Is teaching a vocation? – The destiny, journey and insecurities of one EFL teacher
Is teaching a vocation? Frankly, I’ve been wondering whether many EFL teachers around the world consider their line of work to be a ‘vocation’.
I’ve just run a few google searches - efl teaching vocation and is efl teaching a vocation - to see what the bloggers have to say.
Google says no.
Jumping out at me on page 1 of Google was an article in TESOL Quarterly titled ‘Do EFL teachers have careers?’ (1997). Then a thought ran through my mind - I’ve met very few teachers since 2006 who were really into their work. Maybe I came across as a wandering backpacker as well in my first few years in EFL. However, I never really felt I was teaching to travel the world and embrace payday.
Coming back to the title of that article in TESOL Quarterly, if authors get caught up in writing pieces like ‘Do EFL teachers have careers?’, what hope is there of finding articles or blog posts titled ‘Do EFL teachers have a calling?’.
Another word that’s bandied about in this line of work is rewarding. I’m not interested in that word because teaching should go much deeper than being rewarding.
EFL teachers - have a think. Is teaching a vocation for you?
What does vocation mean at its deepest level?
The word vocation is rooted in the Latin for “voice”.
To write this post to the best of my ability, I read a book called Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by American author and educator, Parker Palmer. Palmer’s description of the word vocation goes much deeper than the Latin for “voice”:
Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity … (1999, p.6).
Aside from dictionary definitions of the word vocation, which are loaded with all the usual positive connotations, we also need to consider the other side of the coin. To reach a state of “wholeness” - to hear that voice “in here” calling you to be the person you were born to be - you have to embrace your weaknesses, mistakes and everything you find shameful about yourselves. Of course, this is no easy task, for the reasons I shall now go on to highlight.
Why do you have a hard time ‘listening to your life’?
Undoubtedly, it is difficult to ‘listen to your life’. Palmer (ibid,. pp.7-8) makes such an important point regarding that prescriptive and impersonal kind of schooling we accepted as young schoolchildren:
… from our first days in school, we are taught to listen to everything and everyone but ourselves, to take all our clues about living from the people and powers around us.
Think about the notes you furiously scribbled down in lectures at school or university. You listened to these wise tutors and professors, but did you take notes on what you yourselves said? Did you listen out for the guidance that comes from within?
I don’t mean to get all philosophical here. However, I do believe we arrive in this world with “birthright gifts” (ibid,. p.18). Unfortunately, throughout childhood and early adulthood, we let others persuade us that there are other paths out there we should take. Then, we spend the second half of our lives frantically trying to recover and reclaim the gifts we once had. I can attest to all of the above.
Interpreting clues of our birthright gifts
Insight into my birthright gifts and callings
Looking back on some of my best academic moments in my junior and secondary schools, they invariably involved spelling and words.
I was the best speller in my junior school, and had a reading age of fifteen and a half when I was ten years old. Aside from spelling and reading, I came into my own at secondary school and college in the field of descriptive writing. Whether it was writing stories, screenplays or newspaper articles, I tended to bag top marks.
So that was me. Mr Words. Beloved viewer of the game show Countdown (you have to display your lexical and numerical prowess). Deep thinker. Descriptive writer.
Between the ages of 13 and 17, I was hell-bent on becoming a newspaper journalist. Nevertheless, the idea of becoming a history teacher was always somewhere in the back of mind.
My strong affinity for twentieth century European history and the Second World War was calling me to share my love of this particular subject area and of learning in general. Essentially, I needed to do something that was more than an occupation. I needed to do something where I’d get students’ imagination working and their mental powers firing.
Eventually, the history teacher idea prevailed. I went on to study history at university. However, the rest was not history …
A twist of fate helped me to pick up the trail
A few months into my university degree course in Nottingham, I began to drift in a serious way. My passion for history had all but vanished. Probably, I developed a temporary fascination with certain historical events, but the calling was not strong enough. Throughout my first few years at university, I simply couldn’t connect the dots. I was miserable. I’d abandoned my “birthright gifts” - words and the English language. There seemed to be no going back.
Then, something remarkable happened to unite me with those “birthright gifts”.
One day, in January 2005, my landlord informed me that a Polish guy would be dropping by to view the vacant room in my student property in south Nottingham.
Paweł and I had a brief chat about my Polish roots and Poland when he came over. He decided not to take the room. It’s funny what mould and grime does to the decision making process. Anyway, some months later Paweł invited me to pop over to his house in central Nottingham. After talking for a while, he invited me to Poland. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, despite there being a thirty-hour bus journey ahead of me from Nottingham to Kraków. Check out the full story here on findingpoland.com.
