In the constellation of teachers there are many kinds, but among the divisions are those teachers who enjoy it and those who might prefer to be doing something else. In the latter, the tradition is to grumble and seek out a realtor’s license. In the former, you often hear satisfied teachers go on and on about how teaching is ‘a calling.’
While I am a satisfied teacher, and I’m fond of saying that teaching is a job that most days doesn’t feel like a job at all, I have never seen it as a calling. I didn’t know from a young age that teaching was where I would end up, and I probably reflected some of the societal disdain for teachers common among the young – especially during the New Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s. But now having spent some years doing it, I am rankled at the idea of teaching-as-calling. To me, teaching is a job – one that I want to do well, that I work hard at, that I meditate on and that I think has social value. But it is a job, not a calling.
People will say I miss the subtlety here. They will say that what is really meant is that teaching is a kind of service, a stewardship, or some such. And I still bristle. Teaching is a career, a profession, one of great importance that ought to be done first and foremost by professionals.
I fear that when we turn teaching into the Lord’s work, or use the words of missionaries and charities, we demean teaching. Great teachers and principals will laugh and say, ‘you don’t do it for the money!’ But what kind of system education can we expect when we have the mentality of 19th century social reformers? When we describe it as a calling, we absolve the practitioner of a weighty responsibility to do it as well as possible. When it is a calling, we rely on the kindness of charity-types to ‘do their best,’ whatever that might be. When it is a profession, we can insist on a greater quality – education is important enough to be kept away from the (possibly-untalented) do-gooder.
(And anyway, those who protest the salaries as motivation can prove me wrong by taking a pay cut. A salary that is about twice the national average shouldn’t be sneered at.)
I wonder how other essential professions would fare with the same attitude. Imagine medicine – a profession with a more obvious sense of caring than teaching, owing to the distress of the ill – relying on the kindness of its practitioners. Without a comfortable salary, strict protocols, and a sense of detached professionalism, our medicine would resemble that of a previous age. However we sentimentalize that era, more people would die of illness.
We can build the best system of education, I think, when we view teaching as a profession, not unlike medicine or law. It goes without saying that teaching is a human action, practiced best as humanely as possible. But humane shouldn’t mean amateur. And our language often belies our deeper belief, that educating is a kind of selfless endeavor, done for the betterment of the world.
Good teachers should be praised and paid well; bad teachers should be let free of the job. Being sentimental doesn’t help students learn.