Step inside a high school English or social studies classroom in northeast Calgary and you’ll likely find the affable substitute teacher Valsa Peter engaging the students. That is, if it’s not a Monday, when Peter faithfully attends her local seniors’ club meetups. The unconventional grandma brings her own flair to the classroom, imparting wisdom — and plenty of jokes — from her life spanning three countries.
“Val is a staple of our school,” says Lisa Byrgesen, an English Language Arts teacher at Lester B. Pearson High School. “The kids absolutely adore her.”
Peter mainly picks up jobs at a few high schools these days, teaching English, social studies, CALM and drama. But she has also worked in elementary, junior high and high schools across the city since becoming a substitute teacher for the Calgary Board of Education in January 2009.
To be a substitute is to step into unknown waters, Peter says, again and again. She laughs describing the younger kids’ reaction to her presence in their classrooms.
“Grandmas don’t teach, they bake pies,” she’s been emphatically told.
Her response? “This grandma can teach and bake pies.”
As comfortable as she now is in the classroom, Peter never wanted to be a teacher. She grew up in India, the youngest of four kids and the only girl. Her dad, a police officer, said she had to be educated just like the boys — an uncommon belief at the time.
“He said, ‘your bread should be in your hands,’ meaning economically, financially, you will be independent, nobody can push you around,” Peter recalls.
But even he drew the line at Peter’s first career choice: a journalist. That’s not a career for a woman, she was told, after she had studied English literature and been admitted to journalism school. Peter became a teacher instead.
“Once I started, I fell in love with it,” she says. “I fell in love with the interaction, with what I learned from the students every day.”
Peter taught for about four years in India, while also raising a son and daughter as her husband, an engineer, lived and worked in Saudi Arabia. The family reunited after about four years apart, with Peter and the children moving to Saudi Arabia. There, she worked for the oil company Saudi Aramco as a training coordinator for 22 years, helping determine what skills and education the company’s new recruits needed.
Peter and her husband made another big move in 2000, to Canada. They settled in Calgary, where their adult daughter lived.
“When I left Saudi, I said I’m not going to work again. I’m going to be a lady of leisure,” Peter recalls. That didn’t last long.
At the church she had recently started attending, she learned there was a dire need for a teacher at the connected school. Peter agreed to help — and she’s been back in the classroom ever since.
“After the first week, I realized this is my life, I want to go back to this,” she says.
Peter worked part time while also taking courses at the University of Calgary to earn her Canadian teaching credentials. She particularly enjoyed her option classes on topics she’d never covered in India, including the Montessori method and educating children with autism spectrum disorders.
“I fell in love with that aspect of how you can teach a child in many different ways depending on what the child needs,” she says. “And as a teacher, you have to find that need and satisfy it.”
Peter eventually turned to substitute teaching, drawn by the flexibility the job would give her to take longer trips and avoid writing report cards.
Lisa Byrgesen, a teacher at Lester B. Pearson, says Peter is the first person she goes to when she knows she’s going to have a day away.
“I know my kids are going to be in very, very good hands if she’s in,” she says.
What sets Peter apart, in Byrgesen’s view, is how intentional she is about making connections with students, learning about who they are and what they’re interested in.
“From the minute she walks into a room, her number one goal is to make connections with the students in that space,” she says. “So in this really condensed period of time, she’s able to have these really deep connections with kids that sometimes take a full semester to create.”
Those interactions are why Peter keeps returning to the classroom. She adores the variety that accompanies substitute teaching, meeting so many different teachers and students and being able to have an impact on them.
“In one day, if one child gets something out of what I said, my day is done,” she says.
Making connections with Valsa Peter
What is your favourite joke to share with students?
Little Joey did not hand in his homework on Monday. When asked for an explanation, Joey said “The sub only told us what day it was due, not the month or the year!”
Do you really bake pies? What’s your specialty?
Yes I do! Indian spiced apple pies.
What stands out for you about each of the three countries you’ve lived in?
India: Family, food, music, languages, dance
Saudi Arabia: Lifelong friendships made in 22 years
Canada: Final chapter of life-fulfilling teaching dream!
What appealed to you about journalism and what did you imagine yourself doing in that field?
The power of writing to change and touch peoples’ lives, impact society and change the course of history. I imagined myself writing articles and real-life stories empowering women to evolve and break the glass ceilings in the societies they lived in.
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