for everything,” I said as I stepped my new home.

Before they were able to close the door, I dropped my bag to the floor and frantically searched for my phone. I hadn’t talked to my mother since I left and I needed to hear her voice. This was the most adventurous thing that I had ever done and I was, quite frankly, scared out of my mind.

I unzipped the bag and haphazardly threw everything onto the floor. I found the phone at the bottom of the bag and I couldn’t pull it out fast enough. I crawled on my hands and knees searching for the phone jack. I finally found it and breathed a sigh of relief. I plugged the phone into the jack and waited for a dial tone that never came. My phone had not been hooked up.

My hand began to tremble and tears formed in my eyes as I sat on the floor with the phone still in my hand. I was scared and alone and I couldn’t even talk to my mother. I began to feel cold and I thought it was just because I was so upset, but I quickly realized there was no heat in my house. Panic sunk in my chest and my breathing quickened. I hunted for the thermostat and turned it full blast. Kneeling by the radiator, I rubbed my hands together waiting for the heat, but it was useless and to no avail.

Oh no! What am I going to do? My closest neighbour is 2km away and it is more than -50°C outside. Even if I did walk to a neighbour’s house, they speak Naskapi then French then English. I am going to freeze to death! This is crazy.

Okay, I can do this! Just go into the bathroom and turn on the hot water. I can sleep on the floor in there if it is warm.

In the bathroom, I closed the door to keep the heat inside. I turned the hot water on full blast and I waited for the heat. Once again, I rubbed my hands together and once again it was useless. I should have realized that if there was no heat there was no hot water, but I was in a state of panic.

Finally, I tried the oven and it worked. The heat waves engulfed my fingers and they ached. I opened the oven and lay on the floor. That is where I spent the rest of my night. If anyone had of walked in, I am sure they would have thought I was trying to kill myself.

My alarm clock went off at 5:30am. I had to change my clothes and clean myself up, but it was still cold and I still didn’t have hot water. As I warmed water on the stove, I felt like I stepped back in time. I quickly washed my face and brushed my teeth. The hot water felt sickening in my mouth and I resembled a pale comparison of myself when I looked in the mirror.

I walked onto the bus and stopped at the bus driver. “I have no heat or hot water in my house. Do you know who I would talk to about getting it fixed?”

“That would be me,” the bus driver replied. “I will have a look at it before you get home today.”

“But you’re the bus driver,” I said rather rudely.

“And I am the maintenance worker and I work at the school,” he said blatantly. “I’ll have a look at it later today.”

The principal was at the door to greet the staff and students when I arrived. “Good morning,” he said as I walked into the building.

I tried to keep it together as I said, “Good morning. I don’t mean to bother you, but I still don’t have a phone at my house. Do you think I could call my family to tell them I am okay?”

“Sure. You can call from my office,” he replied.

I walked into his office and picked up the phone. I could not manage to dial the number even though I had the same number for six years. After three attempts, I finally managed to hit the numbers in the right sequence.

My step-father answered the phone with a jolly “hello.”

“Hi. Is Mom there?”

“Oh, Lesley. How was your trip? How is everything going?”

“Um… can you just put Mom on the phone?”

I was trying to avoid crying in the principal’s office on my first day of school. I just wanted to talk to my mother and tell her about everything that had happened to me. If I could just hear her comforting voice, I could make it through the day.

“Your mother is not home right now.”

“Oh… Ok….” my voice began to tremble.

I burst into tears and began wailing into the phone. I’m sure my father thought I was being attacked by a wild animal because of the loud, piercing noises that I was making, but I could not muster up the words to explain the situation to him. I eventually resolved to hang up the phone. My face was red and wet from all of the tears. Other teachers walked by the office, but they didn’t say anything. They were all too familiar with the first day in Schefferville and they understood my anguish.

I taught my classes that day to the best of my ability. I attempted to connect with the students by learning some Naskapi, but I only succeeded in learning curse words that I then proceeded to use on other teachers.

