Teaching (Vocation Optional)

When I teach my First Year Seminar on Creativity, I have my students read Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. The novel’s protagonist is a Hasidic Jewish boy living in New York, and he’s obsessed with drawing from a very young age. The only thing he wants throughout his adolescence and early adulthood is to become an artist. He faces familial and religious sacrifices throughout the book, but the one thing he never lets go of is his artistic vocation. It is clear from early on in the novel that Asher has an innate sense of how he wants to spend his working life, and for that, he’s lucky.

I bring this up because the idea of teaching as a vocation has been on my mind. For many of us in academia, we came to teaching through some other pathway: an interest in lab research, reading that kept us up at night, writing we didn’t want to stop doing. And although teaching is for many enjoyable work, it is often not a calling, but a career.

The religious implications of vocation suggest one has been called to do something by a higher power, typically God. It makes sense to me that religious careers are called vocations because their primary service is to God, and by extension, to God’s followers. As such, these duties blend into their personal lives; many religious orders take vows of poverty and shed their personal possessions before their final initiations. I admire those called by God or by some spiritual sense of urgency to be pulled into a profession. In fact, I’m a bit jealous of the clarity of purpose that one’s calling can provide, but I suppose my biggest concern is that I have not been called to teach, and neither have many of my peers who arrived in the classroom in circuitous ways, and yet, here we are with the expectations of many that our positions are filled with godly delight and moral purpose.

Those in vocational careers are not supposed to be in it for the money, or the glory, but for the love of work. But, as Greg Specter mentions in his post, teaching is hard. This is not a complaint about hard labor. As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m drawn to hard work. In fact, I like it. However, the expectation that joy is what motivates me in my daily work and not a salary that pays for my basic life necessities simply isn’t true. If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t adjunct one class a semester just for the joy of it. (And I say this because I know other teachers who absolutely would.) Sure, I would miss those rare, moments in the classroom where discussion aligns into beautiful sparks of discovery and the one-on-one interactions with curious and funny students, but I wouldn’t miss the constant pressures to innovate and entertain, the heaps of endless grading scattered on my living room floor, or the management of ever-changing student expectations. Instead, I would write more and buy a library full of books and read them all in my hammock. These are the activities that led me to teach in the first place — the love of language — but they don’t pay the bills.

My frustration about vocational teaching is that it can frame the difficulties and disappointments of the job as one’s moral shortcomings. Perhaps these are self-instilled pressures, but I regularly receive the message that the work itself is supposed to be inspirational and transformative, and that that is what sustains a teacher throughout her tenure. This is not something I see in many other careers. I don’t expect lawyers or road construction workers to necessarily be uplifted by their daily grinds. And I wouldn’t be heartbroken if I found out that they weren’t called to their work by some higher power. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t good at it, or that they aren’t dedicated. But it means they have good and bad days on the job, just like the rest of us.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that teaching is a job. And some teachers are certainly driven and inspired by the love of the work itself, and that is a wonderful and lucky thing. But some of us teach and we do it well, but we do it because it enables us to also do other things, things we may feel called to do. For some that could be researching in Antarctica, for others, it’s maintaining an academic calendar that aligns with one’s school-aged children. Or if you’re me, it means having the summers to write and read the stack of books sitting next to my hammock.

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