Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Teaching is a Profession, Not a Calling

Betonwerksteinskulptur "Lehrer-Student&qu...
"Lehrer-Student" von Reinhard Schmidt (Wikipedia)
by Jemma Ward, Online Opinion:

As a Human Resources manager, I don’t just interview and manage my employees. I love them.

We all know that, at the end of the day, engineers aren’t in it for the money.

Growing up, I knew that I wanted to be a chartered accountant, because I’ve always been passionate about helping people manage their finances.

For most people, I would wager that those sentences above sound kind of absurd. Certainly, a good worker ought to be knowledgeable and passionate about their job - but, at the same time, I rarely hear someone describe engineering as a mission instead of a career.

An accountant is not expected to wax lyrical about the sublime sense of purpose that comes with the start of each new financial year. In fact, it is accepted that, for most people, a profession is first and foremost a way to make a living, and so those statements above sound corny and odd.

Now substitute the professions listed with ‘teacher’. Maybe then the phrases will evoke memories of Robin Williams shouting poetry at oddly clear-skinned adolescents, or Sidney Poitier as the quintessential badass educator in To Sir with Love.

Perhaps, with misty-eyed nostalgia, you remember Mr Smith, or Mrs Anderson, who inspired you to read a book or helped you to fill out your first job application. They were true teachers - devoted to the cause, and certainly not in it for the cash. They were there because they loved the job, they loved their students, and they wanted to see you - you especially - succeed. No doubt you could go back to your old school tomorrow, and they’d remember your name right away!

You might share a nostalgic chuckle over some witty observation your fifteen year old self made about Caesar’s first name, and then you’d depart, leaving Mrs Anderson with a tear in her eye and a smile in her heart. All those extra hours spent grading and planning, all those words of encouragement - that’s the mark of someone who has been called to teaching, isn’t it?

Much of society would seem to agree that teaching is much more than just a job. In one Telegraph blogger’s rant against the UK’s National Union of Teachers, he said of the profession, “Teaching is a calling, and few people are attracted to it because of the money or the hours”.

In a Canberra Times article from March 2014 a primary school vice-principal argued that although teachers need to give up their extra time in order to fulfil the pastoral duties of their role, it’s okay because, “… teaching is a calling … and it sometimes means giving up your time, family time to get the job done.''

A Huffington Post blogger painted an idealistic portrait of the role when describing the great teachers she has met: “They have an intangible quality that cannot be learned in books. They confirm my belief that teaching is a calling”.

Christopher Bantick, writing in The Australian last year, echoed the same phrase, “Teaching is a calling. Teaching must be seen as a vocation. It is a career for life”.

On the surface, this is a fine epithet to attach to any profession - you do what you do because you want to do it.Yet other professions do not expect similar levels of extracurricular zeal and sappy self-sacrifice. Other professionals are not expected to do a job out of spiritual or moral devotion. So why us? And what is the result?

If you have ever found yourself entrenched in a conversation with two or more teachers, then you have probably experienced first-hand the educator martyr complex.

Teacher One: “I’ve done so many twelve hour days this week, I’m just exhausted!” 

Teacher Two: “Oh, I know how you feel - I’ve marked sixteen classes of essays since Tuesday.”

Teacher One: “Tell me about it. I’ve already phoned up fifty parents today. I actually broke my wrist from all the dialling.”

Teacher Two: “Oh my god, yes. Just last lesson I actually had to slit my own throat with a ruler and spray arterial blood all over my year 10 English class just so they would be quiet.”

They will nod sympathetically, each smug in the knowledge that they have done far more work than the other. Somebody else at this point will hopefully change the subject to what they watched on television last night (“I wish I’d had time to watch that show, but I was too busy peeing into a bottle just so I could mark a set of exams without taking a bathroom break …”).

Confession: I do this too. Not peeing in bottles, but participating in boring, long-winded one-upmanship of other teachers. I know it’s annoying. I know that every non-teacher who listens to us is really thinking that we don’t know how lucky we are, with our extra holidays and relative job security.

It is borne, though, of this strange and mostly unique notion that teaching is more than a job, and that it is actually a lifestyle, a mission, a good work - this idea has become entrenched in the culture of today’s educators.

We are told, constantly, from the first moment of our education degrees that we are not in it for the money. We are teachers because we want to change students’ lives. We are teachers because we want to make a difference. Although true for some people, such stereotypes, overall, are dangerous and demeaning.

Firstly, it relegates teachers and teaching to a non-professional status. By blurring the lines between work and passion, teachers are regarded not as professionals working within an academic setting, with specific targets and responsibilities. Instead, they are told vaguely that their job is to inspire, to reach out, and to mould inquisitive minds. Yet, when it comes to test results and achievement data, teachers are expected to be analysts as well as experts in their subjects, and suddenly being an inspiration doesn’t cut it.

Without a doubt, teachers should have excellent subject knowledge, and they should be intimately acquainted with results in order to help their students achieve. But as long as the job is touted as a vocation rather than a serious academic role, those who enter the profession will not be adequately prepared to fulfil and exceed such expectations.

Secondly, by labelling teaching a ‘calling’, schools and education bodies are justified in perpetuating poor working conditions and entitlements for teachers. The message is clear - if you are dedicated enough, you’ll do this job regardless of the conditions! All professionals work extra hours, or eat at their desks, or deal with difficult customers. The problem is that teachers, as a whole, are expected to work for love, rather than money, or promotion, or even respect.

The expectation is that a true educator will be sustained through the all-nighters and the playground fights simply by the elixir of student progress.

Meanwhile, as teachers all over the country are busy falling on their swords in front of classrooms full of apathetic students, education standards are not being met.

The Conversation’s piece ‘Six ways Australia’s education system is failing our kids’ paints a grim picture of standards across the country, and points to teacher quality as one of the fattest elephants in the classroom.

How, though, can we market the profession to the highest quality graduates when teaching is, in fact, not even seen as a profession? I would argue that enticing good graduates is made more difficult due to the prevalence of the myth that teaching should be a conversion experience rather than a Regular Job. Teachers fulfil an incredibly important role - but it is to the detriment of the job and education as a whole to place them on a pedestal.

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