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Teaching is a profession, not a calling

By Jemma Ward - posted Tuesday, 14 April 2015


As a Human Resources manager, I don’t just interview and manage my employees. I love them.

We all know that, at the end of the day, engineers aren’t in it for the money.

Growing up, I knew that I wanted to be a chartered accountant, because I’ve always been passionate about helping people manage their finances.

For most people, I would wager that those sentences above sound kind of absurd. Certainly, a good worker ought to be knowledgeable and passionate about their job – but, at the same time, I rarely hear someone describe engineering as a mission instead of a career. An accountant is not expected to wax lyrical about the sublime sense of purpose that comes with the start of each new financial year. In fact, it is accepted that, for most people, a profession is first and foremost a way to make a living, and so those statements above sound corny and odd.  

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Now substitute the professions listed with ‘teacher’. Maybe then the phrases will evoke memories of Robin Williams shouting poetry at oddly clear-skinned adolescents, or Sidney Poitier as the quintessential badass educator in To Sir with Love. Perhaps, with misty-eyed nostalgia, you remember Mr Smith, or Mrs Anderson, who inspired you to read a book or helped you to fill out your first job application. They were true teachers – devoted to the cause, and certainly not in it for the cash. They were there because they loved the job, they loved their students, and they wanted to see you – you especially – succeed. No doubt you could go back to your old school tomorrow, and they’d remember your name right away! You might share a nostalgic chuckle over some witty observation your fifteen year old self made about Caesar’s first name, and then you’d depart, leaving Mrs Anderson with a tear in her eye and a smile in her heart. All those extra hours spent grading and planning, all those words of encouragement - that’s the mark of someone who has been called to teaching, isn’t it?

Much of society would seem to agree that teaching is much more than just a job. In one Telegraph blogger’s rant against the UK’s National Union of Teachers, he said of the profession, “Teaching is a calling, and few people are attracted to it because of the money or the hours”. In a Canberra Times article from March 2014 a primary school vice-principal argued that although teachers need to give up their extra time in order to fulfil the pastoral duties of their role, it’s okay because, “…teaching is a calling … and it sometimes means giving up your time, family time to get the job done.''

A Huffington Post blogger painted an idealistic portrait of the role when describing the great teachers she has met: “They have an intangible quality that cannot be learned in books. They confirm my belief that teaching is a calling”.

Christopher Bantick, writing in The Australian last year, echoed the same phrase, “Teaching is a calling. Teaching must be seen as a vocation. It is a career for life”.

On the surface, this is a fine epithet to attach to any profession – you do what you do because you want to do it.Yet other professions do not expect similar levels of extracurricular zeal and sappy self-sacrifice. Other professionals are not expected to do a job out of spiritual or moral devotion. So why us? And what is the result?

If you have ever found yourself entrenched in a conversation with two or more teachers, then you have probably experienced first-hand the educator martyr complex.

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Teacher One: “I’ve done so many twelve hour days this week, I’m just exhausted!”

Teacher Two: “Oh, I know how you feel – I’ve marked sixteen classes of essays since Tuesday.”

Teacher One: “Tell me about it. I’ve already phoned up fifty parents today. I actually broke my wrist from all the dialling.”

Teacher Two: “Oh my god, yes. Just last lesson I actually had to slit my own throat with a ruler and spray arterial blood all over my year 10 English class just so they would be quiet.”

They will nod sympathetically, each smug in the knowledge that they have done far more work than the other. Somebody else at this point will hopefully change the subject to what they watched on television last night (“I wish I’d had time to watch that show, but I was too busy peeing into a bottle just so I could mark a set of exams without taking a bathroom break…”).

Confession: I do this too. Not peeing in bottles, but participating in boring, long-winded one-upmanship of other teachers. I know it’s annoying. I know that every non-teacher who listens to us is really thinking that we don’t know how lucky we are, with our extra holidays and relative job security.

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About the Author

Jemma Ward is an experienced educator, currently working in London after a stint of five years in schools in the ACT and Queensland. She is particularly passionate about incorporating technology, open source learning and online discussion into classroom practice, and spends some of her spare time raging against old-fashioned, nostalgic attitudes towards schools and learning.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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