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Vocation, Vocation, Vocation (And Why Teaching Isn’t One)

While I was waiting for the cable guy to arrive, I was thinking about the question posed by several people last week: why is quitting is such a big deal in academia when it’s an expected happening in most other workplaces?

I came up with two reasons for the anti-quit mentality.  The first is some people’s belief that academia is the world’s only genuine, functioning meritocracy. Therefore, since it selects only those who deserve to stay, leaving means you didn’t deserve to be there in the first place. Yeah, okay, let me just finish LMFAO. Sure, you have to work hard to get ahead, but you can work hard and still end up with a subpar job in a location you’ve never heard of. Or no job at all. At this point it’s just oversupply, plain and simple.

Then there’s the related but more insidious ‘vocation’ argument, viz. that academia is a calling not a job. This was the basis of most of my graduate education. Worse yet, ‘teaching is a vocation’ is a comment I see repeated over and over and over again in online forums and articles on education. Great, so we’re basically going to limit educators to those who are divinely inspired?

A religious picture
This was the first thing that came up in a Google image search for 'vocation'. It's from the Diocese of Scranton.

This idea needs to be taken out back and shot. Right now. Here’s why:

In the first place, ‘vocation’ is a sentimental ideal that has no place in real-life job requirements. Look, I get it. Every parent wants to think they’re putting their kid in the hands of someone who’s special, who really cares, who’s not just doing this for the money.  Sorry, but that ain’t gonna happen. Asking for only vocation-minded employees is like asking for only A+ students; the numbers simply don’t exist. And for my money I’d rather train enough B-grade professionals — and compensate them adequately — than count on the ‘vocation’ requirement to weed out the unworthy, which seems to be the idea right now: ‘Hey, if we don’t pay people enough, only those who really care will get into the field!’  Do people think that works? Have you read about those priests? Yet there are many competent souls who will do right for the money — if it’s enough money.

A teacher writing on a chalkboard.
This was the sixth image, from a UK article about how teachers viewed themselves.

Yes, money is rather important in this scheme. I don’t know if anyone has noticed this, but many people come their true vocation later in life, after they’ve made sure they’re not going to starve. Penelope Trunk says you should never make what you love into your job, as it guarantees you’ll be underpaid for it. Even entrepreneurs who advocate doing what you love are careful to add that the goal is still to make money. But I still remember the outrage one of my professors expressed when someone asked him how much a professor would make — a reasonable question, to my mind, but ‘It’s not about the money,’ sniffed said professor.

Here’s another problem: calling something a vocation means it can’t be learned, you either have The Gift or you don’t. And I have heard countless teachers make this argument — teachers, claiming that teaching can’t be taught.  Given that the whole idea of teaching is imparting a skill that did not exist previously, I’m not sure I think those teachers should be giving advice.

Finally, the ‘vocation’ argument imbues the profession of teaching with that annoying religious veneer that I so despise. Chastity and humility aren’t enough, now we’re writing vows of poverty — doing it for the money means you must be a bad teacher. Where’s that gotten us? To a place where teachers are more or less expected to buy supplies for their own classrooms, because (I guess) they’re so unconcerned about money they’ll bankrupt themselves for their students. This is not okay.

A saint.
Shall we start dressing the part, I wonder?

Yet many teachers are still buying into the idea that good teachers, real teachers, can’t possibly be concerned about money.

(Come to think of it, the most stalwart ‘vocation’ defenders always seem to be pretty well off. They have a spouse with a robust second income, or a trust fund, or they got into the game long before the pay started falling below inflation.  I think it’s much easier to throw around words like ‘vocation’ when you’re financially comfortable.)

Okay, fine, you can tell people it’s not about the money, but I’m still going to tell people it is. I’ll keep agitating for employers to pay teachers more, because it’s a damned hard job and a skilled profession that deserves more money than it currently gets. More radically, I tell students to think very hard before going into education because, do-gooder reasons be damned, if you’re not careful it can be financially disempowering field that will destroy your psyche.

On one of my last days in Nashville, a former student told me I had a ‘real knack for teaching.’ I wondered if a knack was the same as a calling, but since I was determined to get out I decided this couldn’t be true.  Also, I’d had this student after the rather steep learning curve that happened in the first year of teaching — I’d learned how to teach, you see.

I don’t believe teaching is a vocation. I believe it’s vocational, as in something you can train people to do. As in something you could treat as a means to make money, and actively sell as a lucrative career to talented individuals. And something that you’d damn well better train people to do well, because if you count only on people being born to do it and wiling to accept lousy pay for it, you’re going to get what you pay for.

