Teaching is Not a Job. It’s a Calling…

Brian Miller
Secondary Principal

"What keeps you going? What encourages you? Why haven't you quit?"

I read those lines a few days ago in a book entitled, Leading with a Limp by Dan Allender and instantly underlined them. Not because I'm ready to turn in my keys, but because I know a lot of educators are. Especially teachers. Others are backing out even before they start. After chatting with a few universities about potential new hires, a common message emerged: newly graduated students are walking across the stage, receiving their hard-earned degree, then returning home with doubt, uncertainty, and plans to "take a year off" and see what happens.

Everyone seems to be wrestling with the same question: Is now really the best time to be a teacher?

For many of us, the past few months have been, without question, the hardest of our careers. Which is why articles such as, "Are Teachers Ok? No, and Toxic Positivity Isn't Helping," by Julie Mason became an internet sensation. Because they hit a nerve. Because they express the heart of what many teachers feel but are unable to express, that they're tired, frustrated, and burnt out. That they're fed up and feel trapped. Which is exactly why I sent her article to my staff and asked for their feedback.

Unsurprisingly, they found it helpful and encouraging. Because it is, because she is absolutely right… The more we talked about it though, we also discovered that she is also absolutely wrong.

And now, I too "am going to say something that might ruffle a few feathers."

Teaching is not just a job and we should never be okay with seeing it that way.

Like the men and women who willingly join the armed services during tumultuous times, the nurses and doctors who travel the world to provide aid to struggling countries and communities, or the cooks who bring their expertise to World Central Kitchen, a non-profit organization devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters, teaching is not something you do to pay the bills or pass the time. It is not a job. It is a calling. It will periodically consume your life and almost always steal your thoughts. For as Thomas C. Murray writes in Personal and Authentic: Designing Learning Experiences That Impact a Lifetime, "Teachers are some of the only people on the planet who go to bed worrying about other people's children."

Outside of teaching content, teachers are tasked with guiding and counseling students about life and relationships, walking them through the past, present and the future, and helping them make sense of their struggles, heartbreaks, joys, and celebrations. Teachers are asked to walk students through some of their most difficult years of life. Which is why, quite often, they are the greatest influence in a student's life.

And if that doesn't keep you up at night, staring into the darkness, if that doesn't inspire you to work late or rise early, if the weight of that responsibility doesn't terrify you to the point of exhaustion then you should, just like Julie Mason suggests, walk away from this profession. Because teaching is not merely a job, it is a calling, a quest, and an opportunity to deeply impact lives.

It's just that, every now and then, after the new policy meeting, the alignment of curriculum meeting, the "gotta increase our test scores" meeting, and whatever-else-seems-important meeting, we lose sight of who we are and why we're here. Add a global pandemic that shifts the very core of our teaching experience and expectations, and we are suddenly miles away from where we hoped and wanted to be.

Sprinkle a healthy dose of toxic positivity on top of that and suddenly educators are willing to walk away because teaching is no longer teaching. It's survival.

As educators across the country head into Christmas break and take a collective sigh of relief, I would like to offer three pieces of advice that, I hope, will bring comfort to your heart and confidence to your mind that you are exactly where you need to be doing exactly what you need to do. Teaching.

Be Hopeful, not Optimistic.

"Toxic positivity," Julie Mason writes, "is when we focus on the positive and reject, deny, or displace the negative . . . It sounds like being optimistic, but in reality," it amplifies "unpleasant emotions."

James Stockdale, a United States Navy admiral, aviator, and POW survivor would agree.

When asked, "How on earth did you deal with {being a POW}?" Stockdale replied with, "I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining moment of my life."

Who didn't prevail? The optimist. Their continued belief that their situation would improve, that they would be out by Christmas, by Easter, by Thanksgiving, and then Christmas again, in the end, was their downfall. "They died of a broken heart," Stockdale believed, which to him, is a very important lesson.

"You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

What is your current reality? What is your pain and frustration? Whatever they are, don't sugar coat them. Absorb them. Call them by name. Then, with as much grace and kindness as you can muster, confront those who can solve them. Be it your boss, a colleague, or yourself, for that is how we change our current plight, by being honest and active.

Toxic positivity rejects or denies our true reality. It focuses on the false positives and ignores the negative.

Hope acknowledges our true condition and confronts it. It absorbs the pain yet it insists that we will prevail. It turns our current realities into defining moments of our lives. It is hard-won. And it is worth it.

As you prepare for the back half of the school year in 2021, hold onto hope, prevail, and turn this event into a defining moment of your life. Your students are watching. And they are learning.

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Remember, You Enjoy This.

Admittedly, I find inspiration in strange places. One of my recent favorites is from an Australian named Beau Miles.

In his most recent post (Junk Cabin: Secretly building my wife a COVID office) Beau says: "I have to sometimes stop myself when I'm building things and remind myself that I really enjoy it. I enjoy the process of building and it's not always a sprint to the finish."

Sometimes - oftentimes - education seems like a sprint from one finish line (break) to the next. Especially right now. Christmas break, spring break, and summer break can never come soon enough.

Beau's words are a kind reminder to stop merely "building things" and embrace these moments. Even when it's hard - or especially when it's hard - we must find times and moments and reasons to enjoy this great profession because these are the days that we'll look back on and our students will email or write us about. These are the defining moments of our lives. How we choose to live them will determine how we remember them.

As a good friend of mine recently wrote, "The journey of {my wife's} cancer and treatment this past year has taken us to a place of ‘focus on the moment.' Otherwise, we can lose it all in fear, angst and future worries. The present has become a more peaceful, relational, and God-focused place for us."

As educators, we can choose to focus on the fears of what could happen, the reasons why we're bummed or frustrated with how the year is progressing, and consume ourselves with the mountain of problems before us. Or, like Beau, we can remind ourselves that at the heart of all that we are doing, we get to teach, we get to work with students, and we still get to have a voice.

For 2021, enjoy the process and focus on the moments you have with students. Those moments may be smaller, erratic, or look radically different than they have in years past, but they are still there. Find them, cling to them, and enjoy them. For they are why you became a teacher.

Stay Steady. You're Planting Irises.

In his memoir, Downhill All the Way, Leonard Woolf (Virginia Woolf's husband) wrote a small passage about his thoughts on the war. It reads (bolding added):

"I will end … with a little scene that took place in the last months of peace. They were the most terrible months of my life, for, helplessly and hopelessly, one watched the inevitable approach of war. One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler - the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers. … Suddenly I heard Virginia's voice calling to me from the sitting room window: "Hitler is making a speech." I shouted back, "I shan't come. I'm planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead." Last March, twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard."

Walt Whitman famously came to a similar conclusion when he pondered what to do "amidst endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish."

His answer. "That you are here. That life exists. And identity. That the powerful play goes on and we may contribute a verse."

At some point, this defining moment of our lives will come to an end. Before it does, however, we have the unique gift of walking our kiddos through it, of planting irises of decency, resolve, and of hope. This unprecedented time has extended to us the unprecedented opportunity of teaching our students the most important lessons of their lives: how to be a human.

"What keeps you going? What encourages you? Why haven't you quit?"

Answer. Hope, joy, and irises. Because teaching is not a job, it's a calling. And now, more than ever, is the time to answer it.

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Brian Miller