Becoming an EFL teacher made perfect sense
I had a whale of a time that summer in Poland. The hospitality I encountered, and the adventures I had, encouraged me to abandon my plans to become a history teacher in the UK. TEFL in Poland came calling.
In the autumn of 2005, I applied to take the CELTA course in Kraków the following summer. I had a telephone interview with one of the course tutors and was offered a place.
As previously mentioned, I was drifting at university. I didn’t want to drift even more and fail my exams or turn in a shoddy dissertation. The move to Poland gave me extra motivation to produce high quality work in the final year of my studies.
Frankly, it was one heck of a twist of fate that TEFL in Poland came calling. With all due respect to those who work in British state schools, I was heading for a car crash of a career. Overwork, exhaustion and out of control kids. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I never thought about fate or the idea of being “rescued” from a potentially unfulfilling career back in 2005 and 2006.
TEFL in Poland wasn’t about doing a good deed for my “cousins”. I rarely told my students the whole story about how one guy’s invitation to Poland changed my life. I’d been reunited with my “birthright gifts” and all I ever knew as a school pupil - the English language. All that was on my mind was making a decent go of teaching English.
In my first year of TEFL, I didn’t have to give much thought to the question: Is teaching a vocation?
I was completely content and immersed in my work.
The lost souls of Kraków who had abandoned their birthright gifts
When I worked at a school in Kraków for a short while in 2007, I noticed straightaway that employee morale was shockingly low. Maybe it was due to our tyrannical boss. Perhaps my colleagues were frustrated with being handed a much lower number of hours than they’d been promised. The snow set in early - in October - and showed no signs of letting up. Everything was just plain gloomy.
Once a week, most teachers had to travel to one of two towns a short journey east of Kraków to teach kids. In my car - the driver, an Irishman, a Scotsman, the Scotsman’s Polish girlfriend and me. The atmosphere in the car - it was as if we were going to a funeral each time. Distant faces. The despondent intonation in every voice. There were no signs of EFL being a vocation in that car. Frankly, I wasn’t on the trail of my true self at all as well. I was struggling to establish any kind of rapport with my students.
Every teacher working at this school in Kraków seemed to be a lost soul. Some of them were teachers with “birthright gifts” who shouldn’t have been anywhere near a classroom. Many of them were frustrated, yet intelligent and well-educated individuals, who didn’t have an inkling what to do with their lives.
In essence, those teachers weren’t even aware that their younger years had laid down clues to their selfhood and vocation. However, the clues, as Palmer (ibid,. p. 22) stated, “may be hard to decode”.
Take the rough with the smooth - The story of exhaustion, frustration and a few smiley, happy people
As you do - Bosnia
In between working in Kraków and starting a teaching post in Bosnia in September 2008, I travelled around the USA with a dozen or so strangers in a campervan to tick off number one on my short bucket list.
Gazing at the sun going down over New Jersey on my last night in America, nothing much had changed. I still had the fire in my belly to teach.
Hence, still somewhat haunted by my brief stint at that school in Kraków (the boss was cuckoo and the “lost souls” hardly kept me sane), I went to Bosnia to reignite my career - and vocation.
It was the end of August 2008. I flew from Heathrow to Belgrade. Bundling my way through arrivals with a huge suitcase and my guitar, the owner of the language school was waiting for me. The journey from Belgrade to the school in Bosnia took two hours.
After only three days of being in Bosnia, I’d made some worrying assumptions:
- The owner of the school was obsessed with drilling and the grammatical syllabus. The grammatical syllabus was fine, but I’d have to teach in a very linear and prescribed way using only set coursebooks. I’d have very little freedom in the classroom
- I wouldn’t be able to rock up to school to teach my lessons and go home. I’d have to stay at school all day and every day to “plan” lessons and do other administrative work
- The female contingent of teachers (the “terrific trio”) was mostly a bunch of discontent gossipers
Not quite what I expected but hey-ho
In my first job in Poland, I could spend three or fours a day at school teaching and go home when I wanted to.
In Bosnia, I HAD to start work at around 8.30am and I HAD to be at school most days until between 19.30-21pm. Even when I didn’t have classes, I HAD to be present in the teacher’s room to carry out some bizarre administrative tasks or tidy up my lesson plans to suit my boss’s perfectionistic tendencies.
