Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Teaching: A Vocation?

In many a staff room, blog or conversation with friends or family, a teacher has claimed, "but it's not just a job, it's a vocation". Recently while out with a friend, and fellow teacher, we discussed the fact that this claim may used as an excuse for poor working conditions (including workload) and expecting people to do things without getting paid for them - or even paying out of their own pocket for resources and CPD.

I like my job. This is much more than many people who simply tolerate their job, or indeed hate their job  There are some aspects that I love, and some moments of absolute joy. However, often I do finish the day frustrated, annoyed or feeling inadequate. Too often I don't feel I can get the job done within the constraints placed upon me.

Some of the key reasons for me going into teaching:
  • The skills I perceived that I had matched the demands of the job
  • The pay would give me reasonable standard of living - certainly better than many others in the UK
  • The holidays were a real bonus - especially with a family
  • My mum was happy as a teacher and many of my own teachers seemed happy and content with their jobs
However is this claim that my job is a vocation why I am sat at the table marking in an evening rather than playing with my son or watching TV with my wife? Does it legitimise the extra hours I put in before school and late at night? Is it why I give up my Saturdays and evenings for CPD and attending conferences without recompense? Do I buy things out my own pocket for school, and for my students, due to this? Am I reluctant to take a day off, even when ill, as a result?

There has been a sentimental rhetoric peddled by the government and their agencies; "no one forgets a good teacher" (Thanks TTA), and more recent TV adverts filled with smiling, energetic teachers and smiling, enthused students (Thanks DfE). Yet, my main memories from school are of the teachers where we messed around. I do also remember some things about the good teachers, but this is not reason alone to go into the job. Is it real romanticism to say teaching is 'a calling', in the way few other jobs are?

Of course, I do try my best to teach my students things (and help them remember this information), while being some kind of marker and guide through their turbulent years. Of course I will be there in their moment of need, pick them up, smile, help them out. However, I think teachers should also realise their limits, their remit, their actual job description. If you are trying to do everything you maybe could, for every student, or for every colleague, quite simply you won't last long. You will burn out. Your vocation could be short lived.

This is not to devalue our jobs; they are important to individuals, and to society. Collectively, we do change lives, we give our students qualifications enabling them to go on and achieve great things, earn a good income and have their own families. Maybe they will even remember our name somewhere down the line. 

Fundamentally I enjoy my job, far more than I think I'd enjoy many other jobs. The children I teach often make me laugh. I love sharing my subject specialism. I thrive from the energy in schools. It feels like a privilege to do this. I'm certainly not on the 'ready to quit' list. Yet I am not naive to say I never would be. In fact, I think the optimum would be 3 days teaching, 1 day doing something education related, but not teaching, and an extra day with my family - I think this would make me a really happy, productive and effective teacher. This would also force me to ditch any TLRs which are often disproportionately low payments for the extra workload.

We must continue to ask "why do people teach?" Don't kid yourself, for many it is a pragmatic and convenient choice. People get made redundant and want a career change, or they have had kids of their own and want something that means they can have holidays with their offspring.

For some it may be a true vocation, they may feel a true calling, but this is not the case for everyone. We certainly can't tell people it is a vocation to make them feel like they should, or could, be doing more. Teaching has been called the 'martyr profession', but just because some teachers like to lay bare their stigmata, it doesn't mean everyone should feel that they should, and it's okay to feel like you have no stigmata at all! 

If we stop labeling teaching as a vocation, could we improve the job in hand? People should be paid for what they put in, rewarded for going above and beyond, and have reduced workload demands so that they are not simply working out of the goodness of their heart (or fear of repercussions).

I'm just not entirely convinced teaching is a vocation in a true sense, and maybe, by doing so, we are contributing to the morale and recruitment crisis. Teaching is not simply being John Keating (Dead Poets Society) or Erin Gruwell (Freedom Writers) every day, and if we sell that as the dream it can only lead to disappointment. Maybe teaching is a vocation, yet because of this, teachers are not getting treated the way they should. If it simply means we get exploited as a result, I'd rather just have a job!

WARNING - this last bit is God related! I am an RE teacher in a Catholic school and vocation always features in discussion about why we teach, and why we work in faith schools. There is potentially a whole other blog to be written here...

How about teaching in a Catholic school, especially RE, surely that is a vocation?

Many do claim that there is a real vocation to working in faith schools. Perhaps staff make sacrifices, such slower promotion due to less opportunities if they want to stay in faith school system? However the dangers still remain, and potentially they are greater. I was once told of a church school where staff were reminded of the evangelical counsels (sometimes known as the counsels of perfection): chastity, poverty and obedience. This is a horrendous message to give to staff.

I do feel a vocation, to be a Christian. My job is a part of that, in as much as all things I do in life are. I try to evangelise through my word and deed, not just in the classroom, but always. I do not proselytise; I do not preach.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

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