This week I have found myself reflecting on a concept that I have often considered during my close to 30 years working in schools as an educator (….that’s a lot closer to 50 years, if I count my own years as a student!). It regards the whole enterprise of teaching and the place of teachers in our current culture. Literature and film are filled with exemplars of memorable and excellent teachers. From Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mr. Chips to Mr. Thackeray, Miss Stacy and, of course, Miss Frizzle – the ones that make the most lasting impact are the ones that are human beings first and members of a “professional body” a distant second.
In my youth, teaching was typically spoken of as a vocation and rarely as a profession. I was fortunate to be blessed with many talented and generous teachers, who had high standards for their own work, as well as ours. They worked long hours and contributed much to our lives as students. They kept us honest in terms of our behaviour, deportment, and effort, and they were clear and honest with us and our parents about any “soft spots” in our performance.
It is true that most contemporary teachers require prolonged education and training, along with formal qualifications. This surely identifies them as professionals in our current context. But, is it the most important thing about them? I wonder how the most effective teachers think about their work – and about their purpose?
All the best teachers in my life would never have described themselves as “professionals” – not even those with advanced specialized degrees from top international universities. The best among them would have regarded their choice of life’s work as a vocation – as being defined by a strong interior sense that what they did had a purpose, mission, and importance beyond the scope of narrow collective thinking and activity.
It is true that a teacher is not simply either a “vocational teacher” or a “professional teacher”. The best, of course, is a hybrid of both, who adheres to professional standards of practice, accountability, and integrity, while never forgetting the true vocation of their work with students.
However, a “professional” teacher that has a weak vocation will tend to focus on issues of policy, self-interest, the clock, and the calendar to the exclusion of things that matter most. Without a personal mission to inspire, motivate, and energize, a school can be filled with many “professionals”, but have very few teachers.
I am so grateful for the teachers I had in school and for the teachers with whom I work. I am also thankful for the sports they coach, the meetings they lead, the reports they write, the assessments they develop, the clubs they coordinate, the trips they chaperone, the plays they direct, the sets they design, the costumes they imagine, and the events they attend!
I am most thankful that they understand the difference between vocation and profession – and that, in teaching, you cannot have one without the other!
Ric Anderson, Head of School