At the end of the day, I was glad that it was time to go home. I honestly couldn’t handle anything else that day. I had reached my limit and was on the verge of breaking down. As I was walking out of my classroom door, a loud alarm began to sound throughout the halls. As first, I thought it might be a fire alarm. I asked the nearest teacher what was happening and she said that it was a “lock down alarm.”

“What is a lock down alarm?” I asked cautiously.

“Well, let me show you,” she replied.

She took me to a window at the back of the school and then to a window at the front of the school. Finally, she said, “Look out this window.”

I looked out the front window only to see a pack of wild wolves. The students and the staff had to wait in the building until the wolves dispersed. That was my breaking point. I realized that the school and the community were not for me.

The principal was standing at the main doors once again. I approached him with apprehension and anxiety. “Sir, can I talk to you in your office?”

I told the principal about everything that had happened to me over the last two days. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this. I hope that I don’t lose my teaching licence or have to pay for my flights, but I’m going to resign from my position.”

“That’s understandable, but the next flight out of here is not for ten days. You will have to stay here until then. You might as well teach and make some money while you’re here.”

I stayed for the next 10 days and things did get better, but when the plane hit the runway, I felt better than if I won the lotto. Schefferville changed my outlook on life. Even when I am in the most remote situations in Nova Scotia, I will never feel as isolated or as alone as I felt that first night in Schefferville.

126 thoughts on “3 First (Worst) Teaching Days – #3 – Shefferville – A New Teacher in an Uncharted Tundra

  1. Wow, that was vivid! I agree with Pierotucci: the people in charge didn’t do nearly enough to check you were OK and help you settle in. I just have a feeling, though, that I might have enjoyed it and seen the wolves experience as a gift (but stayed inside, of course!).

    I used to teach and my first real job was in Kenya, up-country. We’d been warned that violent robberies were quite common. My first night, alone in the house, I heard an odd scratching, scraping noise, some of it very much like someone surreptitiously using a file. I couldn’t work out where precisely it was coming from. No mobile phones in those days, in fact no phones at all in up-counbtry houses. I got out of bed, put my torch on and looked for a weapon. The best I could find was a telescope tripod in non-extended position. With this I crept around the house and found nothing wrong. I locked my bedroom door, went back to bed (hearing more slight noises) and eventually went to sleep.

    It was bats in the roof.


  2. I have been up to Schefferville via the train, and have been in that region a half- dozen times, canoeing and once did a two week winter camping trip where it dropped to 48 degrees below zero (F). It is a brutal setting, no place from a novice teacher. Definitely won’t make The Bucket List.


  3. I can comprehend 50 degrees celsius – heat … But -56! I’m freezing right now thinking about it while twiddling my fingers in 20degree winter temp in india.
    Never thought teaching could involve such a physically challenging adventure.


  4. I read your blog entry this morning before teaching and it made my day! What an incredible story! I really felt like I was suffering with you, but what a lifechanging experience. I gave my roommate the link, and it was great conversation after a long day of teaching. Cheers!


  5. Lesley, too funny! That is a great story. Painful in parts, but what an experience to pack into your life’s portfolio. As a winter lover, I read it and thought, “Sounds great! How cool would that be??” I was up almost that far several years ago with my cousins on a caribou hunt in late November. I had been warned that it could get to -50 degrees, but I was disappointed that it only got to a few degrees below.

    In any event, I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your post. Well done!


  6. I have to tell you – I wouldn’t have lasted an hour. I do so poorly with the cold. 120 degree heat? No problem but the cold feels so barren and so alone. I empathized with you the whole way through this post. Thanks for your honesty. I firmly believe that we have some visceral responses to places that make some areas ok to visit but difficult to live.


  7. Absolutely wonderful story-telling skills, it took me back to my own first day as a newly qualified teacher 40 years ago! Having survived many nights sleeping in a tent with temperatures plummeting to -18C degrees, that is quite cold enough for me! Looking forward to reading future posts. Kindest regards, Chrissie


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  9. That was an incredible story, fully of anticipation, suspense, hope, surprise, bewilderment, disbelief, and melancholy. I have to say that I admire your resourcefulness for trying different ways to generate heat to warm up. Glad that oven was working. What a story!