Actually, I don’t want to criticise my ‘Boss’ too much. She actually did quite a lot for me, although in hindsight I probably did a lot more for her.
All in all then, I was very surprised that it wasn’t a typical “rock up at school and get away when you want” kind of TEFL job.
Exhaustion and other unfavourable circumstances
I’m quite an intense person. Hence, those twelve-hour days felt more like sixteen-hour days. It was routine for me to collapse straight into bed as soon as I entered my apartment.
In addition to the exhaustion, I had a hard time with one group of teenagers. I never lost control of the group because there was no control from the get-go. Indeed, I couldn’t get them to be quiet for the entire nine months I taught them.
The most humiliating aspect of trying to make myself heard was that there were a few adults in the group. Frankly, they were only there to get their certificates at the end of the year. Oh, what a hoot I had with this group!
Alas, what CELTA doesn’t teach you is classroom management! Unfortunately, my boss kept her distance from this predicament because those students’ parents were paying customers at the end of the day.
Finally, as I previously alluded to, the young female teaching contingent (a clique of three) was nothing short of a discontent and insecure bunch of gossipers. There are other words in my vocabulary, but I’ll spare you the shock.
Where to start with this little clique? In front of everyone in the teachers’ room, subject A occasionally blurted out comments aimed at me like “take the money and run”. Clearly jealous that I was getting paid more than she was, the fantasy world in her head led her to believe that I was a slacker. Bizarre. I never lifted my head up from my work in the teachers’ room. Plus, apart from the one wayward group I had, I didn’t take my foot off the pedal in the classroom with my other groups from September until June.
Still, I suppose that subject A deserved her fifteen fag breaks a day in the kitchen because she was never in it for the money.
I don’t want this to turn into a rant. I’d just like to drive home the point that my back was against the wall for nine months. The question “Is teaching a vocation?” didn’t seem to be that apt for me in Bosnia, did it?
Frankly, I couldn’t afford to walk away and leave a huge gap in my CV.
Sometimes, you just have to dig in and be glad of such skin-thickening experiences.
Taking the positives out of the negatives
While it might be true that it took nerves of steel to hang in there in Bosnia, it wasn’t all doom and gloom.
Many of my children’s groups were a pleasure to teach. I’d even go as far to say that I really enjoyed teaching a few of my groups. One group will always stand out in my memory. As soon as I entered the classroom, their faces would light up - the smiley, happy people they were. For ninety minutes, I could forget about everything else and enjoy myself.
Despite all my inner turmoil, strict nature in the classroom and interpersonal issues with my colleagues, I can’t deny that my boss instilled a strong work ethic in me that remains with me today. Essentially, if you’re going to do a job, you might as well do it properly. True - perfectionism doesn’t exist. However, it’s not worth taking your foot off the pedal and delivering below par service to students and clients. This is what I learned.
Finally, my boss gave me huge belief to make my way in the world. Sitting in the school yard with everyone on my last night in Bosnia, my boss told me that I “can do anything I wanted to do in my life”.
With a spectacular sunset doing its own thing in the distance, I drifted away from the school with a spring in my step and a great deal to mull over.
Burnout - a word that’s bandied about a lot
Parker Palmer - “Burnout … results from trying to give what I do not possess”
Reading about Parker Palmer’s brush with burnout has led me to view my situation in Bosnia in a different light.
When Palmer became a community organiser in Washington D.C in the late 1960s, it was because he felt “morally compelled to work on the urban crisis” (ibid,. p.20) However, his heart wasn’t in saving the city at all. There was a growing sense that teaching might be his vocation. After five years of being a community organiser, he had to abandon community-related work as he burned out.
Here are Parker’s words of wisdom pertaining to burnout (ibid,. p.49):
Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess — the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.
Undoubtedly, I threw the kitchen sink at those kids in Bosnia. I had the heart for the battle. However, at that time, I just wasn’t able to pin down my dissatisfaction to the “nothingness” inside me. My vocation was not preaching the grammatical syllabus to fifteen or more teenagers.
At that time, I was stubborn and narrow-minded. I thought that English Language teaching was all about the grammatical syllabus, drilling and “teaching to the test”.
After Bosnia, I went on to do an MA in English Language Teaching. Slowly but surely, I began to drift towards my real vocation.
It wasn’t burnout - it was just a “nothingness” inside me
Let me now expand upon the previous section a little more.
