“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’.
“I think we can measure the distance we have fallen from the idea that work is a vocation to which we are called, by the extent to which we have come to substitute the word “employment” for “work.” We say we must solve the “problem of unemployment” — we reckon up how many “hands” are “employed”; our social statistics are seldom based upon the work itself — whether the right people are doing it, or whether the work is worth doing.’
—Dorothy Sayers, A Christian Basis for the Post-War World
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 wisdom 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 her society and the world, and to consider carefully how one might try to change the world and make it a better place.
Teaching as vocation
Who, then, might feel they have a vocation to go into teaching, especially if it means working with this contradiction of negating and preserving? Who will accept responsibility for serving the public good in this way? Who will choose to carry the wisdom that to serve the educational needs of one person with kindness is also to serve the educational needs of the world at large?
Perhaps the person who sees teaching as a world where one life can make a difference to the lives of others—hopefully for the better. Perhaps the person who has experienced for themselves the effect on a life that a wonderful teacher can have. It might be that her teacher inspired an interest in a subject, or perhaps inspired an interest in the power of education to change lives. It might be that her student discovered what a wonderful thing education can be … to learn just for the sake of learning. Such teachers and students understand that education is about so much more than just training for a job. It can be about the joy of learing, it can be the experience of wonder at the universe and the laws of nature, it can be the excitement and profound challenge of asking 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 expresses this 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 is, for some, deeply spiritual in working for a better world in one’s own small way. Such a 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…)
‘All true helping begins with a humbling. The helper must first humble himself under the person he wants to help and thereby understand that to help is not to dominate but to serve, that to help is not to be the most dominating but the most patient, that to help is a willingness for the time being to put up with being in the wrong and not understanding what the other understands.’
—Kierkegaard, On My Work As An Author, in The Essential Kierkegaard, p. 460.
God and man
Vocation is also one of those rich and very special areas where the religious and the secular meet in common cause. Service for the religious teacher means fulfilling her faith in her calling to serve God, while service for the secular teacher means fulfilling her faith in her calling to serve a common humanity. They share a vocation in teaching. The goal is the same: to dedicate one’s life to the enrichment and development of others, often those who lack resources and opportunities. Seen in this way, education is a social/political and a religious/spiritual way of life, in which both the religious and secular feel commanded to public service.
‘There are many types and kinds of vocations, but the core of the experience is always the same: the soul is awakened by it, transformed or exalted, so that instead of dreams and presentiments from within a summons comes from without. A portion of reality presents itself and makes a claim’
—Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game, trans. R Winston and C Winston, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969, p. 58.
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 in the 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 doing so. 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 and a student of the self. 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 activity).
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 not only meet the demands of OFSTED, but can 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.
‘Seriousness is the deepest pleasure that we can have. But now I see people allowing their lives to diminish, to become shallow, so they can’t enjoy the deep wells of experience. Maybe it’s always been this way, when the heart tends to shut down. If only the heart shut down and there were no repercussions, it would be O.K., but when the heart shuts down, the whole system goes into a kind of despair that is intolerable.’
—Leonard Cohen, From Leonard Cohen Interviewed by Anjelica Huston. Interview magazine: November, 1995.