Teaching is a classic example of a vocation — something people dedicate their lives to out of passion for the work, like art.

It’s hard to imagine someone becoming a painter for any reason other than love of painting. If they don’t even find their art inspiring, why would anyone else?

The same goes for teachers. A teacher who isn’t motivated by a passion for educating others usually does more to prevent learning than facilitate it. You know it’s true because you saw it when you were a student, suffering through countless classes taught by people who treated them as just a job.

That’s exactly the problem: we know teaching should be a vocation, but most teachers don’t treat it like one.

A vocation is the opposite of a profession

The professional mindset is so ubiquitous in modern culture that we don’t even notice it.

It’s the idea that work is what we do, not who we are. With this approach, you can make career decisions using logic, weighing the trade-offs of money, working conditions, odds of success, and whatever other criteria matter to you. It also means work-life balance is crucial to your happiness because you need to preserve time to disconnect from work and reconnect with yourself.

Most people take this perspective, and that’s fine. There are plenty of jobs in the world that don’t require passion, and if yours is decent, you can have a comfortable life.

The vocational mindset is the exact opposite.

It says that what you do can’t be separated from who you are. Your gut tells you what you must do, not some pro-con list. Work-life balance is not about disconnecting from work but pursuing all the things that generate inspiration for your work.

A true teacher never turns off

For a teacher, it means you couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It means that everything in your life — relationships, hobbies, you name it — feeds your teaching mind and winds up in your lessons.

It means that you never stop being a teacher, even when you’re not in class.

Careful — don’t confuse this with working all the time. It doesn’t mean spending nights and weekends planning and grading (please don’t do that).

It simply means that you are the same person at work and at home. You behave and treat others the same under all circumstances, including your students. You don’t lock away your personality and put on your “teacher face” during class, and you don’t avoid your students like the plague afterwards.

You also don’t pine for the weekend or dread Monday morning, because work is not a drag — it’s where you get to do what you do best.

Few teachers feel the call

The reality is that people teach for all kinds of reasons other than passion.

Many feel a desire to serve others or give back to the community in some way. This is admirable, but it’s not a calling to teach. There are many other ways to serve, and altruism is no replacement for genuine love of teaching.

Others simply don’t know what else to do with their education. They studied something without a clear professional track, like humanities or pure sciences, and teaching is one of the most obvious ways to apply their degrees.

Sometimes people teach in order to be able to do what they actually want. Think about university professors, who often consider teaching to be secondary to their research. Many musicians and artists teach to support themselves until gigs and sales can do the job.

It’s safe to say that these teachers outnumber those who truly feel called to teach, by a a long shot.

That’s bad news for education

Plenty of people in other lines of work do their jobs well without feeling a calling, but teaching is not like other jobs.

In most jobs, your role is to solve a problem. From food service to medicine, line worker to management, the goal is to fulfill a need or desire.

What happens if you do the work without passion? Best case, everything is fine. The problem gets solved, you get paid, and everyone goes home happy. Worst case, you fail, and your boss or customers go looking for someone else who can do better.

What if you teach without passion? Different story.

Best case, your students cooperate enough to get the grades and test scores they want, then promptly forget most of what they learned. Since the goal is genuine learning, this is already a bust — and it’s the best case scenario!

Worst case, they come to hate “learning” and leave your class convinced that education is a waste of time. Failure doesn’t get more complete.

The stakes are high

What’s on the line is way bigger than literacy levels and achievement gaps. It’s even bigger than economic competitiveness and prosperity.

The fundamental wellbeing of society is at stake.

When people hate learning, they close their minds to everything that challenges what they already know. Then, ignorance is just the beginning of your worries.

People who never learn to open their minds wind up preserving all the beliefs and biases they grew up around. They’re unable to question assumptions. They’re unwilling to listen to those who disagree.

From there it’s not far to bitterly divided nations and narrow-minded leaders.

Teacher, know thyself

There’s no magic for injecting passion into the hearts of teachers. Just like other vocations, teaching is not for everyone, and only you can know if it’s right for you.

For current and would-be teachers, the only possible advice is to know yourself.

How would you describe yourself in class? What about outside of class?

If the answers are different, ask yourself why. Is there something about the “real” you that’s not acceptable in class? Do you feel the need to protect your inner self from your students? Have you put your students in a special category of people who require different treatment?

Getting to the bottom of these questions isn’t easy. It takes time and brutal honesty. But if you’re serious about transforming your teaching, it has to be done.

Join the discussion!

I would love to know:

  • Who do you look to as an example of a true teacher-at-heart?
  • Why did you become a teacher? Did you feel called?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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