More times than I care to remember I have heard teaching referred to as a calling. There are spiritual undertones to the word calling, but in short, a calling is defined as “a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence.” When I first got into education in the late ‘90s, I would often roll my eyes when I heard teaching being described in such overinflated language. I would think, “Yes, teaching is important and we can make a big impact, but a calling? A bit much for me.”
Now over 20 years later, I think quite differently about teaching as a calling. In my time as a teacher, instructional coach, new teacher mentor, department chair, teacher educator, and student teaching supervisor, I have not only learned a great deal about what makes a good teacher, but also the characteristics that make up teachers who persist in a vocation that is highly challenging, severely undervalued/underpaid, and extremely tasking. Despite all of that, for so many teachers, they still feel as though they are called to do this work. So, what is it about them that not only makes them persist, but helps them thrive?
I have never met a good teacher who got into this profession that in some way didn’t do it so as to make the world a better place.
Many, many studies have been done on effective teachers and teaching. I’ve done several myself and have voraciously read hundreds of them. When I think about that work along with my own experiences in schools across the US, there are five qualities of those that have been called to teach that jump out to me.
Of all the qualities that make a teacher great, few if any are as important as care. Those that are called to teach genuinely care about their kids as human beings, not just as pupils in their classrooms. They seek to build relationships with their students and recognize that when kids feel cared for, they are far more likely to work hard for them, refrain from unwanted behaviors, and engage more freely. For many, caring is the essence of teaching. There is an old adage in teaching: I don’t teach content, I teach kids. For those called to teach, that adage is a way of life.
Desire to Serve
The best teachers often possess an attitude of service, where they receive great satisfaction and even joy from serving others. They aim to improve the lives of others through selfless giving, whether in the form of time, energy, and for many teachers, even money. I have seen teachers buy supplies for kids who could not afford them, go garage sailing on weekends to buy books for their students, and have brought in food for kids they knew weren’t sure would be having dinner that night. Few teachers get into this profession without some desire to serve others. Any teacher who got into the profession for the money either go some bad advice or is seriously delusional. Teaching is about giving.
Teachers who thrive tend to be open-minded individuals. In our forthcoming book. Lesson Planning with Purpose: Five Approaches to Curriculum Design we identified open-mindedness as a critical element of Perceptive Teaching and define it as the quality of being receptive and amenable to new ideas, situations, and people. Much research has illustrated this quality as being tied to effective teaching and in my own experiences, I have found that a good teacher educator can help any person develop into a good teacher so long as they possess an open-minded orientation. Open-minded teachers are self-reflective, open to feedback, and willing to change and try new things. Teaching is an ever-evolving undertaking that requires teachers to be open to new ideas, approaches to instruction, and much more. Open-minded teachers may not blindly accept every new idea that comes their way, but they are willing to “assess norms, customs, or rules and to challenge those aspects when they believe it to be appropriate”
(McConnell, Conrad, & Uhrmacher, 2020).
Teaching is hard. It’s incredibly rewarding but it’s hard. I have often told my teacher education students that you have to be a little bit crazy to be a teacher. What I mean by that is that we have to not only be willing to never give up on a child, but we have to continue to come back, day after day, and try to reach even the most resistant of students. We are going to fail. We are not always going to reach every kid, no matter how hard we try, but we have to be able to persist in trying. Teachers who do this best find a way to take care of their own mental health, draw healthy boundaries between what happens in school and bringing it home with them, as well as learning not to carry all of their students’ burdens.
Make the World a Better Place
I have never met a good teacher who got into this profession that in some way didn’t do it so as to make the world a better place. The impact we have on the lives of our students are innumerable and immeasurable. One of my favorite exercises I do with my student teachers once they have finished their field placement is to have them do the math on the number of lives they are going to impact in their careers. For middle and high school teachers it is 5 classes per year X 30 kids per class X 30 years teaching and for elementary students 30 kids per year X 30 years teaching. That’s a lot of impact and a humbling responsibility. The best teachers never forget that.
Bradley Conrad is an associate professor in the Education Department at Capital University (Columbus, Ohio) where he teaches in the teacher education and master’s degree programs. He holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver and has published several articles in the areas of curriculum, teacher dispositions, and culturally responsive pedagogy.