I won’t claim I was the  world’s best teacher — I certainly knew how to minimize my teaching workload to make sure my research time was protected — but I was pretty good. In the end, though,  I figured this out: a) I could get paid roughly the same amount for a job that didn’t require managing 50+ students and have another 1.5 jobs built in (profs are technically paid for teaching, but also have research + service); or b) I could get paid a helluva lot more if I chose to pursue management qua management, instead of being a manager cloaked with a title that suggests holy orders. And, not being a martyr, I decided I wanted a comfortable life, both in terms of finances and stress — because that, if anything, seems to be my vocation.


  • You have forgotten the siren song of the media, telling us that teaching is a vocation. If you remember from previous posts, I teach community college, and occasionally high school English. I think that I am burn-out, that I should leave the profession (when I really should just find a way to better balance my out-put with my students’ in-go). Then I see “Dangerous Minds.” Or that school counselor on “Freaks and Geeks.” And that gets me dancing to the vocation tap-dance for another month or two.

    As always, love your blog.

  • “I don’t believe teaching is a vocation. I believe it’s vocational, as in something you can train people to do. As in something you could treat as a means to make money, and actively sell as a lucrative career to talented individuals. And something that you’d damn well better train people to do well, because if you count only on people being born to do it and wiling to accept lousy pay for it, you’re going to get what you pay for.”

    Oh, yes, I completely agree with this. The same “vocation” argument has been made about nursing the sick, helping animals, or tending young children and assisting the elderly and the dying, when in reality these are HARD and demanding, yet often low-paid, jobs. Saying working with toddlers, for example, is a “calling” is just a cop out in order to pay daycare workers shockingly low wages. (I know it ain’t a calling because I have a toddler, and those poor daycare teachers are seriously overworked and underappreciated.)

    But I also think that quitting the academy is such a big deal because academics themselves make it so hard for ex-academics to get back in. Most people who leave never come back. So it’s not like getting a divorce or moving. It’s seen as a permanent decision that one might regret (or will be made to regret by other academics). That black and white mentality–either you’re in or you’re out–has kept me on the fence thus far, but only because I have yet to find and begin a viable new career.

  • Very interesting, WoPro! You’re right that parents want to believe that their children’s teachers are there because they love what they do and that’s that. I do think that the best teachers who seem to enjoy what they do, (and stay in the profession for years and years) must have felt pulled towards this profession because of altruistic reasons in the beginning in a somewhat vocation-y way. No college student believes they will get rich by becoming a teacher. But, the money…oh, the money. I’m with you; train them well and pay them accordingly. The ones who stay can afford to stay.

  • One of the biggest financial scams of all time is to trick people into buying their own work supplies, like supplies for the classroom. That’s like unpaid internships. Just a trick for getting the cheapest labor possible. It amazes me that all the smart people in academia keep falling for this trick.

    PS–I’ve taught for places that provided me with the supplies and space I needed, so not all educational institutions are shady. But way too many of them expect teachers to be martyrs.

  • Yes, this is kind of what I’m struggling with. It’s not that I’d never teach again; there are certain elements of it I liked. But I’d sure as hell require adequate compensation and pre-paid-for supplies and space — and this seems more likely to happen in a corporate teaching environment than a university or high school. I know there are institutions that aren’t horribly exploitative, but there seem to be fewer and fewer thanks to the demands of ‘cost-efficient’ education. And without adequate compensation, I may as well just rent the space myself and set up shop as a public speaker/sophist.

  • I know Michelle Pfieffer makes it look good, and you can’t not like ‘Freaks and Geeks’. But I really do hate teacher-martyr movies and their pernicious effects on the populace. A real person simply can’t exist like that for years on end, and burn-out is a real and serious issue. Any full-time teacher is going to suffer from it, and I think paid leaves should be built into the system. But take care of yourself — if you can’t get out, I think I’ll be posting some work-minimization, er, self-protection tips soon.

  • Hmm, well, I may be guilty of promoting black-and-white a bit, as I’m loudly declaring myself OUTTA HERE. But I still have friends in the game, and I’ll talk to people in the Tower if they’ll listen.

    I didn’t mention it in the post, but I think there’s a huge overlap between low-paid, no-respect ‘vocations’ and ‘women’s’ jobs like the ones you mention. It’s no accident that high school teachers are something ridiculous like 90% female, and the number of female profs is starting to climb too, which is not automatically the good thing everyone says it is, at least if it’s just putting more women in low-paying jobs. This phenomenon makes total sense, historically speaking (women were born to do such work, right?) but it’s still infuriating.

