Published Online: March 19, 2008

Called to Teach

My resume looks like I have career attention-deficit disorder. I’ve been a high school English teacher, dance studio operator, junior high dance and drama teacher, middle school language arts teacher, school district new-teacher coordinator, reading teacher, teacher trainer in a staff-development office, middle school language arts and social studies teacher, and now, a reading teacher ... again.

And although it looks like I can’t keep a job, the truth is this: I have been blessed with opportunities for change when I least expected them.

I have thoroughly loved every job I’ve ever had related to education. But there have been times when it was apparent that I needed to be somewhere else. For example, I was working on new-teacher support with 600 teachers and 300 mentors when I decided to return to college (at age 43) to get my master’s degree. The local university was beginning two programs—school administration and K-12 literacy. Someone said, “It’s easier if your graduate work matches your day job.”

As part of a partnership, teachermagazine.org publishes this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

I was working in the central office at the time, so I attended the first class of the school administration program. I only needed to hear four words: “public school law” and “statistics” before I ran out of that college classroom, hands over my ears, singing, “I can’t hear you; I can’t hear you ….”

I signed up for the literacy program and loved it! I continued to work with new teachers during the day, and now I had innovative lesson ideas to share with them from the courses I was taking. But after the first semester, things got a little difficult. My professor kept saying, “For homework, go back to your classrooms and do this activity with your students.” Hmmmm. I had no students. Then it hit me. I wanted students! Lots of them—all shapes and sizes and colors—my students in my classroom. I could already smell the chalk–umm, white board markers.

At around that same time, my professor assigned the book The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. I was on page 30 when I read something that would change me forever:

There are times when we must work for money rather than meaning, and we may never have the luxury of quitting a job because it does not make us glad. But that does not release us from continually checking the violence we do to others and ourselves by working in ways that violate our souls. Nor does it relieve us from wondering whether preserving integrity is a luxury. What brings more security in the long run: holding this job or honoring my soul?

The world stopped. Tears welled up in my eyes. I’m violating my soul, I thought to myself. And then out loud, “I’m violating my SOULLLL!”

“You’re what?” my husband called from the other room.

I knew that I needed to return to the classroom in order to “honor my soul.” I continued to work with those new teachers, who meant the world to me, until the end of the year. And then I unpacked my bulletin board borders and set out for the nearest middle school with an opening. And guess what it was? A reading teacher! Finally my graduate work matched my day job.

Career Choices

So I was back to teaching, but those days in the central office have never been forgotten. During one extremely hectic time while I was still there, I was asked to help with some of the hiring paperwork. The thing I learned from this experience was this: every single man and woman who ever attended any school, anywhere, thinks he or she can teach. Teaching is too often a “fall back” job. I can’t tell you how many people came for interviews and said, “Well, I tried this job and I didn’t like it; I tried another job and didn’t like it. So I thought I’d try teaching.”

Then there was the man who came in, application in hand, confident that he was fully qualified to pass his wisdom on to the next generation. I said, “We’ll need a copy of your college transcript.” He said (and I promise I’m not making this up), “Well, I never went to college.” I have to admit there were times when it was hard to be professional.

As I have worked in classrooms and schools across several counties of our state, I have too often encountered teachers and school staff who truly did not belong in a school. Once, an exceptional-needs teacher pointed at her class and then yelled at me across the library: “You know what?! These kids are stupid!” I was a young teacher then and didn’t have the tongue-lashing in me that I would have for her now. But I’ve often wondered if those students remember that day. And I admonish myself for not having had a “chat” with that teacher about humiliating them.

Since that time, I have never missed an opportunity to calmly mention to certain colleagues that teaching may not be the best choice of a career for them. “It’s OK,” I tell them. “Just find your passion and go after it. If you’re not eager to see those goofy faces coming down the hall at you every day (or at least most days), you need to find other work. If you don’t spend your summers anxiously awaiting the smell of new sneakers and freshly sharpened pencils, you may want to think about a different career.”

And the sad news is that there are more than a few teachers in our schools who really should be doing something besides teaching. And when that happens, whose souls are we really violating?

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