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Making Our Nation Great: Teaching Is a Special Calling

| Ben Johnson

This is an exciting time of year -- brand-new classes and brand-new students. When I was a teacher, I didn't realize that I had an advantage over every other profession. Each year, I got a fresh start, a clean slate, a tabula rasa. I had all summer to reflect on how I did and to prepare to make the next year even better.

Yet I wonder what the result would have been had I done just a bit more, or taken more notice of that one student. I wonder about how many educational opportunities I missed because I was so wrapped up in me, especially in the first few years.

I understand that I have only so much time and energy and that I can't save every student. But I have noticed something about teaching and teachers. There is something extra there, something other professions do not have, besides what I mentioned above: Thinking about other professions, I always wondered what it would be like to have an 8-to-5 job. I felt the constant burden of lessons and grading and being prepared for the next day. I wondered what it would be like to go to work with nothing and come home with nothing. Then I remember thinking, "How boring!"

Don't get me wrong -- I had a good life outside of school with my family and my church, even when I became an administrator. I didn't constantly think about school. But when I was doing something physical, such as washing dishes or mowing the lawn, I found myself thinking about what happened at school that day, what I needed to do differently for the next. It wasn't deliberate. My mind just drifted that way.

You know, the surprising thing is that in those times, answers and solutions came to me as if out of the blue. Answers came easily, especially if I was concerned about an individual student and how to help curb bad behavior or develop a talent. When those moments of illumination came, I knew they would work. I could feel it in my bones.

I think that other professions are also entitled to moments of inspiration and brilliance. After all, that is what has made the United States do so well all these years, right? But I believe that there is something more to teaching and, ultimately, that it is that thing that keeps us in education, even with all the public scrutiny.

In all my years as a teacher, I don't ever remember not wanting to go to work. I felt engaged, needed, and depended on -- if not by the students, then at least by the administration and the parents. It was sort of a compulsion. I did not like to leave my students in other people's hands, and it was more than not trusting the sub: There was a connection between me and the students -- an unspoken bond of trust. When I had to attend a conference, I felt like I had to reestablish that connection when I got back. I am not sure how often that happens in corporate America, but it involved something more than just trust.

At times, when I was in the act of teaching and in my zone, I performed beyond my capabilities, and I saw students do some amazing learning, gaining knowledge and skills and having fun. But then I wonder, why wasn't I in my zone all the time? Well, two possible reasons just popped into my head: Either I did not have the skill or -- more important, perhaps -- I did not prepare in the right way.

Looking back on the best lessons I have orchestrated, I can see a pattern emerge. When I could think about a lesson with enough lead time to let it stew a bit, it was always better. When I happened to be concerned about issues of discipline, motivation, or student needs, the answers came to me. So the "right way" to prepare lessons is to cogitate over them in terms of student and classroom needs in order to open the door to inspiration.

I am sad to say, however, that as frequently as I did the above, it was not usually a deliberate act. It was more a reaction, maybe even an instinctual response to the need to resolve issues. Yet I got the help I needed anyway. That is what is different about being a teacher versus being a stockbroker or a plumber. I believe that teaching is a higher calling and, as such, is entitled to extra help. Where that help comes from is for you to decide. Take it for what it is worth religiously, ethically, morally, and spiritually, but that help is real.

Now we have come full circle. I can't help wondering what teaching opportunities I have missed because my heart was not in what I was doing as a teacher or because I was preoccupied about my own situation, or because I was lazy, or because I was simply not being deliberate about finding answers to solve student needs.

That is in the past, though. It is a new year, full of possibilities.

Doctor, lawyer, police officer, you name it -- no profession is more important than teaching. (And administrators are teachers, too.) As teachers, we are partners with all the stakeholders, both seen and unseen, and we need all the help we can get, because we fundamentally affect the lives of every child born in this country. And that is what really has made this nation great.

Have a great year, and please share your thoughts!

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Comments (49)

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Ben Johsnon (author) (not verified)

Calling anti union?

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Karen:

I don't recall using the particular word "calling" in my musings, but I have heard teaching referred to in that manner, particularly from professionals who leave business careers to become teachers. I teach at the University of Phoenix and most of the aspiring teachers they get are in that situation and that is how they explain leaving lucrative salaries and benefits to enter into a minimal survival wage. I agree with you, it is unfair for the negotiating party to include our philanthropic natures as teachers as part of the negotiating package.

One of the reasons I left California was to escape the unions that were strangling the relationship between administrators and teachers. I had been on both sides of the argument and felt that the adversarial relationship severely hampered their ability to coexist and work together on the same goals. I count myself fortunate to live in Texas, which is a right to work state. In my 22 years as a public educator, I have seen the full range of teachers--good to bad. Unfortunately, although many teachers are caring and dedicated, I have seen few that I would classify as professional. To be "seen as professional", I believe that money follows behavior.

Look in any school across the country and you will see that the majority of instruction is still lecture. Students expected to listen passively to whatever the teacher is saying. This is more than not professional, this is malpractice. It fully flies in the face of years of research that decry the practice. Yet it continues. Teachers understand that evaluation is an essential element of instruction and are taught in preservice that pretesting is a critical component of measuring improvement. How many teachers pretest (besides KWL)? When teachers can use student data to support their diagnosis and can implement scientifically approved academic prescriptions for every child, then they will be professionals. Frankly, unions are against asking teachers to do anything extra (without pay).

