Is Teaching a Calling?

I have wonderful colleagues who describe teaching as a calling; while I ultimately agree that it is, I find the concept perplexing and will try to tease it apart a little. The term “calling” is too easily misunderstood; one must get rid of the false meanings in order to find the true, if there be such.

First of all, what is a calling? The word “vocation” means roughly the same thing (as its etymology suggests), but its adjectival form, “vocational,” is most commonly used in reference to manual and technical trades. (Both “calling” and “vocation” can denote an ordinary occupation or source of livelihood; I will go beyond that here.) A calling, as I understand it, is an internal pull toward an action or a line or work. A person with a calling does not necessarily want to be called and is not necessarily happy when called. Yet there is something right about heeding the call. Alternatives do not seem satisfactory.

Some people think of a calling as something they love to do, something they would rather do than anything else. I am not sure that it has to be that way. For one thing, the calling might not take shape at first. Teaching is not monolithic. Teaching elementary school is profoundly different from teaching high school; teaching literature, from teaching physics. Its nature can vary greatly from school to school as well. A person may be suited to one kind of teaching and not another. So it may take a while for a new teacher to find his or her way.

Is there something, though, that characterizes all teaching and distinguishes it from other professions? I believe that there is; I discuss it in the fifth chapter of my book, where I bring up Plato’s Symposium to shed light on the problems with the New York City workshop model. A teacher is a translator and mediator who brings the subject to the student and vice versa. To do this well, she must go far into the subject or topic to see what it holds, and then must find a way to bring it to her students.

Unfortunately education leaders and policymakers rarely see education in this way. But such a definition of teaching does help explain what a teacher’s calling might be. It can also offer some clarity to teachers who don’t know whether they’re called or not—who think that they probably aren’t called, because they find themselves wanting out or the profession. “I guess I am not called,” they think, “because a teacher who is called would want to stay, no matter what.”

That brings up the question: does it matter whether you are called or not? Or do you just make the best decisions you can, given your conflicting desires and mixed circumstances? If we could live by trial and error alone, then we’d probably be experimenting until the cows came home and longer. In that case, the only reason to stay in a profession would be practical: you gain the experience, and that helps you do a better job. It hardly matters what it is; you just find something that you can do and do it (or do something else instead). But we do not live by trial and error alone, or for practical purposes alone.

There is such a thing as a soul finding its way. It already has a way, but the world knocks it this way and that, off course and back on, and it tries to make sense of this and steer away from garishness and lies. At some point it starts to know itself and grow sturdy in what it does. But that is not the end of it; the work and the soul may still be at odds with each other, and the latter has to keep knocking around for a while, trying to get stronger and clear out a path. That is what’s involved in responding to a calling.

A few things may indicate that this is indeed going on.

First, a teacher who is “called” and who leaves the field will feel out of sorts in some way. Like Arch Makepeace in Tobias Wolff’s Old School, this person will sense something missing—will walk around detached, no longer belonging to the same worlds as before, and will sense a wrong in this.

When I took two years away from teaching to write my book, I was content with the way of life and would gladly have extended it for another year, had financial circumstances allowed it. I then became a curriculum adviser (at my current school) and could have continued in that role, but things took a different course. To help with curriculum, I found myself jumping in and co-teaching a philosophy class, then writing the high school philosophy curriculum for the school, then offering to teach the high school philosophy courses this year. My own choices brought me back into teaching. I found that I had missed it and that I thrived in it. (I also found, once in the full thick of it, that I missed the quiet time, which I have been enjoying this week.)

Second, a teacher with a calling will find a way to the vitality of the work. There is much humdrum stuff in teaching: paperwork and mandates, things that have a purpose but distract from the immersion in subject matter. The world of education debate and discussion isn’t much better; there’s an awful lot of chatter and very little sustained discourse. Yet the field holds something better than all of this. No matter what the circumstances, it is possible to go farther into the subject matter and learn from others.

In different ways, both teachers and students come to the subject as novices; over time, they become more adept at navigating it but become all the more disarmed by it and opposed to reducing it. That is part of the sadness and joy of teaching. I say sadness because I recognize again and again that I do not live up to the books I teach, do not teach them exactly right, say things in class that I later question and refine, but all the same, somehow, introduce my students to these books and maybe to a way of being alone with them.

David Bromwich writes (in the fifth chapter of Politics by Other Means):

The novice literature instructor was never expected to contribute to the higher learning from a freshman class on Hamlet or Augustine’s Confessions. It was merely assumed that what the instructor had to say would add to the student’s sense of taking part in a conversation larger and other than that supplied by the daily surroundings. This understanding had to do with an acknowledgment of great writing not as familiar and acceptable but as unfamiliar, and worthwhile under a description one can only make for oneself. The tradition that a teacher thought of evoking was an awareness of the impalpable links that bind one person to others remote in time or space, the recognition Burke thought more vital to humanity than any social contract, and which he called “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art.”

I will return to this passage later, providing more context, when I discuss the fifth chapter of Bromwich’s book. The meaning is subtle: the teacher of a freshman class (like the high school teacher) opens up the way to these books so that the students may find a different way of life in them—not because the literature tells the reader what to think and how to live, but because it draws him or her into something private, something out of the ordinary, and thus into a partnership without social contract, a tradition that comes from not following what others think.

So that’s it, right there: the recognition that the most important part of teaching may lie in its imperfection. Not that a novice teacher’s offerings are equal to those of an advanced scholar; that is not the case or the point. But even the advanced scholar opens up a subject for the students so that they may enter it; the students may misunderstand what the scholar says, and yet, if they take to the solitude behind the words, will learn the most important thing one can learn: that there is more, and that one can come to see it more keenly.

There is the teacher’s calling: whatever it is that says “do not stop opening up the subject for others. Do not complain that you did it poorly. Do it better, but recognize that even your poor offering had value, because once the subject is ajar, it has no end.”

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

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2 Comments

  1. For me, it is that I get a sense of “flow” that musicians get when making music and mathematicians get when working out new theorems. I do not know what about it does that for me, although it does have something to do with the simultaneous interaction with the learner, myself, and the subject matter. I also get that sense through other things as well–teaching is not the only thing I could do. But it is something I find myself doing unintentionally on vacation and riding the bus.

    Reply
  2. Kathleen

     /  March 5, 2013

    I’m not sure that imperfection is the word I would use; I think `incompletion’ is closer to describing that process that we can only begin. It also helps me make sense of what I am doing professing this `vocalization’. I also describe what I do, though by all means not to everyone, as a calling. I’ve turned up. I am here. I listened, and answered with some of the best of what I have to bring. I am made, unmade, and remade by this answering over and over and over again.

    This profession will break your heart in a thousand ways, and will build it up new again in ten thousand more. Describing it as incompletion makes me responsible for that part for which I am responsible, and allows me to release the responsibility for that over which I have no control. I came. On some days it feels a bit like the line that applies should be , “tell them I came, and no one answered, that I kept my word.” Some days it is much, much more.

    Reply

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