“The fact or feeling of being called to undertake a specific career or occupation.”
Origin: Late Middle English: from Old French, or from Latin vocatio(n-), from vocare ‘to call’.
Education and teaching
Might it be said that the two most important things that education has to do contradict each other. On the one hand, education is responsible for passing on the collected wisdom, the values, the customs and the way of life of a society, from the older generation to the younger generation. In this sense its fundamental role is to provide continuity and stability. On the other hand, education has to be the means for changing society, for challenging its values and collective wisdoms in pursuit of a better world.
This means that education has to preserve and change society at the same time.
The job of being a teacher involves precisely this contradiction. A teacher has to socialise the student into the community, the society and the world, and a teacher has to encourage students to think for themselves, to question the world, and to consider carefully how they might try to change the world and make it a better place.
Who, then, might feel they have a vocation to go into teaching, especially if it means working with this contradiction of negating and preserving?
Teaching as vocation
Often someone who wants to teach sees it as a job where one can make a difference to the lives of others—hopefully for the better. Perhaps this person has experienced for themselves the effect on a life that a wonderful teacher can have. It might be that this teacher inspired an interest in a subject, or perhaps inspired an interest in the power of education to change lives. It might be that this person has discovered what a wonderful thing education can be, how it changes lives, how it works for a better world, how it can be an end in itself… to learn just for the sake of learning. Education is about so much more than just training for a job. It can be about the joy of reading books, the wonder at the universe and the laws of nature, the big questions about the meaning of life and why the universe exists, and of course, it can be learning about political ideas and philosophical truths. The good teacher is able to take this love of education into the classroom with them, and inspire a love of learning in others.
A vocation for teaching often expresses this same desire to be that inspiring person for others. At its heart, this idea of vocation is a form of public service, of dedicating one’s life to improving the lives of others, sometimes especially those who start life with fewer opportunities and advantages than others. In this sense, teaching as a vocation is political and personal, and for some, deeply spiritual, working for a better world in one’s own small way and in one’s own small part of the world. This vocation requires dedication, hard work, and self-sacrifice. It is capable of bringing deep satisfaction and profound enjoyment. Equally, on bad days, it leaves one feeling low and dispirited. (This, of course, can be seen as the test of the strength of one’s vocation. We learn most about ourselves, perhaps, in adversity…)
Vocation as the inner and outer struggle
The term vocation carries two meanings. Vocation is work, and vocation is a calling to work. A teacher is a remarkable position of being able to live both of these educationally. Her paid work is to teach others, and her vocation is to learn about herself from herself. If she learns about herself while teaching others, she will be a teacher and a student all the time. Perhaps this is what a vocation for education looks like… the struggle to know thyself while being a teacher of others. Perhaps we can say that we experience vocation as a struggle between the inner life (the soul, if you like) and the outer life (social and political life).
We know that currently the culture of education is dominated by measurement. But that should not mean that aspiring teachers are put off. Negating and preserving this culture can be part of the struggle of the teacher. The teacher will have to test her pupils… but she can also do so much more as well… not least reminding them that tests are not everything! It is still possible for teachers to put meaning above measure, reticence above reward, service above self, and faith in education above the forces that reduce education to the merely quantitative.
Society needs teachers who understand education as a way of life; who know vocation; who can not only meet the demands of OFSTED, but transform those demands by means of the added values that they bring to their pupils; in short, we all need teachers who have faith in education.