Initially, whilst planning this post, I was tempted to claim that I suffered from burnout after only a few months in Bosnia.
For me, all the signs, symptoms and risk factors associated with burnout began to rear their ugly head early on. Namely:
- Cynicism - Growing cynical about my working conditions and colleagues
- Emotional exhaustion
- Lack of support - Concerning the nightmare group mentioned above, my boss and senior colleagues could have had less of a laissez faire attitude. This “that’s life” way of dealing with things was frustrating. The humiliation I felt was the main reason I wasn't myself for the entire time I was in Bosnia
- Unmanageable workload - I had to work to my fingers to the bone every day
- Unfair treatment - The incessant snide remarks from the “terrific trio” undoubtedly affected my psyche
Clearly, I had to come to my senses because there was a sad emptiness inside me.
As the following sections highlight, it’s the emptiness and unwillingness to admit to your limitations that triggers burnout. Burnout is not just synonymous with giving too much, trying too hard or any other of the symptoms and risk factors mentioned above.
A lesson for all of us
Let me now return to Palmer’s story to help me piece together some more thoughts about teaching kids and my vocation.
Palmer eventually took a sabbatical from his work in Washington. He went to a place called Pendle Hill near Philadelphia. Founded in 1930, Pendle Hill is a Quaker living-and-learning retreat of around seventy people whose mission it is to offer education about the inner journey and nonviolent social change.
I’m not here to comment on Quaker faith nor faith in general. It’s just that I can relate to Palmer’s experiences and encounters regarding how he came to his senses.
One of Palmer’s recollections stands out for me.
In short, Palmer was loitering one day in the main administration building of Pendle Hill. In the foyer, he noticed several portraits of past presidents of the institution. Coincidentally, one of them was the same man, who, as president of another institution, had visited Berkeley (where Palmer spent time in the 1960s doing graduate work and working on his PhD) to recruit him for his board of trustees. In Palmer’s imagination, this man was staring down at him with a look of disapproval: “What do you think you’re up to? Why are you wasting your time? Get back on track before it is too late!”
Palmer escaped into the Woods and wept for a long time. Then came the self-loathing and a downward spiral of depression.
Palmer grew disillusioned with academia, believing in the 1960s that Berkeley was “unfit for human habitation” due to the inherent corruption and arrogance (ibid,. p.26). Moreover, Palmer believed that Berkeley was rammed with “intellectuals who evaded their social responsibilities ..” (ibid,. p.26).
Palmer admits that these were just convenient excuses. The truth is that he was afraid that he’d never succeed as a scholar. That he’d never satisfy the university’s standards for research and publication. It took Palmer years to come to his senses and admit to his limitations.
The dawning realisation that I’m not cut out for everything I try my hand at
My main issue between 2007-2011, when I continued to apply to private language schools and summer schools to teach kids, was admitting defeat.
Complexes, insecurities and false hopes began to stir up inside of me:
- How could I - the kid with the best reading age at school, the workhorse of a teacher, the guy with a passion for the English language - lack that magical ability to establish rapport with large classes of kids?
- I have to work in private language schools. If I don’t, I’ll be a failure
- The next lot of kids in the next town I go to will be great to teach
It wasn’t a question of getting kids to learn. Instead, it was a question of making them feel comfortable with me in the classroom. You either have it - the personality profile or that special magical ingredient - or you don’t.
The last time I taught anyone under the age of 18 was in 2011. In January 2012, I started a business English teaching job in Łódź, Poland. I wrote about my time in Łódź in this post. In a nutshell, it’s safe to say that I came into my own in that city. I taught mostly senior managers working in logistics and a range of other fields.
Hence, this shift towards teaching adults and, eventually, freelancing began right there in Łódź. I noticed how easy it was to pick and choose my private students. I'd never be able to pick and choose my students in language schools.
Clearly, I was beginning to find my feet. However, I still hadn’t settled why I’d begun to steer clear of private language schools. Occasionally, we do the right thing for the wrong reason. Indeed, Palmer left the university for the wrong reason (the supposed corruption). This is because the right reason - the fact he lacked scholarly gifts - was too frightening for him to come to terms with.
In my case, I eased myself out of finding employment with private language schools and teaching kids for the wrong reasons:
- I had no support from bosses and Directors of Studies
- The kids were unmotivated and impolite
- There was no chance to instil discipline whatsoever
- My gossiping colleagues always made sure I’d enter the classroom in a bad mood
Of course, my complaints were half-truths. They served me as a self-serving explanation of why I fled the private language school scene and teaching children.
