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Living the Teaching Vocation

Of all the possible professions, teaching ranks as one of the most noble, perhaps second only to the priesthood or to those who give spiritual direction, if such are regarded as professions. Consider that those with a vocation to practice medicine are entrusted primarily with the health of the body. A doctor goes through many years of study and practice to be able to apply the best of modern medical science to the patients in his or her care. This is undoubtedly a noble vocation and one of direct service to others. Rightly understood, however, the profession of teaching is concerned with the health of much more than the body. A teacher is charged with the formation of the mind and spirit. Bodily health is important for human flourishing but not to the same extent as the health of the mind, spirit, and soul. 

Like the priest, the vocation of a teacher is to form the souls of those entrusted to his or her care. The priest in Confession acts with Christ to bring about a deeper transformation and healing of the soul. A spiritual director can also have a profound impact on a person’s development of virtue. A teacher forms through fostering an encounter with truth, goodness, and beauty in a way intended to extend throughout one’s life. Are there other professions that objectively accomplish a greater work? It is a role similar to parenthood—though parenting is not typically considered a profession.

The vocation to teach is also one of the most difficult vocations. First of all, teachers are not typically paid well. It is challenging to raise a family on a teacher’s salary. And it is hard to think of a more difficult job than teaching in the way outlined in this series. Consider how much more difficult the task of fostering authentic freedom in one’s students is than applying the right remedies to bodily ailments. The teacher is constantly engaging his or her students on a profound level, seeking to activate their freedom in the right way, knowing that any victory is only temporary and that each class is a new encounter. To teach well is to give of one’s own interior life, to communicate to others out of the wealth of what one has come to see and ponder with love. There is no mechanical process or how-to guide for success as a teacher. The teacher needs to exercise a number of interconnected virtues in an almost continual manner, all informed by an active charity and confidence in the person each student can become.

Necessary qualities of a teacher

Given the difficulty involved, it is challenging to discern and follow a vocation to teach. The first step in discernment should be to consider if one has the necessary personal qualities. If someone lacks any of these personal qualities, it is doubtful that he or she is called to teach.

To be a teacher one has to love learning and be actively pursuing an ongoing education for oneself. Study must be a part of one’s life. If someone does not study, he will never be a good teacher. Even if he has all the other qualities of a good teacher—if he is highly intelligent, well read, and a natural communicator—if he does not study, he will never amount to much more than an entertainer, keeping a class occupied with mediocre learning. A teacher’s job is to present a subject in such a way that the students are invited to engage and struggle with learning because the possibility of human meaning is proposed to them. The teacher must sell the hard work of the disciplined study of his subject; he must communicate to each student that it is worth it to put in long hours of study, that the result is an enriching of one’s humanity. If studying his subject is not impactful to the teacher, if it does not enrich his own interior life, he will be unable to inspire his students to find meaning in the adventure of learning.

Correspondingly, if you are inclined to fill your down time with entertainment and there is no place for disciplined study in your life, you should not aspire to become a teacher. Your first goal should be to develop yourself into a person with the interior life necessary to be able to teach another person. You need to first fall in love with learning, a process that includes disciplined study. Do not base your interest in the teaching vocation on fond memories of a time you were engaged in the life of the mind. Cut back on social media and other distractions and enkindle a passion for learning, making study an integral part of your life. Then and only then are you in a place where you are ready to consider if you could have a vocation to teach.

To be a teacher one also has to be able to communicate and to listen. Some aspects of being a good communicator can be learned on the job. But if someone is not able to speak clearly and explain things to others, he probably does not have what it takes to teach. There are some people who are so soft-spoken or awkward in their speech that it is best that they do not aspire to teach. For most people this is not a problem. Anyone who has grown up having normal conversations with peers and adults should be familiar with how to tell a story to a group of people, for example. Regarding listening, most people are comfortable listening to others. Even those who tend to be overbearing in conversations are likely able to learn how to be quiet and listen. It would be an exceptional case if someone has a personality that makes it so difficult for him to be attentive to others that he should not teach.

Finally, those who have a vocation to teach need to be passionate about leading others to flourish as human beings. Having a passion for their subject is not enough. The additional necessary condition is that one is convinced that learning one’s subject is part of what is needed to help another to flourish as a human being. A teacher must have a passion to communicate his or her subject to others precisely because learning this material will enrich the students’ lives. This conviction needs to be so strong that it will withstand attempts to derail the education process, obstacles that a teacher will inevitably encounter, obstacles related to student laziness and the difficulty of the subject matter, and even obstacles that go deeper such as ideologies and ignorance that take time and patience to counter. A teacher needs to have confidence that each human person has a natural desire to know the truth and, despite the complications that get in the way, ultimately wants to know the truth. A teacher is one who sees the anthropological truth recognized by St. Augustine, that the human heart is restless and yearning for truth, and that all truth ultimately leads toward God. A teacher needs confidence in the teleological yearnings of the human heart for transcendence, a confidence that is not shaken when faced with student apathy.

Building student relationships

It is common for a new teacher to be enthusiastic and eager for classes to start. It is also normal to be nervous, especially as the first day approaches. When a teacher faces a class for the first time, he or she may feel off balance, uncertain exactly how to proceed. Knowing a subject is one thing; knowing what one’s students are like and how they receive what is presented is another thing entirely. It takes experience to know how to pace a class, how much to teach in a period, and even if the words one is using are resonating with the students. One of the key differences between a new and experienced teacher is that experience brings with it a familiarity with the class as a whole, what knowledge they bring into the classroom, and what they do not know. New teachers may have mastered the content to be conveyed to the class, but they typically do not know what the class already knows and how they will receive the new content. This means that a key to success for a new teacher is to get to know his or her students well and as quickly as possible.

The good news is that there are simple, practical things a new teacher can do to get to know a particular group of students of a certain age. Obviously, some of this comes from open and healthy lines of communication, where the teacher simply listens. It is important for a teacher to listen reflectively to the questions that come up in class and what these questions reveal about the mindset of the students. It is also helpful for a teacher to interact with his or her students outside of class, talking to them in the hallways and even making an effort to attend sporting events or extracurricular activities. Sometimes a personal conversation can reveal quite a bit about where a student is really coming from.

Another thing that a new teacher can do, at various times throughout the year and even at the beginning of a course, is to give students a “pretest” to see what they know. This pretest should be graded primarily as a completion grade, or perhaps as an assessment where an honest attempt earns an A-level quiz grade with the possibility of extra credit points for exceptional work. The purpose of this pretest is twofold. First, it helps the new teacher understand what the students do and do not know. A pretest can help the teacher identify vocabulary words the students should but do not know, as well as whether they actually know the content assumed by the upcoming lesson. Many years ago, a young math teacher at The Heights who was charged with teaching beginning algebra to a class of eighth graders came to the headmaster mentioning how advanced the students are and suggesting that he start teaching them more advanced material since they have already mastered most of the content of Algebra I. The headmaster wisely asked the teacher if he had given them a test yet. The teacher answered, “No. But they seem to follow everything I cover with them in class, and when I ask a question, someone always seems to know the correct answer.” What was happening was that the teacher was asking leading questions and was being answered by the handful of students who were gifted at math. The rest of the students were politely nodding their heads. After the teacher gave them a test, he humbly came back to the headmaster admitting that the students actually did not know as much as he assumed. Likewise, a history teacher may assume that students know what he is talking about when he mentions the “Iron Curtain” or the “fall of the Berlin Wall” when the students are actually ignorant of these things. In a lower school storytelling class, the events of September 11, 2001, came up. The teacher, realizing that many of the boys did not know about them, started to explain about the terrorist attacks. One boy started to get worked-up, passionately pounding his leg with his fist. He suddenly blurted out, “Those darn Nazis!” After laughing heartily, the teacher complimented the youngster on his sentiments but explained that the Nazis were actually about sixty years earlier, during World War II.

The second function of a pretest is to help open up the mental space for learning new content. When questions are asked that a student cannot currently answer, the student becomes aware of his ignorance and wants to know more. If a pretest is designed well, it can serve as a way to spark interest in the students, leading to an openness, and perhaps even an eagerness, to know the material to be covered.

Developing a syllabus with a mentor

A beginning teacher does well to seek guidance from a school administrator or from experienced teachers. A good mentor can help a young teacher improve more quickly and avoid some mistakes. For this mentoring to be effective the teacher needs to actively seek guidance. A good place to start, even before the school year begins, is to show the course syllabus to the mentor. At The Heights we provide young teachers with a template to help them write their syllabi. The syllabi for all upper school classes are posted on the school website as part of the course catalog.

Young teachers would do better to outline the course content to be covered rather than explaining class policies, such as behavior expectations or how grading will work. They tend to want to spell out the norms for good classroom behavior in detail. The teacher thinks about what a disorderly classroom is like and writes down rules that he or she thinks will help avoid this disorder. The problem here is that a student who reads an obvious guideline, such as, “Students should not blurt out comments but instead raise their hands and wait to be called on by the teacher,” ends up thinking something along the lines of, “It’s interesting that Mr. X is writing such an obvious thing on his class syllabus. I can’t imagine a teacher who really knows what he’s doing feeling the need to state such an obvious point. Maybe Mr. X is doing this because he doesn’t have good classroom control. This is going to be an interesting year.” That a syllabus is not the place to establish rules for classroom behavior is not obvious to a young teacher. As with many other things, the teacher does not realize how what he indicates to the class is going to be perceived. The content is one thing, the way students receive the content is another.

The second common mistake a teacher makes in writing his syllabus is to spell out in too much detail a complicated grading policy. It is good to indicate that students will be evaluated based on their work on quizzes, tests, papers, and classroom participation. This is reasonable. The problem comes when a teacher uses the syllabus as a rigid planning document where he spells out, for example, how many quizzes and tests to expect and the exact percentages of the grade for each category. Such detail has two downsides. First, it promotes an overly mechanical approach to learning where students may try to “game the system.” The students look at their work in the class as navigating the system to achieve the desired grade. Secondly, it limits the teacher’s ability to make prudent adjustments and have the needed flexibility going forward. Different types of assessments are proper at different times. An experienced teacher knows how important it is for him to have the flexibility to strategically engage the class in different ways at different times. A better system could be to indicate that students will earn points for quizzes, tests, papers, and participation in seminar discussions, and that these points will form an average that will be modified slightly based on general class participation and perceived effort. This approach indicates to the class that they will have ample opportunities to show the quality of their work and what they have mastered without pigeonholing the teacher into a rigid system. It also conveys that the teacher is confident in his ability to grade fairly and comfortable making prudential judgments. 

The first day

A beginning teacher should set up an appointment with a mentor to discuss his or her plan for the first day of class. The first day will help set the tone for the rest of the year, and some guidance can help a teacher avoid getting off on the wrong foot. Experienced teachers know what to expect on the first day and what success for day one looks like.

Students come into the classroom with a mix of nervousness, openness, and even some critical spirit. They are wondering what the class will really be like, and they are keen to pick up on cues from the teacher as to how the year will go. The first time the teacher stands in front of the class he will likely have every eye on him, commanding the complete attention of the class in a way likely to be uncommon later in the year. In addition to being interested in what the teacher says, the students are even more interested in how he says what he does, if he is comfortable or obviously nervous, if he seems like a leader they will be able to follow.

The best thing a new teacher can do in this situation is to lead by doing rather than saying too much for the first part of the class. For example, the teacher could tell the class that he is going to pass out books and then go over the syllabus for the course. Then the teacher could sit down at his desk and call the students up one by one to get class materials. If he speaks with a strong and clear voice before he sits down, the students will likely be fairly quiet as they watch him, continuing to wonder what he is like. He would do well to leave the class to ponder what type of teacher he is as he writes each student’s name in the book he is passing out, as this helps to keep the book with the same student and establishes responsibility for taking care of the text. Then the teacher explains that while the complete syllabus for the course is available on the school website, he would like to go over a few points from the syllabus. He then explains very briefly what they will be studying, how grading will work, and provides guidance for how to be successful in the class. He should talk only briefly, or not at all, about behavior expectations for the students. As a rule of thumb, anything that should be common sense, such as not speaking out of turn, should not be stated publicly at this time. Again, doing so can be interpreted by the students as a sign of weakness and lack of leadership. It is interesting that Mr. X feels the need to say such an obvious thing. Perhaps he has difficulty keeping students from getting up and leaving the classroom to go to the bathroom without asking. This is going to be an entertaining year.

After going over these basics, there will perhaps be twenty minutes or so left in the first period. This is the right time to begin actually teaching, to begin the first lesson. It would be a mistake to ask for questions and then act as if the purpose of the first class has been accomplished, the class degenerating to talking about what happened over the summer as students share summer stories. These twenty or so minutes are critical for establishing a tone for the year, for conveying to the students that you will be covering important material and that you are a serious professional who expects quality work. The first lesson should be particularly well planned. Students should be expected to take notes and there should be some interesting content highlighted. This is a good time to tell the right story that lends insight into what the course is about, to in some way raise the right question or two that will frame future discussions.

At the beginning of the year, and perhaps even on the first day, a teacher would do well to touch on how his subject relates to other content areas. The start of the course is a natural time to provide perspective and context for students who are interested in understanding how each subject fits into the big picture, how all that they are learning is related. For example, a science teacher could mention that modern science is all about constructing models with explanatory and predictive power in specific circumstances, and that to really understand these models it is helpful to know the history of their development. A literature teacher could mention that good literature provides a unique window into human experience. A history teacher could begin with a broad timeline that frames the scope of the course, as well as mentioning how the best historians consider the complexity of the story of this time period rather than rely on one paradigm, that it is reductive to rely on only one interpretive lens.

Students should leave class on the first day with an understanding of the plan for the next few classes, including homework assignments and when they can expect the first quiz or test. The best teachers are able to convey not only what needs to be done and mastered to be successful, but also provide additional readings that interested students could pursue. There should be a sense that some assignments need to be completed so as to master the material while other assignments are proposed as an invitation to explore in a deeper way some aspect of the subject. While it is best if some students are inspired to engage in additional study, it is not a bad thing if the teacher decides to reward students who invest themselves in doing extra.

Constructively engaging parents

Experienced teachers know how helpful it can be to have a good relationship with the parents of one’s students. If a teacher is doing a good job of setting the bar high, if he is making reasonable and challenging demands, there will almost inevitably come a time when a student takes a sour attitude toward the course. The student will feel stretched out of his comfort zone and this will likely impact his attitude toward life in general. In one way or another, parents will become aware of the friction, as they interact with and struggle to mentor their disgruntled child. In such a situation, it is all too easy for a critical spirit to develop. Unbeknownst to the teacher, he is becoming a source of tension at his student’s home. 

In such circumstances, it is best if parents have the necessary perspective to support the teacher and help bring their child around. This will be more likely to happen if there are good lines of communication between the teacher and parents. Some of the helpful teacher-parent communication is facilitated by good educational practices set up by the school. The faculty and their accomplishments should be highlighted on the school’s website. It is also helpful if the website has robust and accurate course information, perhaps even posting teacher generated syllabi for each class. Early in the year parents should be invited to attend a back-to-school night where they meet and hear from the faculty who teach their child, and have a chance to talk to individual teachers informally during, say, a social that follows formal presentations. Parent-teacher conferences shortly following the issuing of report cards are an invaluable means of communication. In a healthy school culture, the administration of the school will invite parents to reach out to teachers at any time. Parents will be encouraged to email teachers to set up a time to talk on the phone or meet in person if desired. Teachers will also be encouraged to call home when it may be helpful to do so.

In addition to all these sound institutional practices, a teacher, especially a new teacher, does well to proactively reach out to parents at the beginning of the school year. Parents tend to be acutely aware when their child is being taught by an inexperienced teacher. There may not be any ill will, but it is natural to be skeptical about the ability and professionalism of an untested teacher. One thing a teacher could do is to send out an email to parents close to the start of the school year, perhaps during the first week. The purpose of this email is to introduce oneself, give some basic information about the class and, most importantly, open up lines of communication, inviting parents to reach out anytime they have questions or concerns.

A sample email may look something like this:

Dear parents,

I am reaching out at the start of the year to introduce myself, provide some information about my math class, and to encourage you to contact me at any time.

I just graduated from the University of Virginia and am very excited to be starting my teaching career. I grew up in St. Louis and am the oldest of seven children. In addition to tutoring my younger siblings over the years, I’ve also worked as a camp counselor and have teaching experience at a parish CCD program. I look forward to the privilege of teaching your sons Algebra I this year.

As an enthusiastic new teacher, I know that I’ll be learning a lot from your sons, even as they hopefully learn lots of math with my help! I love my subject, the order and beauty of numbers, and how learning math affords an opportunity to reason better, to become a more logical thinker. I’m passionate about sharing this love of math with my students but am realistic enough to know that not all of them share my perspective.

Please feel free to contact me at any time. I’m happy to set up a phone call or even an in-person meeting. I know that I have lots to learn this first year of teaching, so please do not hesitate to let me know if you think something is suboptimal. One of my goals is to use class time very well so as to reduce the need for long homework assignments, though I know that some math homework is important for learning. I welcome any feedback you have on whether I am striking the right balance. Another of my goals is to continually reevaluate how things are going so as to make the right adjustments. Any feedback you have for me would be most welcome.

All the best,

Mr. ________

Realistically, busy parents receive many emails, and some of these missives are only read in a cursory fashion. Even so, an email from a teacher near the start of the school year is one that will likely catch a parent’s interest and attention, so there is a better chance than not of the note being read. After reading such a note, the parent will likely be more positively disposed toward you as a teacher and appreciate the invitation to reach out with concerns. More importantly, it will be more natural for you to reach out to the parent in the future, particularly if you have concerns that should be shared. If a particular student has stopped doing homework on a consistent basis, or, more likely, is not striving to work accurately but rushing through problems to finish quickly, you will be able to share this feedback with parents in a collaborative way: “How can we best work together to help Johnny approach his studies with more professionalism? What can I do to help? What do you think you can do on your end to help?” Such a lived partnership between parents and teachers can lead to superior results.

The first few weeks

Pacing is a key challenge faced by new teachers, both pacing how time is used in a particular class and pacing the overall learning expectations. It is not obvious how much students are going to absorb from class time spent in various ways: lectures, in-class reading, working on solving math problems, or seminar discussions, to name a few. Students can seem to be engaged in learning and discussing important content for several days in a row, but it is not obvious what they are actually picking up. Most new teachers, who are very aware of what has been said and covered in class, tend to assume that students are absorbing more than they actually are. What often happens is that the teacher asks questions of the entire class and assumes that the answers volunteered by a few select students are indicative of the understanding of the group, and correspondingly he or she picks up the pace, tailoring instruction to the idea of the class that is forming in the teacher’s mind. Quizzes and tests not only give feedback to students, but also help a teacher know how well his or her students are learning.

A good mentor will be able to help a new teacher strike the right balance of how to use class time. An experienced teacher will have a good sense of how long students can profitably endure lectures or class discussions before a quiz or test is in order. This is not the same for every subject or even topic to be covered. In math, for example, a student may fairly quickly assume that he is learning if he is able to follow a teacher’s explanations of how to do problems. So, quizzes where the student has to complete problems independently and accurately may be needed often, perhaps daily or every other day, to help both teacher and student better assess comprehension. On the other hand, students may not need frequent quizzes as they read through long works of literature, especially if they are expected to contribute daily in seminar class discussions. 

And it is important to keep in mind that quizzes and tests have significant limitations. In our current education system where students are rewarded for parroting the right content back to a teacher, it is significant that even a strong score on a test is not necessarily indicative of mastery of content. A student may say intelligent things in class and even write cogent and accurate answers on a test but have little more than a superficial understanding of the significance of what has been covered. Teachers certainly should give quizzes and tests, even fairly frequently. If too much time passes without students being required to demonstrate their mastery in a formal way, the class may never leave the stage of nebulous discussions that some students do not even take seriously. Granted, there is a danger that a new (or even experienced) teacher falls into the farce of highlighting material to be committed to short term memory and then asking for students to repeat this material the next day on the test. But a teacher that knows to ask questions that require some level of real understanding to answer, such as open-ended questions that require the student to make an argument, will be able to avoid some of this danger of reducing learning to “playing school.”

A teacher may assume that after several classes spent covering the Greek and Roman roots of our constitutional order, the students have internalized that the United States government is not simply a result of the Enlightenment thought of John Locke and others. If this idealistic teacher were to turn over her class to a charismatic scholar who spends thirty minutes highlighting the newness of the American self-governing experiment, she may be shocked at how quickly some of the key points she was trying to cover unravel in the students’ minds. There is no perfect solution to the problem of fostering intellectual sovereignty and real mastery in students, but a teacher who is aware of the problem will make strenuous efforts to address it on an ongoing basis. Entertaining arguments for and against different positions as well as conducting seminars and in-class debates can, over time, help. If the government class had already encountered the strongest arguments for the U.S. government as an Enlightenment project position, the class would be more likely to put the visiting scholar’s assertions in the context of an ongoing debate rather than being swept away by the power of his rhetoric.

Seeking student feedback

Teachers are constantly receiving feedback from students. The questions that students ask and even their body language reveal to the teacher how material is being received. Every time a teacher grades a quiz or test, he or she will be learning lots about student mastery. Input from parents can also be helpful, as when parents share their observations about students struggling, or not struggling, with the material. A teacher is naturally assimilating this feedback on an ongoing basis. He or she will have a sense of how a particular course is being received and will make adjustments accordingly.

In addition to this ongoing feedback that just happens as a teacher interacts with students, it is also possible to actively seek feedback from older students near the end of a course. This is tricky, as it is not easy to get objective feedback in a way that is helpful. Asking students openly is not the best way to get the honest data you want, particularly if you are seeking feedback on what is not going well. Students, like anyone, will find it unpleasant to offer criticism in a way that could be taken personally. Some verbal feedback can be reliable. Here at The Heights, the capstone History of Western Thought course ends with an oral final exam. At the end of this exam some teachers ask students which reading they liked best, an exercise that has seemed to give some interesting and reliable information.

A survey can be an effective feedback tool. There is a fairly good chance that older students will give reliable information on an anonymous form that asks students to indicate how much time they actually spent doing homework or studying outside of class, or if the teacher is moving too slowly or too quickly through the material. Students may or may not be comfortable putting their names down on a form asking open ended questions, such as asking for recommendations to improve the course. A teacher who thinks a bit about how a student is likely to receive the questions that are asked will be able to design a survey that will be well worth the fifteen minutes of class time required.

Setting the right goals – evaluating these goals

Failing to plan is planning to fail. This maxim is true in any serious professional endeavor, including teaching. Teachers need to be working toward accomplishing reasonable goals for developing as teachers. These goals will necessarily be different at different times in one’s career. For a new teacher, a good initial goal could be to meet regularly with one’s mentor to discuss how things are going and seek ongoing advice. An experienced teacher may have the goal of moving to the back of the room occasionally when talking, to model how the class should focus on material on the board while thinking about certain questions.

Every year a teacher should have one or a few specific goals, set with the help of a good mentor. Some goals will be about relating better to students and teaching more effectively. A teacher who tends to talk too much may have as a goal to not answer certain types of questions but instead reframe the questions back to the class for discussion. A history teacher who is interested in particular events and stories could have as a goal to start each unit with one or more timelines to better frame the big picture. Other goals will have to do with the myriad of responsibilities involved in teaching. A teacher could set a goal to grade materials and return them to the students more promptly. Or a teacher could set a goal of contacting parents more regularly, with both positive and constructive feedback. And some goals should pertain to cultivating one’s own love of learning, without which it is impossible to really teach. A teacher may have a set of books that he intends to read, as part of becoming better informed in areas pertaining to his subject or even in broader cultural matters. It can even be helpful to set up a multiple year reading plan, intended to lead to mastery of important content.

About the Author

Michael Moynihan

Head of Upper School, The Heights School

A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame Honors Program in 1992. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America,

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