Teaching as Vocation

The summer it all began: returning to Boston from California in August 1984. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Not everyone who becomes a teacher dreamed about doing so as a kid. Not all decided to enter a teaching career right out of college. In fact, many professional educators today are in their second or third careers. Whatever path brought you here, it is important to appreciate the unique character of your background and abilities. Whether you are 25 or 45 when students begin addressing you as “Ms.” or “Mr.,” you take on the mantle of more than a job. Becoming an educator is more of a vocation, from the Latin for “calling.” Discerning and answering that call is at the heart of your career in the classroom.

I entered college in 1979 as a creative writing major, determined to be the next great American novelist. This dream was gradually dissipated by the demands of freshman core classes in the humanities. Between the hundreds of pages of classical tragedies, political essays, and dry historical monographs I had to read and analyze in interminable polemic prompts, I had no time or energy to add to the collection of adventurous and fanciful tales I had woven in my high school years. Disillusioned by the end of my first year, I began looking for some new program with which to affiliate myself.

This proved a daunting task. Uninspired by my many choices, I chose to defer my selection and focus on completing other core course requirements. I finally had to make up my mind by my junior year and chose the American Studies program. This seemed a perfect resting place for my indecision. History, literature, political science, art, and music classes would all count toward my major as long as the emphasis was on the American experience. Then I read the great 1930s U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos. I resurrected the idea of the novel, determined to present as my senior thesis a similarly multidimensional historical epic.

I chose as my topic the experience of the Japanese American soldiers in World War II, having just learned for the first time of their tremendous sacrifice for their country in spite of the betrayal of the internment camps. I interviewed veterans, attended a 40th reunion at a Los Angeles museum, compiled news clippings and memoirs, and carefully crafted a compelling protagonist and an engaging plot. I spent the entire summer of 1982 writing an exhaustive first draft. But much to my horror and disappointment that fall, my academic advisor read it and declared, “You are capable of a great work, but this is not it.” My dreams of a literary career came to a sudden and ignominious end.

But all was not lost. My rewritten thesis garnered awards and praise. While my talent did not appear to lie in fiction writing, I did seem to have a flair for writing narrative history. Still uncertain on my career path, I stuck with American Studies, continuing on to UMass/Boston to earn a graduate degree. This included a paid research assistant position, but the experience of poring over historical manuscripts in library vaults failed to keep my interest. I returned to California after my first year in Boston, committed to finishing my M.A. but lukewarm about the doctoral work for which my graduate professors were grooming me.

Then a college friend I met in the Catholic student group at UC Santa Cruz offered me a job as a counselor at a CYO summer camp north of San Francisco. They needed male counselors, he said, especially bilingual ones. He knew I had taken years of Spanish in high school and college and traveled extensively in Mexico. I had nothing else planned for that summer of 1984, so I agreed to go. I was assigned a cabin of a dozen or so 9-10 year old boys, including a handful of Spanish speakers, from a group home run by the archdiocese.

The experience turned out to be transformative. After months of surviving the long, cold, dreary New England winter by wearing layers of wool garments and secluding myself in cavernous libraries, I was entranced by my new world of sunny forest glens, soaring redwoods, canoeing and swimming and horseback riding, wearing shorts and T-shirts all day, playing beach frisbee and volleyball, and hosting outdoor liturgies, dances, parades, and games. I had emerged from a black and white world into one of living color.

I returned to Boston that fall convinced that my calling was to work with children rather than books. I initially thought this would be in the context of church work and decided to enter seminary. First I considered the Catholic religious orders, perhaps the Paulist Fathers for their media and campus work or the Maryknolls for their Latin American missions. But the mandatory celibacy did not work for someone interested in eventually getting married. So I ended up choosing the Protestantism of my mother’s family over the Catholicism of my father’s.

Over the next eight years, I did get to work with youth groups and lead Bible study and confirmation classes, but in the end I realized that parish work was not my long term calling. I then worked in corporate office jobs for six years and eventually was hired to teach theology at a Catholic high school while I worked on my teaching credential. Now I was working with both children and books. Credential in hand, I went on to teach in public schools for the next eighteen years. In so doing, I believed I was answering the call I first heard in that camp in the summer of 1984, although in ways I never could have imagined then.

Every teacher has a story behind their decision to enter the classroom. Many go in straight out of college, and others like me embark on a second or third career. Whatever that background story may be, every teacher learns that teaching is more than a job you can forget about when you go home at the end of the day. While the education world does not use the word “vocation” as much as the church, the concept still applies. People don’t enter teaching for the worldly perks. There are no lucrative salaries or commissions, no stock options, no designer clothing, no luxury cars, no first class airline tickets or hotel suites. The motivation is different.

Teaching is more a vocation than a job or even a career. Jobs can be taken and left at will, and careers can be changed. I don’t remember feeling any grief when it was time for me to quit my positions as paperboy, library page, administrative assistant, amusement park custodian and ride operator, food server, data entry clerk, or even insurance agent. There was little emotional or spiritual investment. I needed to work, so I worked, I collected my paycheck, I went home, I woke up the next morning and did the same thing until the weekend arrived.

A calling cannot be dismissed as easily. It was hard for me to deny that the way I ended in teaching was atypical. I enjoyed my own teachers when I was a kid, but I never imagined becoming one of them. Unlike those colleagues who went into teaching right after college graduation, I came in through the back door, but it was a door that opened for me all the same. Over the course of the next two decades, I taught more than five thousand students at five different schools. They came from every walk of life. While this was not something I dreamed about doing in childhood or even as a young man, I ended up finding my place in it.

Of course, many of the skills and experiences I had in other lines of work helped prepare me for the classroom and provided helpful curriculum materials. My Master’s thesis was published by Paulist Press and was later incorporated into my U.S. History unit on America in World War I. My Spanish came in handy with ELD students and their families. My clerical jobs gave me organizational skills. My church work taught me that learning is about people as much as it is about ideas. Even my odd jobs as a student provided a useful resume for helping my Economics seniors craft theirs.

If you feel like you belong in the classroom despite your inexperience, you are probably in the right profession. This sense of calling will help you survive the first few difficult years as you learn the ropes of curriculum planning, classroom management, differentiated instruction, and working with colleagues. The longer you stick with it and pace yourself as you go, the stronger and more skilled you will become. Remember this in hard times when you want to quit. You have been given your own classroom for a reason. The fact that you have a teaching position is a gift in itself in these uncertain economic times.

Make the most of your opportunity. Believe in yourself and your calling. Your students will be able to tell if you believe in what you are doing. Your life experience is as much an asset as your list of skills. Your own inner strength and sense of conviction will empower your efforts. A calling is an often amorphous thing. None of us can predict how long an opportunity will last. Seizing the moment and trying our best is all any of us can do. Listening and learning and keeping our eyes and ears open will allow us to see and hear where we are called next.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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