Second, I've been thinking a great deal about what sorts of attitudes toward teaching make someone a good teacher, particularly (though not exclusively) a good teacher of philosophy. A natural thought is that a good teacher sees teaching as a 'vocation' or a 'calling.' I think this is a very dangerous way to think, for reasons that Worst Professor Ever nails.
First, if teaching is a calling, that suggests that good teaching is divinely inspired, a skill you are blessed with rather than one you learn:
calling something a vocation means it can’t be learned, you either have The Gift or you don’t. And I have heard countless teachers make this argument — teachers, claiming that teaching can’t be taught. Given that the whole idea of teaching is imparting a skill that did not exist previously, I’m not sure I think those teachers should be giving advice.I've often suspected that one reason teaching is not well respected within higher education is the misguided belief that good teachers are born, not taught. (Why that isn't the case with good researchers, I don't know.) I see no reason to believe this is true, and even if it were true, it's probably not a wise attitude to take toward the craft of teaching anyway. And as the eminently sensible Carol Dweck points out, learning X requires the belief that X is learnable.
But the more serious problem with thinking of teaching as a calling is that it ratifies a picture of teaching as an altruistic 'helping' profession suitable for martyrs. After all, if teaching is a calling, then teaching well trumps all else, swamping all boundaries:
the ‘vocation’ argument imbues the profession of teaching with that annoying religious veneer that I so despise. Chastity and humility aren’t enough, now we’re writing vows of poverty — doing it for the money means you must be a bad teacher. Where’s that gotten us? To a place where teachers are more or less expected to buy supplies for their own classrooms, because (I guess) they’re so unconcerned about money they’ll bankrupt themselves for their students. This is not okay.WPE nails the sinister underbelly of the 'teaching is a calling' trope: If teaching is a calling, then those who teach can't care whether they're exploited. And if it's a calling (just as nursing and other 'feminine' occupations are a calling), then there are no limits to what can be asked of those who teach. I was just reading a bit of Marx; is the Marxian take here — that rooting the ethics of teaching in the idea that teaching is a calling justifies attitudes that harm those who teach while benefitting those who don't — spot on? Doesn't this sort of talk raise such suspicions?:
...I’ll keep agitating for employers to pay teachers more, because it’s a damned hard job and a skilled profession that deserves more money than it currently gets. More radically, I tell students to think very hard before going into education because, do-gooder reasons be damned, if you’re not careful it can be financially disempowering field that will destroy your psyche.
Should remuneration be a factor in becoming a teacher? Hardly. And money does not make an exemplary teacher either. So what does? The children in front of a teacher are not concerned how much or how little Mr of Ms earns. What they want is to be taken seriously as individuals, and to be excited and challenged by ideas. Learning new stuff is a powerful intoxicant. If teachers forget this, or are distracted by money issues, they may as well resign.I see this in some phenomena we've discussed before at ISW: rude and demanding student e-mails are the tip of the iceberg, the shadow of a consumerist mentality wherein if students don't learn, it's has to be because of their teachers. The pernicious picture of teaching as a calling should be ditched, even if some who teach welcome that description. Let's call teaching what is: challenging and often rewarding work, a unique occupation in that it provides a good only on the condition that its beneficiaries welcome and engage that good, a craft that can be learned and taught, undertaken by human beings with no distinctive motivations and no divine calling.