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Janida Yancy (not verified)

Teaching is a Calling

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Every year I am just as nervous as I was my first year teaching. I get a new group of students that I know I must prepare them for highschool and beyond. They are just as nervous and excited, also. However, I jump right in their and try to find creative ways to teach the content. This year I've gotten out of my comfort zone. I am using more cooperative groups, peer tutoring, graphic organizers, and literature circles in my classroom. Yes, teaching is a calling because I truly want my students to succeed, and I will continue to search for strategies to use in my classroom.

Edward Regalado (not verified)

In the Zone

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Hey Ben, I enjoyed reading your article and all the positive things that you write about teaching. I'm still a newbie teacher with three years, but I try my hardest to reach students. I teach math because many students do not like math. I go to school every day to try and change a students idea of math being too hard, or that they are bad at math. I find myself, like you, getting into zones of good teaching. This really excites me, and I try to keep that going for as long as possible. Different parts of math are easier for students to get, but i try to make students to be less afraid of math.

Shawnte (not verified)

Special Calling

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Hi Ben-

Great blog! As I was reading through your blog it was great to see that other teachers have the same thoughts and perspectives. I agree with you 110% and believe that teaching is a special calling. I love my job and feel very blessed to affect the lives of many students who come through my classroom door everyday. Good luck everyone this year, stay strong and effective!

Shawnte

Paul Friel (not verified)

Making a difference

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Ben,
I have been teaching Economics for the last twelve years. I like you am always looking for ways to do a better job the next year. Over the years I have caught myself using the same same lesson plans. How easy that is to do. I am currently working towards my masters in curriculmn and development. This has opened my eyes to many things I can improve. I agree totally that we as teachers are making this nation and it takes a special person to be a teacher.

Paul Friel

Jennifer Petty, Intervention Specialist, K-4 (not verified)

It just keeps pulling me back in!

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Ben,
Thank you for your comments. I have to say they have come at the right moment. I am a Special Education teacher in a Multiple Disabiities classroom. I love what I do and try to do more for my students and families each year. I was starting to feel a little down, because I have recently heard from a teacher of a student who was making incredible gains while with me. This teacher isn't able (willing?) to do the extra things that he needs and because of that he is failing badly. I was questioning myself and if I had been wrong to provide the extra support if others weren't going to do so, but I realize that would be wrong. My objective is to make my students as indpenedent as possible and to help them reach their potential. My personal goal is to not look back on my career and see many missed opportunities where I could of done more. Reading your comments makes me remember that. Unfortunately, I can't go to that other school district and make him do the same, but I may just forward him this site!

Lindsey Kramer (not verified)

More about Subbing

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I relocated in July of 07' to a more populated area than where I was raised with the assumption more schools equals more jobs. I am currently a substitute teacher just hoping to land that perfect job in the near future. I just started subbing for my second year and I am not thrilled about the idea. Because I was new to the area last year, I stuck to one district that has five elementary schools that I am subbing in. I am hoping that throughout this year I will form better relationships with teachers, faculty, and administration to help better my chances at landing my dream job.

While reading your post I fond the part where you were mentioning how you felt almost guilty for leaving your students in the hands of a sub. As a substitute, I often wondered if teachers felt that way or not. After having a rough say of subbing I always wonder how the students will act for their teachers the day after they had a sub in their classroom. If it takes some time for things to return back to normal. At times, I feel I am not doing my job, but then I just tell myself they are out of their comfort zone right now and they are testing their limits. I am not looking forward and I feel sorry for teachers that have to go through the time of readjusting to the way the class is supposed to be acting. Don’t get me wrong I have more good days of subbing than bad, but those bad days stick out in my mind more and like I said I just often wondered what the following day is like in the classroom.

Melanie Killingsworth (not verified)

Kindergarten Teacher

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Hi Ben. I really related to your article because I often find myself wondering at the end of the day, what could I have done differently? I teach kindergarten and I truly believe that it is a calling and there are days that the interventions I have to make are beyond me but I am given insight that helps me through the tough situations. I also agree with your statement that the best lessons and most effective moments of teaching come from stewing over the content. Many a time I find that I am talking through an explanation or coming up with a new rhyme or song while I am in the car. The people next to me at red lights must think I am crazy but it is in these moments that I get clarity in how a lesson should go. I wish you the best of luck this year,and may you continue to bring inspiration to others.

Andy Amstutz (not verified)

Teaching Continuum

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After reading this article I found myself in agreement with almost everything that was said. The more amazing thing is that what I didn't agree with was still agreed upon on in this article. I also wake up every morning looking forward to going to school, and am excited when kids get something that they didn't get before. Anyone can attempt to "teach," but that doesn't mean they will produce results. Teachers, especially good ones are a different breed.

Geri Curry (not verified)

4th Grade Teacher

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Hi Ben,
I agree completely with teachers getting extra help. No one could make it in teaching without extra help. There is no way one person can do it on their own. I teach 4th grade in a title 1 school. I very rarely do anything without having my school or my class on my mind. There are many times I am listening to other people or watching a movie and then I realize that I am problem solving something from school. Those people that think we are so lucky to have summers and holidays off just do not know how much time is spent on our class. Most of us would not have it any other way. Have a great year and keep up the good work.

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