    Re: the toddler I’m trying to get someone I know to post about the issue of getting out along with a family…I know that makes it tougher!

  • You make a good point, it’s getting teachers to stay that needs to be the focus. As it is, I think the system takes advantage of idealistic youthfulness. It’s true that most people start out thinking that money isn’t everything, and that’s fine. But when you grow up, you realize money is something if you want to live like a grownup, or just not worry all the time. Then there’s the fact that your limitless energy suddenly disappears, and that goes double if you have kids of your own. Basically, teaching as a field needs to a longer view of what kind of people are going to stay. You can’t shape the field based on idealistic 22-year-old employees if you want to retain talented teachers.

  • I suspect that the ability to teach something might be a talent and whether or not becomes a teacher is a choice made on the part of the person. I think that this whole thing whereby teachers often buy their equipment is annoying since it really means that they are subsidizing the very system that’s at a point of collapsing.

    Anyhow I’ve launched a new series of postings where I’m going to be disusing the skills that learned in graduate school and how we might redeploy them in a non-academic environment.

  • I totally agree with the ‘not a vocation’ line. And I agree that many people teach as a means to an end. However, I also think that some people are good teachers because they enjoy it, and on the flip side that there are some people not cut out for regular classroom teaching. For example, my sister–an intelligent, careful woman, who knew it wasn’t going to make her rich, but really wanted to become a teacher. She went to uni, and it wasn’t until her final year that they sent her out on her practicum (she had gone to classrooms for a day or so before). That’s when she finally realised she didn’t actually like teaching in the classroom. They spent almost 4 years bulking them out on theory and classroom management, and spent the bare minimum on actual time in the field.

    P.S. I ADORE Freaks and Geeks.

  • Yeah, that’s the real problem with Ed programs, they give you all this useless theory then throw you to the wolves. I wonder if she would have felt any different if there had been more support for that moment of truth — it’s a real wake-up call when you first stand in front of the classroom, and I think getting over it is something that should be included in the lesson plan! And maybe just admitting up front that it’s a freaking hard job. Nobody ever tells you this directly, there’s always some euphemisms about ‘rewarding but..’ No, it’s just hard work.

  • I agree, and I think working for too little pay also subsidizes the system. Great idea to start listing all of the useful skills you get from graduate education. Talk about raising awareness!

  • I don’t like teaching that much, I find a lot of it quite stressful but I’m happy to get paid to do it, as long as I’m paid decently. Research though I’m happy to do without being paid. Though if someone will pay that’s good. I guess I have a vocation for the latter. It’s fun. Teaching not so much.

  • Agreed that teaching is stressful, which is why I think it deserves more than just average pay. And it’s great that you enjoy research, but you should still get paid decently to do it if it’s job related. Otherwise, might as keep it as a hobby!

  • Old thread, I know… But it’s too good, I felt like I had to comment.

    The view of teachers as martyrs is disgusting. Fuck Dead Poets Society. I’m not going to say the pop culture image of the “martyr teacher” is responsible for the decline in education, but it definitely makes it seem OK.

    There are screwed up education systems all over the world that have logical causes… but when you promote the idea that only a free-spirited teacher who gets kids riled up like some kind of Pied Piper/Fascist dictator can truly inspire them, you get people thinking, “Oh, school sucks, anyway, and the people who aren’t martyrs are lame,” and, when you put it in that context, education just isn’t something people take seriously.

  • In grad school I coined a phrase (though I’m sure I stole it from someone and forgot…) that continues to both amuse and haunt me: “Academia: more than a job; less than a life.”

  • Garth, that is a great, great quote- the kind that could probably change lives. It’s applicable to many other industries, too.

  • As a grad student, I was pretty much “thrown to the wolves” to teach, and my first class was statistics. As my first test came up, my students were so terrified that they went to the Dean of the Undergrads to plead for help!

    My department was helpful in getting me to my “teaching feet”, and I barely made it through the class. I’ve come to realize that the department could do much more to prepare grad students for teaching. For that matter, the department itself realized that they needed to do more for first-time grad students, about to teach. Even so, this experience is a BIG reason I don’t want to teach.

    So, yeah, I have to concur that it’s possible to teach how to teach–indeed, this *should* be done, for the sanity of first-time teachers!

  • Yes, it is totally gendered and sexist. I think the notion that teaching should be about a holy calling– and therefore underpaid, under-respected, and under-worked– is tied to the idea that women are (read: should be) A) selfless and B) not working for money. The teacher working for money? Ridiculous! She should WANT to teach! Giving should fill her up!

    Sexist BS.

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