Lost that loving feeling

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Teaching is so much more than a good career move. It's a vocation, writes Huw Thomas.

An established teacher training college has a web page devoted to "men in primary". Beneath a photo of smiling, graduating men, we read: "A man is seven-and-a-half times more likely to become a headteacher of a primary than a secondary school. With a headteacher's pay ranging from pound;32,000 to pound;76,000, it is worth considering being a primary teacher."

Why stop there? Why not add, "You can knock off at 3.30" or "Chicks like guys who work with kids". I know there is a recruitment crisis but how far down the barrel are we trying to recruit?

Each primary teacher represents about 10 per cent of a child's chances in education. Do we want second-thought builders or bankers diverted by a job that gives blokes a start in the race to be a boss and earn a bundle?

Two weeks ago, The TES covered the Teacher Training Agency's changing strategy for recruitment (TES, August 22), reporting plans to play down the notion of vocation, presenting a profession that will appeal to "self-interested idealists".

The article quoted David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers saying: "It is important to portray teaching as a professional career rather than as a vocation".

We have yet to see the TTA's new pitch and, up to now, I have admired their promotion of the profession. However, I want to speak up for vocation, for a couple of reasons. First, society needs commitment. The swing away from vocation and contribution toward self-interest and careerism is another aspect of the decline in the glue that holds society together.

Neighbourhoods are being traded in for "networks", an increasing amount of chat is online and we are becoming more isolated and wrapped up in ourselves. A job such as teaching requires a sense of vocation, a motivation to contribute to a wider society. A healthy society requires people with vocations to balance what they get out of a job and what they give through it.

Second, I like nuns. They know a bit about this subject and I recall one, Sister Genovetta Cali, saying: "A true vocation is like a dress that fits you well. You feel wonderful in it". Some people just want to teach. It fits (more happily, in my case) better than a dress. The fact that it also pays the mortgage is a necessary bonus but if this job were just a career move, who would do it?

The profession is packed with minds and talents that could earn more elsewhere; it's just that they are teachers. Mr Hart has never actually been a teacher, but as one who has I respond to his distinction between a profession or a vocation by saying "It's both!"

But I would warn off anyone who comes to this job without a sense of the latter. If the job does not beckon, it is not for you. I am all for clarifying the potential applicant's view of the profession. Yes, it provides skills they may take elsewhere. No, it need not be a shackle for life. Yes, there is a wide range of opportunities presented within the career.

But within that appeal there needs to be an understanding that the level of work required by this job does not simply tally with the pay cheque. And before this gets confused with a request for a pay rise, let me say: yes, pay could be better but it is not just about pay. It is about factoring in that sense of vocation. For a teacher, the job is, in itself, rewarding.

This vocation has many roots: enjoyment of the subject matter, enthusiasm for communication and commitment to seeing children learn. Ultimately, when the pennies drop (and they do), it is a reward of great value.

Now, if these are the interests of the punters the TTA are luring, fine, but let us guard against reducing primary teaching to a good career move.

It is so much more.

Huw Thomas is headteacher at Springfield school, Sheffield

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