Let’s Stop Calling Teaching a Calling

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Note: A version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post here.

Teachers sometimes speak of “a calling” when asked to explain how they settled on the profession. While they may be referring to a religious calling with some type of divine influence, they may also be simply referring to a strong, fatalistic pull toward the job – the idea that they were “meant” for the line of work. For the purposes of this post, it’s this latter definition that will be focused on.

It’s understandable why talking about teaching as a calling is so attractive. Referring to it as such lumps it in with other “noble” professions (i.e., high on humanitarianism, low on pay) like social work or working for a non-profit organization. It also gives the job an air of superiority (scarce are those that ever felt called to become a bank teller or waste management supervisor). And it’s a vehement repudiation of the old “those who can’t do, teach” joke and the growing public antipathy toward the occupation.  

But, while teaching is often a thankless job with long hours and few extrinsic perks, and does deserve special recognition, describing it as a calling gives the impression that the ability to teach is innate and unchanging –  that you’re either cut out to be a teacher or you’re not, called or not called.

In actuality, though, teachers don’t need, nor should they need, to be called to teaching. Instead, teaching should be viewed as a profession where one goes from novice to highly-skilled practitioner, not by sheer passion, but by steady, supported, continual growth.

Take, for instance, the case of novice teachers. It’s been shown that “between 40% and 50% of new teachers leave within the first five years of entry into teaching.” That’s a formidable statistic with grave implications for schools, students, and the profession. The idea that teaching is only for those who answer the call could very well exacerbate this issue. When beginning teachers encounter challenges, which they inevitably do, there is often too little support for them, which sends the message that they should be able to figure it out on their own. When they can’t figure it out, it’s only natural that they come to the conclusion that they just weren’t meant for the work. As Carol Dweck points out, “If we promote the idea that teaching is innate, and not something that is developed, with support, over a career, we will continue to lose bright new teachers.

This is something I have personal experience with – my own wife quit teaching after three years and two different schools, not because she couldn’t hack it (she’s incredibly strong, intelligent, creative, and was devoted to her students), but because she often felt like the schools were not interested in actively supporting her growth. She now works in another industry where she is happy and supported and does a lot less crying in the bathroom.

This mindset isn’t only detrimental to novice teachers. Consider the case of those veteran teachers that are resistant to change and treat any professional development (even good professional development) with the same anticipation that they have for preparing their taxes. Isn’t the same attitude at play here, the one that implies that good teachers just know what they’re doing and don’t need any help, thank you very much?

This perspective, unique to some veteran teachers, is unmerited and a case of squandered opportunity. Consider this research from The New Teachers Project:

Teachers gradually reach a plateau after 3-5 years on the job. As one study put it, “there is little evidence that improvement continues after the first three years.” Another found that, on average, teachers with 20 years of experience are not much more effective than those with 5 years of experience. Some studies suggest that effectiveness actually declines toward the end of a teacher’s career.

This is alarming information. Teachers should never plateau – they should be growing throughout the course of their careers, from the day they set foot in a classroom to their final last June day. And while many could point out a variety of factors that might be at play here – tenure and union protection, a lack of administrative support, poor professional development, etc. – teachers are the ones who are ultimately responsible if they succumb to the idea that good teachers are born, not made and, as a result, allow themselves to stagnate.  

Passion, natural aptitude, inner drive, and all the other ideas wrapped up in the concept of a calling are surely helpful in the making of great teachers, but they’re not enough. One’s ability to teach well is derived not from any sort of supernormal intuition or zeal alone, but from an unfailing willingness to learn and adapt, to constantly question and create, and to always challenge oneself. If we keep boasting that teaching is a calling, we will continue to lose promising new teachers and retain those who mistakenly believe their promise has already been fulfilled. So, maybe we should stop calling teaching a calling.

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