October 19th, 2018—Frederick Buechner famously described a professional calling as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”. Most teachers when asked why they teach will provide an answer similar to Buechner’s definition of calling. They feel most alive and in synch with their “deep gladness” when they help learners fulfill their “deep hunger” to understand the world. Teachers who are called to the profession find it difficult to quit and if they do they often find themselves either back in the classroom or working in an allied profession. It is common in teacher education programs to hear students talk about leaving successful careers in non-teaching professions because they were bored or knew deep within their heart that they were not following their passion. They resisted the call to teach for many years until they just couldn’t resist anymore. It was time to start over, embrace the call, take up their “deep gladness” and follow the passion to teach. In short, a teacher with a calling to serve the learning needs of students is responding to some deep inner gift or spiritual pull to teach. Linda Alston in her book Why We Teach explains her experience with trying to resist the call to be a teacher: “we must return because the call resonates in a place within us, and we must answer, Yes!”
Because calling is rooted in a deep inner feeling that is more spiritual than practical it often contains an element of idealism. A longing to serve that is hard to quantify and validate through objective measures more commonly found in teacher accountability rubrics. Educators teach with the hope of bringing a better world into existence through the kind of teaching that connects their “deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger”. But these connections can be fleeting and unpredictable. As Alston notes, “the day that we don’t go back might well be the day that we miss the miracle of a child making a connection, saying something funny or profound, creating a work of art, and giving our lives meaning and purpose”. Joy in the miraculous and humorous is a significant component to the identity and idealism that is associated with teaching. Teachers know a lot about the joy of directing their teaching gifts toward learning, the drawing out of knowledge from a student. And in times of stress or uncertainty, joy can provide the needed energy to thrive during the challenges of teacher preparation and the high stakes environment of early career teaching.
As much as idealism and joy are powerful forces for educators they also have their down side. What happens when the passion of idealism meets the cold hard facts of industrial models of schooling? What happens when the flames of idealism flicker out and instead a teacher succumbs to the reality of bench mark assessments, data sets, instructional rubrics, disinterested learners, and standardized assessments? What happens when disenchantment overshadows joy? Is the miraculous transformation of a learner still worth noticing and celebrating if the teacher is cynical, embittered, or burnt-in? In times like this the centering and reassuring power of calling can seem far away and elusive. Joy and role-certainty is replaced with a sense of vocational amnesia. “I’m a teacher” is replaced with “who am I?” and “why am I here?” These are dangerous questions for a teacher to ask. The Mayo Clinic defines medical amnesia as “the loss of memories, such as facts, information and experiences” that can follow severe illness, head trauma, or psychological distress. Teaching amnesia is a loss of identity and classroom presence, a realization that you no longer know who you are and why you are teaching. You find it a challenge to answer “Yes” to the call to teach and without that sense of “deep gladness” you are less effective at meeting the “deep hunger” of your students.
Like medical amnesia, teaching amnesia is the result of instructional/institutional trauma or distress. For instance, the long and protracted sense that no one in your school cares about whether or not you show up in the morning. Your colleagues or school leadership cannot accurately describe your educational gifts. Or perhaps the sudden realization that what matters most to society is not your passion for content knowledge but rather your ability to produce high test scores and move “bubble students” to the next level of proficiency. Vocational amnesia is a consequence of the industrialization and commodification of the craft of teaching, art and ambiguity is replaced with the siren’s call of certainty through a technocratic model of efficiency.
How can teachers heal from vocational amnesia and return to a life-giving state of instructional wellness? As Alston notes the call never goes away but what does change is the teacher’s ability to hear the call and answer “yes!’. If at its core amnesia is characterized by a state of forgetfulness and memory loss it can be helpful to remember the reasons for entering the profession of teaching in the first place. A good and trusted colleague or instructional team can provide the necessary reminders about a teacher’s calling. They can remind a teacher with vocational amnesia of students they helped, differences they made in school culture, or name the teaching gifts that confirm their respected status as a team member. Mindfulness practices that calm the inner dialogue about inadequacy and encourage a more open stance to the teaching landscape can also help. Three deep breaths or a gratitude journal can widen the technocratic instructional blinders to encourage a more wholehearted orientation to teaching. Poetry and wisdom stories of loss can remind a teacher’s languishing heart that remaining in a constant state of instructional joy is a myth and that out of suffering and battered idealism can emerge a renewed spirit. Taking time to remember the feelings and emotions of that initial call to teach is another remedy for vocational amnesia. The next time you are feeling disconnected from the call, answer this question and share it with a colleague; what three words immediately come to mind when you think back to when you first considered the profession of teaching?