  10. I lived on the Ontario side of Quebec when I was a kid. It was mighty cold in winter and it seemed every weekend we were snowed in. Getting to the woodshed for firewood was a real big deal. It would have been easier if we’d had snowshoes but nobody knew about them then.I was a kid and I had my mom and dad.

    I feel for you and your ordeal. It isn’t easy been thrown in without a whole lot of information. But you did it and hung in there. It might have helped if they had been READY for you. At least in the first few days. I now live in central Ontario.


  11. Pingback: 3 First (Worst) Teaching Days – #2 – Norway House, Manitoba – Anyone Up for a Hospital Visit? | Bucket List Publications

  12. Having taught in a number of different schools, different age levels and in different countries for over eight years, I can sympathise! I quit teaching just over three years ago. I must admit I would have rather been sent to Shefferville than to some of the schools I worked at over the years. I hope things have improved for you!


      • Although this is by far not the worst experience I’ve ever had it sure could have been a shocker to me and the family of the child if the Teaching Assistant had not corrected my use of a word. My first job in the UK was teaching Reception (I had been teaching High School back in Canada). A huge change! The little ones get changed in the classroom for P.E. and one child was fiddling around and not getting changed very quickly. I asked him to hurry and take his pants off and get his shorts on so we could go to the hall (gym). He just stopped, stood there and looked at me with a stunned expression. The Teaching Assistant’s head immediately came up from tying a child’s shoe and said “She means your trousers.” I did not know that in the UK ‘pants’ mean ‘underwear’. Needless to say I never used the word ‘pants’ again! Who was to know English could be so different on the other side of the pond!


      • I taught for about eight and a half years. I spent nearly seven of those years in the UK. When I left the UK I quit teaching and worked as a pathology clerk in Aus. Now I volunteer for a museum and work full time researching and writing a memorial book about a WWII bomber crew. Thus the bucket list wishes of flying in a Lancaster bomber and publishing my book.


  13. Aww…I really enjoyed this post. I lived (and taught) in Japan right out of college and while my experience wasn’t anything like yours in the wilds of Canada, I totally relate to feeling overwhelmed by being out of one’s element and surrounded by the the unfamiliar. That and feeling so far from from home and desperately looking forward to a call with mom and dad. This brought back so many memories for me. thanks!


  14. Hi Leslie,
    I had a hectic day today and needed a break – I am a small business owner – it’s tax time, etc…I read your blog about school experience and although it was a serious injury and I am very glad you are ok but oh how I could relate! I can honestly say I don’t usually laugh out loud by myself in my home office but you had me in stitches just the way you explained your day – I’ve been there and it’s definitely NOT funny when it happens but when you start to tell people (in my case) or in your case, write about it, you find that it really is a great read and full of everything I needed today – so thanks and I’ll be a loyal fan especially on days like today!
    Stay well!
    DMJ Discount Jewelry


  15. Hi Lesley,
    As always I enjoyed reading your story. But there is a secret about going away from home for so long. If you had stayed you most likely would have started to dearly love that very special place and you would have gotten touched by your pupils stories. You probably would have met friends. It’s a very tough environment you were “thrown into” and I remember myself being in a different place on the other side of the world 4 years ago. I had the same reaction: burst into tears and I spent over 50 dollars just to call mum. I wanted to come instantly. I was all alone. It took me 3 months to get over it and then I started to enjoy the country. I actually didn’t want to leave anymore. I guess I got another shock when coming home after 7 months. I disliked certain things about my own country and appreciated others. I understand you went home but I would have loved you to stay and find out how things would have evolved after 3 or 4 months.


