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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Making Our Nation Great: Teaching Is a Special Calling

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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!

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (49)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Susan Page's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben,
I identify with your thoughts on having time to let the lesson stew and waiting and expecting inspiration. I have at times experienced this and so, when it does not occur or I do not have the time necessary to prepare,I am frustrated. I am encourage by your comments and will make the time to allow for inspiration. I have many students in my geometry class this year that have failed numerous times, and they do not want to try. I have spent a lot of class time trying to inspire them to give learning another chance. I hope that I will be successful.

Arielle Book's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben,
This article really hit home for me. I have lessons that I do each year that really hit home for the kids. They are engaged, I am engaged, and the hour of SS flows by. Then there are days that nothing seems to quite stick, and the kids are unhappy and so am I. Reading your article helped me realize that it IS all in the planning. A better planned, thought out day will result in more engaged, tuned in students. While I don't always take home physical student work with me, I am always carrying something home when I leave the building. Like you said, teaching is not an 8-5 job, but a true act of love that is your life!
Arielle Book
Buford, GA

Kennya's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You took the words out of my mouth. I teach Kindergarten in California and I hate leaving my students with a substitute. I feel that everyday I spent with my students is an opportunity that I have to make a positive change in their lives. And when I am not there I don't know how much dedication and effort a substitute is putting to make difference. Plus, I feel that teachers in part see their students as if they are their own, therefore we worry if we have left them in good hands.

Alice's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is an exciting time of year! I love the freshness of brand new students. They are so eager to learn and to please. I teach Reading Recovery, an intervention for struggling first grade readers and writers. These students, for the most part, come from low economic backgrounds. Most of them are in single parent homes. Some are being raised by older grandparents that can't read themselves or handle discipline problems that they face at home. I have students that come to school hungry, some that are abused,and some with disabilities. I LOVE these students! I miss them when I can't be at school. I wonder if they had a good day? Did they get in trouble with the sub? Did they do their work?
I love coming to work each day. I come to work when I don't feel well because I know what these students need and the sub doesn't always know there needs.
Teaching is a special calling and I was called by God to work in this amazing profession. He placed me in this position to take care and love these students. I believe if a teacher is teaching and he/she does not love what they are doing then maybe he/she needs to find something else to do. Do you agree?

Kennya's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You took the words out of my mouth. I teach Kindergarten in California and I hate leaving my students with a substitute. I feel that everyday I spent with my students is an opportunity that I have to make a positive change in their lives. And when I am not there I don't know how much dedication and effort a substitute is putting to make difference. Plus, I feel that teachers in part see their students as if they are their own, therefore we worry if we have left them in good hands.

Kennya

Karen Wend's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Ben,

I have read your blog with great interest. Your insights are true and kind. I am a veteran Special Education teacher of 28 years who also spends those "busy times around the house" putting a better spin on a lesson or thinking of a new twist to a behavioral contract to make it most successful. I have always said I get my best lesson plan ideas while taking my morning shower.

I have to respond to your comment that "Teaching is more than a job. It is a calling." I am very active in our teachers' union and work hard to raise the bar on teachers being seen as professionals. One year during a difficult contract negotiation, our then superintendent wrote a letter to all district teachers extolling the virtues of being a teacher, saying it is a "calling" much like a priest or rabi where the rewards are not monetary, but gained in knowing one is doing a noble deed for society. I took great offense to this analogy. I did not become a teacher so I could not make my monthly budget. I do love my job, but I consider myself a highly skilled, continuously improving professional. And I think saying it is a "calling" actually does our profession more harm than good.

I am curious as to how you perceive this view. Oh, and we got the raise that year.

