Teaching as a Job / Vocation / Calling / Career

I still have a lot of thinking to do on this topic, but I wanted to START a post that BEGINS exploring the notions of: JOB, VOCATION, CALLING and CAREER – as these notions relate to teaching (or BEING a teacher).

I come from a family of teachers. Growing up I swore to my family that I would never become a teacher. I remained adamantly defiant on this until the age of 24 when, to everyone’s surprise (including my own), I was suddenly swept up in an urge to sign up to do a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE). As soon as I got into the classroom for my first teaching practical I knew I had found my thing. Not MY ONE THING – I have MULTIPLE THINGS – but certainly ONE OF MY THINGS! A calling! From the start I absolutely loved teaching. Even when it was tough. When I begun teaching I felt that I had discovered something that I was good at it, and the sense that I would be able to use this talent to make a real difference in people’s lives gave me a sense of purpose. Reflecting on this personal experience, I think perhaps it is when teaching starts to connect with one’s personal sense of purpose, and when this sparks passion and joy, that we can begin to call teaching a calling. This of course implies that teaching becomes a lot more than simply earning a salary; it provides the opportunity for one to use one’s talents and energy to make some contribution to the world. Teachings becomes part of a purpose that is bigger than the individual teacher.

Let us consider some other views that might help us to think through this topic – beginning with Elizabeth Gilbert. Though I’ve never really read any of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novels, I have always admired how clear and insightful she is when she discusses the creative process and some of the less glamorous aspects of being a creative. In the video below, Gilbert distinguishes between four concepts that she believes are often confused: Hobby, Job, Career, & Vocation. The video is aimed primarily at creatives but the distinctions she makes are nevertheless useful for thinking through this topic as it relates to being a teacher.

What are the takeaways from this video and how might we apply them to being a teacher?

To start with, Gilbert is challenging us to become clear on what teaching is to us. Is it just a job? Is it a vocation? Have we committed for the long haul and turned teaching into a careeer. We have all probably worked with teachers who see teaching just as a job – a means to an end, with that end simply being: to earn a living. There are no doubt people who have strong views on whether or not this is okay.

Gilbert touches on the issue of how turning one’s vocation into a career (that which one also earns a living from) might result in bringing about certain constraints (or even compromises) that one might not need to deal with if one were in the position of earning a living from a job and having one’s vocation on the side (i.e. something that one is not financially dependent on). Unlike writing, it would be comparatively difficult to have a job and to teach as a hobby or vocation on the side. In most instances, if one wants to teach, it is probably necessary to turn teaching into a job or a career. We are probably all aware that being paid to teach (in neoliberal times) in many instances produces tensions between a) those heartfelt callings to contribute to the world by being a certain kind of teacher, and b) the requirements and expectations that come with the job. There is probably a discussion to be had about how contemporary conditions in schools (and more broadly, in the societies that schools are embedded within) might enable or hinder teachers in relating to teaching as a vocation or calling.

The one problem I have with Gilbert’s treatment of this topic is that she states things in a way that might make it seem that one can either a) have a job AND hobbies or a vocation on the side, OR b) maybe get lucky and turn one’s vocation into a career. I’m not sure if this leaves room for one to have more than one vocation (or calling). It seems to me that it is quite conceivable that someone could see both teaching and creative work (for example) to simultaneously be vocations. Emilie Wapnick’s discussion of having multiple callings becomes interesting at this point.

Similarly, David Epstein’s discussion about the benfits of having broad interests and passions adds more support to this line of thought.

How might teacher’s benefit from having developed various competencies through a broad range of interests and pursuits? Through my teaching career there have been endless times when the skills and experience that I have gained through my creative work have helped me to be a better teacher. I might even arrogantly say that this broad experience has in many instances enabled me to transcend “good” and rise to levels of “great”, even if just for moments of really inspired teaching. The first time I stepped into the classroom as a teacher I already had a fair amount of experience as a performer. This undoubtedly gave me an edge as a teacher. My guess would be that many of the great teachers that we observe around us would be able to say similar things.

The following quote from Dave Burgess’s book, “Teach Like a PIRATE”, might also help to provoke some thought on the topic of teaching being a “calling”. In the book Burgess says:

“When you have a high enough calling, it is much easier to commit yourself to doing whatever it takes to accomplish your life’s purpose. You have to decide if what you’re doing is worth your complete effort and full attention. If it is, don’t let anything stop you. The word “decide” has an interesting etymology. It means, literally, to cut off. When you truly decide, truly commit, you are cutting off all other options. Making a decision about your life’s purpose isn’t something to be done” (Dave Burgess, Teach Like a PIRATE)

Here Burgess begins making the link between having a calling to teach and some of the benfits that come with this. When teaching is a calling, passion and commitment come naturally. If a teacher really believes in what they are doing they are more likely to be present and intensely engaged when they teach.

Last thoughts (for now):

One of the implications that might be taken from this initial exploration of this broad topic is that finding a school that is compatible with one’s own values and sense of purpose becomes very important.

Perhaps what is missing from this conversation is discussion of teaching AS AN ART. Conversation for another day.

I hope to return to this post at some point to develop it further.