Maybe I’ll never settle this “Is teaching a vocation?” debate for myself.
In the process of writing this post, I’ve begun to ask myself: Is teaching a vocation if you start to pick and choose who you teach?!
This ability to be choosey is a luxury that freelance EFL teachers mostly have of course.
Embrace your own liabilities and limits
A big part of discovering your vocation is embracing your own liabilities and limits.
To begin this journey, it’s vital to withdraw the negative projections you make on people and situations - projections that serve chiefly to cover up your fears about yourselves.
In 2011 - the last time I worked for a language school - I got into an argument at home with my English housemate and co-worker . Essentially, I couldn’t stand his perpetual sarcasm. He couldn’t stand my pomposity and stubborn nature.
When somebody tells you that you’re bumptious and big-headed, your first reaction would be to slip into defence mode and rebut the accusation. Of course, I did that - slamming the bathroom door behind me for good measure.
When the dust settled, literally and metaphorically, I realised that my housemate had a point. I needed to get off my high horse and open myself up to criticism and ideas pertaining to language learning and teaching that were quite opposite to my beliefs.
When I moved to Łódź in 2012 to teach business people, I began to take a long, hard look at myself. I hooked up with a therapist who emphasised empathic conversation, healing emotions and working with complexes. It was an enriching fourteen months for me - really getting to know my weaknesses, learning about the act of forgiveness and healing past wounds.
No therapy is ever complete.
However, at least I became conscious of my limitations.
On serving education from outside the institution
For two consecutive academic years (2014-15, 2015-16), I taught at The University of Novi Sad, Serbia.
When the second year came around, it began to dawn on me that this would probably be my swansong in any such kind of institution.
I don’t want to start slagging off my students, managers and colleagues. As we’ve already established, the problem is not always “out there”. The issue is often “in here”.
I’ll just quote Parker Palmer (ibid,. p.29) again to sum up the thoughts I had during my time at that university:
This pathology, which took me years to recognize, is my tendency to get so conflicted with the way people use power in institutions that I spend more time being angry at them than I spend on my real work.
In my mind, the “Is teaching a vocation?” debate had turned into a “Is teaching a vocation when you serve education from outside the institution debate?”
Time would soon tell. If I was going to teach, it’d have to be on my terms. It was time to give freelancing a try so I’d have no one to blame but myself for whatever the trouble may be.
Doing things on my own terms
I haven’t been in the classroom of a school or institution since June 2016.
It’s true that I don’t earn as much as I did in 2016. However, I’ve got my sanity, freedom and a stress-free life.
I teach adult students of English online and meet many of them between two to four times a week.
In general, I don’t conduct unnecessarily long classes because I’ve come to believe that the regularity of a language learning meeting is more important than the length. Besides, who has the concentration these days to sit through a ninety-minute class?
I want to think my own thoughts
Apart from my apparent vocation to improve the English of a select number of individual students, I’m also heavily immersed in writing - perhaps my main “birthright gift”.
This is my sixty-first post on this blog, and probably my longest and most soul-searching piece of writing to date.
I do my best to adhere to my morals when I sit down and write. That means I try to think my own thoughts about a subject rather than churn out unoriginal content. If you see a piece titled “The Main Uses of the Present Simple Tense”, you know that the author’s only thinking about getting page views rather than trying to make their mark on the English teaching landscape.
All in all, writing is a vocation in itself, and one which is firmly connected to my broader vocation in life - language instruction.
Is teaching a vocation?
One way I can tell that English language teaching is my vocation is the manner in which I neutralise materialism by taking satisfaction in the journey of helping to develop a student’s skills or working on a particular project.
Journey is the key word here.
Before its release in the summer of 2021, I’d been working on the development of Komified. This is an English language learning app designed to boost the skills of intermediate level learners through exposure to true stories written in the first person. These stories, together with the audio recordings of them, contain typical features that native speakers or native-level speakers use - contractions, phrasal verbs, schwa and connected speech.
Intriguingly, I felt completely lost and sombre on the day the app was released. Despite the fact I wanted tons of users to benefit from the app, the potential of financial gain didn’t excite me. The thrill of the journey had disintegrated.
Is teaching a vocation?
Is anyone willing to put their ego on the backburner and write a piece about their deepest insecurities and limitations?
Or will you continue to dish out the uses of the present perfect to test your SEO skills on Google?
There’s a thought.
Palmer, P. 1999. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass