This week was one of those weeks when I was so exhausted I didn’t have the energy to filter. Truth – in the sense that it was exactly what I was thinking — was just coming out because I didn’t have the brain cells necessary to stop it. Out of that came one of the most correct observations I think I’ve ever made — deciding to be a teacher is like deciding to be a priest. You avoid it for as long as possible because it’s just so darn hard but, eventually, you have to give in because it’s all that really makes sense.
Deciding to be a teacher, and a good one at that, is a decision that is just as unnerving and avoided as is the call to the priesthood. For all the vocation stories I have heard, most include a period of ignoring God and avoiding this very clear internal compass pointing them toward Holy Orders. They could hear the footsteps of God steadily following every decision they made trying to get away from this vocation until they had to give in to such a persistent pursuant.
This is exactly how I have felt about the vocation to be a teacher. Since I was little I knew I had many qualities that would make a good teacher: patience, good listening skills, compassion, an intense desire to help others, a strange love for rules and procedures, and especially a love for organization. And yet, if you ever asked me what I wanted to be, I never said, “Teacher.” I wanted to be everything under the sun except a teacher. I even wanted to be Kenny G for a while, but never a teacher. What an unglamorous job. No, not a teacher. Never a teacher.
Then I started high school and it became even more clear that I had a natural affinity for teaching. Most of my community service was tutoring, mentoring, teaching CCD classes, leading Vacation Bible School. All teaching positions. But I still turned my back on the idea of being a teacher. Nope, not for me.
Then I got to college, and I increasingly heard these steady footsteps behind me. My vocation just patiently following me around waiting for the moment that I would just give in and do what I knew God wanted me to do. I even gave it a shot for a semester. I had been a “sociology of education” kind-of-thing minor but decided to throw caution to the wind and become an education major even if that meant I had to get a joint degree with another college because Notre Dame didn’t offer the degree.
But then I hated my classes. Hated them. I remember I had one class where the only way I could sit through it without rhythmically banging my head on the desk was to eat breakfast. Everyday I would get to class, a few minutes late, pull out milk, a spoon, and cereal and eat it throughout the remainder of the class. I know, super disrespectful. I took this as a sign that I was not meant to be a teacher. I can’t even sit through a class about teaching, how could my vocation be to teach?
I understood all the theories behind teaching, the sociological underpinnings related to teaching, progressive teaching philosophies, but I just couldn’t take the leap to live all of these things that I knew. When I dropped the education major, I had to write a short paper explaining why. I remember my education mentor read it and sent me a note that I saved. It said, “I am sad to see that you are leaving education as I am sure you would be exactly the kind of teacher we need in the classroom but I am sure that you will do well in whatever profession it is you end up doing.” I’m not sure why I saved it.
So I left education and happily found my place in theology. I loved my classes. I loved my classes so much that my roommate and I would go to the bookstore the night it released the new course books for the next semester and stay up late reading course descriptions, giddy with anticipation of all the great courses we could take.
Teaching was put on the backburner for a while. I was confident that I was going to end up doing social ministry in a church, being a director of religious education or something along those lines. I even thought that I’d probably end up being a social worker. Teaching did not enter my mind at all.
A few years out of college I tried out the whole social worker/case manager thing, which I expected to love. I did not. Not in the least. I loved the people I worked with and the place I worked for, but this was definitely not the job for me. I was desperately looking for another job and a couple of my friends happened to work at this Catholic school that had an opening for a theology teacher. God finally caught me. My vocation had quickened its step, grabbed my arm and swung me around to stare at it squarely in the eyes. I was so desperate that I finally gave in.
And I loved it. Immediately I loved it. But, dear God, life was hard.
Teaching is such an amazingly rewarding and gut-wrenchingly difficult job. I have really tried to think of a harder job but can’t really. It is a very thankless and draining job. It requires every ounce of strength and determination that we have in our being. You can’t half-ass the job, you have to be all in or all out. Being good at the job requires constant studying and constant growth. You can never be complacent in what you are doing or what you know. Kids will complain even if it’s the most exciting and engaging lesson ever designed. Best laid plans will crumble before your eyes just because one student is having a bad day and has decided to be as uncooperative as possible.
But then a student tells you how some project you made them do years ago actually changed the way they looked at the world. It’s all worth it. Worth the sleepless nights, the hours upon hours of lesson planning, the discipline referrals, the big red splotch on your nicest armchair from when you fell asleep grading and the pen ended up pressed into the cushion. Vale la pena.
So let’s offer up a prayer for teachers right now, as it is still early in the school year. I do remember something from that education class I took. We read this of teaching, “Perseverance is critical.” May God grant teachers the grace to persevere and help students flourish under their instruction.