There was a point, I imagine, when only illness – long and debilitating or short – was what brought the working life to an end universally. “Grow old in your work” is the advice of a wisdom writer 200 BCE (Sirach ch 11) and I read it as an encouragement. However, I find myself wondering, as I start thinking about retirement: what is my vocation?
Sunday’s readings in Mass were about the call of the disciples, and yesterday we remembered three great saints, Paul the Hermit, and the Benedictines Maurus and Placid. The boy Samuel is called at the start of his mission, the earliest disciples move from John the Baptist to Jesus; Paul the Hermit flees to the desert; Maurus and Placid attach themselves to the Patriarch of Western Monasticism; the youthful Antony we remember today (17th Jan) disposes of his responsibilities and flees to the desert – and somewhere inside me I wonder “what will I do when I grow up?”
And today more rows on Twitter about Bold Beginnings, with an OfSTED spokesperson being bullish, and Prof Michael Rosen growling like a dog at a bullbaiting… No: they are all really sincere, trying to make sense of their positions or trying to explain what they think and feel to others. Such is the (to go to the Hardyesque or Cold Comfort country fair metaphor again) cockpit of passion and professionalism. Most of the time I love it or at least follow it with a keen eye: today….
Today I want to try and figure out what I’m doing here. What does it mean at this end of my working life (and do I mean “end,” given my first comments?) to find my work “rewarding,” or to say “I love my job”? This is given added flavour by the fact that tomorrow’s class for my PGCE students is about writing a personal statement. What does it mean to be a professional?
The first question might be whether vocation and profession are coterminous. I shy away from the statements about “passion” and “reward” when describing my job. I have no passion for much of the paper that litters my desk and my reward is fundamentally pay. How about taking pride? Yes, I take pride in a class that goes well, I enjoy talking to all sorts of students and coworkers, and it has come as something of a surprise at this end of my working life to find I have friends deeply woven into my appreciation of a working day. But was that why I became a teacher in the first place? To have friends? If so, I think I have waited a long time. I wonder whether this is a half truth, or a simplified story. Maybe teaching appeals because of the relational aspect of the work.
This particular hare was started by my good colleague Georgina Glenny, whose research seminar today talked a lot, in among her subject (the difficulty of designing for “interventions”) about pedagogy and relationships. I did not become a teacher – in any of the sectors I’ve experienced – because of the standards agenda. I did not become a teacher because I read a book on teaching. I don’t even think I principally chose to teach to “make a difference.” I think I became a teacher because I discern that I am good at getting on with people, by and large; I enjoy people’s company. I really enjoy watching people learn, and helping people to learn, and the best places I’ve found to do this are Nurseries and Universities. As part of that I came, through my own children and then through those I worked with, to love their worlds, and drawing on my own reading history the literature that illuminates it, from Moomins to present day reading such as Raymie Nightingale. I know other people see the job differently, and other people who share my kick from watching learning see it better in other places. Is this vocation? I come (back) to the early monastics, to the advice from Abba Nisteros:
Not all good works are alike, For Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him. Elias loved solitary prayer and God was with him. David was humble and God was with him. Therefore whatever you see your soul to desire according to God do that thing and you shall keep your heart safe.
Even without God this makes sense. Do what your heart tells you and you can keep it safe. Love your work is at least part of this.
This takes me to a good (although not conclusive) place, but won’t do for a person spec. and a personal statement. What we need is a way to communicate passion, commitment, love without cliche or threadbare argument, or laying ourselves open to overwork. This is as true of the profession as a whole as it is of the novice looking for a first job. Except for the mere contrarians, this is true of The Twitterers; except for the pale pen-pushers this is true of policy makers and enforcers; except for the person who has lost their way and should have left the profession years ago, this is true of teachers and educators from one end of the sector to the other. We need, bluntly, to know what we profess.
But I wonder – I worry – that we are so individualist that the personal statement is just that: a personal vision, squeezed and pushed into the different shape that may be acceptable for a job.