The problem with teaching being a vocation.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

If you’re a teacher, you’ve heard it before. You were meant to be a teacher. Teaching gives your life meaning. Teaching is considered something that you need to have a passion for. You need to care about teaching to do it well, and you can’t just do it for the money. Is this something inherent about the work, though, or is it something built into the system?

What is a vocation?

A vocation is a job, but it is more than a job. It has a ‘higher calling’ element or is something particularly important or worthwhile. It often has a moral quality; having a vocation instead of a typical job makes you a good person. These things are great, and having a vocation is a way to find a purpose and meaning in your life. 

Young female teacher sitting in a classroom thinking alone.
Teaching is a lot more than just a job to many teachers.

Teaching is often regarded as a vocation, along with other jobs like nursing or working for a charity. These are seen as more than just a job, and people who have these jobs should be revered. There is an element of sacrifice to having these jobs, which is a problem.

Why is teaching considered a vocation?

It can certainly be argued that there are only particular types of people who should be teachers. Only people who are patient and find meaning in preparing the next generation for the future have any business teaching. 

Yes, teaching can give significant meaning and purpose to your life. Many teachers find that being a teacher is a core part of their identity, that it is just who they are and who they were always meant to be, that they couldn’t fathom being anything else. Very few people feel this way about being a marketing manager or an accountant.

Why is teaching being a vocation a problem?

The problem isn’t that people find meaning in purpose in being a teacher, but that this is seen as adequate compensation in itself. You don’t need to be paid as much because you get so much life satisfaction. You were meant to be a teacher, and if you look for another job, you will be seen as lesser than those who stuck it out. You have a calling, and you need to follow it no matter how poorly you’re treated.

Young female teacher looking out of a window with her arms crossed, thinking.
It’s worth having a think about what you are compromising on because of how important your job is.

The thing is, teaching doesn’t need to be a vocation. You wouldn’t need to have some extraordinary passion or drive to be a good teacher if it wasn’t difficult to be one otherwise. As much as many teachers would protest, if teaching was seen as just a job like any other, we may not have some of the problems that teachers currently face.

Teachers would feel more comfortable looking for other jobs that are better paying, even if they are seen as ‘less-than’ being a teacher. Teachers may have better working conditions because there isn’t the expectation that they put up with things because they love the job so much. Many teachers wouldn’t feel so stuck because teaching has become a core part of their identity. Teachers wouldn’t feel the societal pressure to go to extreme lengths for their students, completely unsupported by the system.

What is the difference between a vocation and a profession?

Teaching is a profession. It requires a long list of specific skills, and certain personal attributes lend themselves to being very good at this job. As a teacher, you need to be a specialist in various fields that are very specific to the job. To be a teacher, you need to commit to it to some degree, but this doesn’t mean that you need to dedicate your life to it.

What impact does this have on teachers?

Being a teacher can be difficult, and a big part of that is not being adequately supported by schools and governments as well as friends and family. It is perfectly valid if teaching is your calling, but I don’t think we need to pressure people to feel this way. The work you do as a teacher is highly specialised, and you should be supported and compensated for doing it properly. Considering teaching a vocation suggests that people should do it because of the emotional fulfilment they get and that this is all they need. 

Pointing to this emotional and spiritual fulfilment as the core reason for becoming a teacher leaves ample room for compromise. You wouldn’t dream of compromising on these things in another job or profession. I don’t think that teaching needs to be as difficult as it is. Teachers are passionate people, but making passion a requirement for the job means having a profession where people can be exploited.

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