Audrey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love what you have said about teachers having a higher calling. It takes someone special to be a teacher. We all have had teachers who we knew they did not like teaching. They came to work everyday just for the paycheck and nothing else. We have also had those teachers who we knew that they loved us and just wanted what was best for us. I am a novice teacher. This is my first year to teach, but I know that this is what I am supposed to be doing. I love coming to work everyday and I do not want to leave my kids in the afternoon. I have missed half a day this year and I hated it. I do not like to leave my students in the hands of another person. It is not that I do not trust the sub it is just like you said, I feel like I need to earn their trust back when I am gone and return. I feel like they need me to be there. That may not be the case for all of my students but I know that it is the case for most of them. I feel that being a teacher is about more than just teaching book knowledge. You have to teach your students how to survive. You have to teach them right from wrong. You have to teach them how to respect others. There is so much more to teaching than what society views it to be.
Most jobs are those 9-5 jobs and at the end of the day they leave without looking back or thinking about work again until the next morning. As a teacher I am constantly thinking about my students or my lesson plans. I am always up at school. I basically live here. It is hard to leave the job here at school and not take it home with me. I think if I didn't think about it other than from 8-3 then I wouldn't be a good teacher. It makes you a good teacher if you think about what you are doing, and plan ahead.
Like I said before, this is my first year teaching. I know that I have done some things wrong already but now that I know what doesn't work I can work towards what does work in the future. I am constantly trying to come up with new ideas or new methods of teaching something. If some of my students bomb a test I will re-teach it to them on my break and let them retake the test until they understand it. I do not feel that it is right to just let them fall behind. I am responsible for every one of my fourth graders. They are all my responsibility. If they fail, I have failed as a teacher.
I teach at a private Christian school here in Jackson. It is very different than teaching in public school but I love every minute of it. I have taken a significant pay decrease but it doesn't bother me. I know that I am where I am supposed to be. I hope that I am making a difference in the lives of my students. That is what I strive for on a daily basis.

Brett Hammond's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Currently I am subbing in several districts as I try to get back to my roots of teaching. I started off subbing right after college and found success for two years but never could land the permanent gig. I was working in a very low income sparsely populated area and attributed this to me not getting hired. When my wife and I moved to a suburb of Buffalo, NY I reluctantly got a job in the business management industry. I just left this job to get back into teaching. I think you are very right in saying that teachers respond to a higher calling. I was making good money, better than a ten year teacher, but was just so unhappy because of the same old "crap" happening day in and day out. I like how you said that every year come September starts on a clean slate. My question to you is do you have any imput or advice as to how I can better myself through this school year if I can only manage to sub? And, is it wise to sub in multiple districts or should I just commit to one where I feel I have the best chance? I am really hoping that I can get some feedback about my situation. Thank you.

Brett Hammmond

Terri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To Teach Is To......
Hello Ben,
I agree with you completely. Teaching is a special calling that not everyone can do. We get to evaluate how we did and then start over with our new students. Even if we did just fine last year we hope to do even better this year and we work to make it happen. I am not sure if other professions do self evaluations to the extent that we evaluate our own performance.
I understand what you are saying about being out and leaving our students with substitutes. Even if the sub is good, I still feel bad because that is a day with my students that I cannot get back.
With all the negatives that are said about educators I wish the parents of students would read blogs like this to see how much we truly do care about their children! Teaching is the best job in the world.
Terri

Keri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ben, I connected with many points in your article. I teach second grade. It is exhausting and rewarding, it is exciting and stressful, it is what I love to do. I have often wondered about how things work in the business world. I know I am not cut out for that world but I wonder if they have the same sense of reward and accomplishment we as teachers get. I also agree with your point of a 'bond of trust'. Especially with younger children it is hard to go to even a meeting during the day. They are so dependent on the structure and schedules of the day. I do feel as if I'm missing something when I'm away. I have often thought in meetings, "What if Sue really doesn't understand this?" or "I'd hate to miss any of their little aha moments." We have some great subs in our district and I do trust them and appreciate what they do. I even subbed for a while. However, it is hard to be gone because we work so hard every day with our kids and we just don't want to miss a chance to help our kids and celebrate those successes - even if they are just little ones!

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