  16. I loved your story… what an experience! Although I didn’t have a crazy rough start like you did…I remember my first night in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, a remote-fly-in-only community, March of 2009. I wasn’t sure I would adjust, then I did…and before I knew it 10months later I was living back in the ‘south of Canada’..hating every minute of it wishing to be living up north again! Last summer I moved back…

    Thanks again for sharing…even though it was only 10days…I’m sure you learned heaps from it! Cheers, Sarah


      • I saw from your next post..what a first day you had there! I lived in Winnipeg from Jan of 2010 to July 2011…so know where that is!

        I’m not a school teacher, but work for the GN (Government of Nunavut). I have a background in Early Childhood Education though… 🙂 Sarah


  17. My wife’s uncle used to work at the Shefferville mine, he’s retired now. He would tell us stories of life there and we always though he exaggerated a bit. I see from your story, he wasn’t. His son still goes up every spring and stays until early winter. He works as a hunting guide up there. Thanks for sharing your experience!


  18. Wow, I can only imagine (and thanks to the imagination), what you felt watching the Northern Lights or how cold -56° really is. But the worse part is the loneliness. I’ve had those feelings before while traveling. It’s funny how we grasp for those voices we’ve known our whole lives while walking away and starting anew on our own. Thanks for sharing as always.


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  20. Lesley, I am sure that this experience helped you be the strong and adventurous person you are today. The funny thing is that I have always WANTED to go to Shefferville for the great trout fishing in the area. The closest I ever got was a fly-in trip to a lake about 100 miles from Shefferville. I am sure that your first night in an unheated building was frightening.
    But still, you have completed yet another great post. Thanks for sharing.


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  22. It is sad that you did not have a good experience out here in Quebec. I went to work in Blanc Sablon in Quebec and had a great 6 months with the community there. Maybe people were different but although I was always a stranger to them, I got invited to participate with the community. I was woking in two high school one French the other English. In both communities the people and espacially the teachers I was working with were what made me stay. My first night though was abit like yours… I couldn’t get the Thermostat working so I went to sleep under all my blankets and my winter coat… it was probably -20 and my “house” was a trailer home that moved when windy… It was my first adventure, right out of College.


    • I think it all depends on the community that you are in. When I moved to northern Manitoba, I worried that I would have a similarly negative experience, but it was wonderful. I stayed for two years.

      I’m glad you had a positive experience in Quebec and I hope that all of your teaching experiences are equally successful 🙂


  23. This reminds me of when I first went to a foreign country. I quickly realized on the plane ride over: “oh crap, I might want to learn the language.” I kept thinking that I was reading your story. Thanks for the Twitter link.


  24. Such a good post! I am from Quebec but have never been to Schefferville. It sounded like a story from hell, absolutely terrifying but also eye-opening! I love your blog and your stories, I really want to travel when I get older and probably won’t be as adventurous as you but hopefully I will get to experience and see some of the world 🙂


  25. Teaching in the North can be extremely challenging and it sounds like you weren’t at all prepared for what lay ahead. I’d have thought the school board would have explained a lot of this or given you some info beforehand. We filmed our series in Nunavut last spring and know its really hard on the communities when there is high teacher turn over. But of course, it’s tough on some teachers, too- it definitely takes the right personalities to make it work. Thanks for the fascinating story.


    • I returned to the north the following year, just a different province, and I had a great experience. I stayed for two years and have a lasting connection with the community and my students. Shefferville just wasn’t the right fit for me.


  26. I often think about how much I would love to visit further North in Quebec but I don’t think I would survive living there! Amos is remote but at least there are other places to visit in the region and a decent road South. I admire your ability to take the plunge, and going home is nothing to be ashamed of. Do you reckon that if you returned there today you would be able to do it? Would you want to?


  27. Oh Quebec. It’s a big beautiful place. I used to think I lived north until I realized how “north” it really got and you just really demonstrated that to me. What a wild life up there!


  28. Lol, that was a funny satirical story about life in Schefferville! Living in Schefferville and teaching in Kawawachikamach myself, I recognize it as fictional satire but it does hit a sort of truth about the place. Will pass it on to other teachers up here for a good laugh!


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