Teaching As a Calling

calling.jpgBy Bill Henk – What does it mean to be called?

Dictionaries define a ‘calling’ as an inner urge or strong impulse, especially one believed to be divinely inspired.  A secondary definition denotes calling as an occupation, profession, career or vocation.

As humans we might feel called to make particular decisions or perform certain actions in daily life.   These motivations can feel noble and gratifying.  But for me, a calling in the truest, most important sense of the word puts together both definitions  — a divinely inspired impulse that leads to a career choice. 

This assertion begs the question:  Is teaching a calling?

To be honest, most of my life I’ve regarded pronouncements from individuals that they were called to do something, with the exception of clergy, as somewhat arrogant or pretentious. My thinking took the form, “Yeah, sure, out of all the human beings on planet Earth, God Almighty has taken it upon Him/Herself to provide YOU alone with singular, inspired direction.”

But I no longer feel this way.  Why?  Because I’ve come to feel called myself.  It turns out that my previous take on the callings of others derived from my own arrogance and pretentiousness, not to mention a profound dose of ignorance, insensitivity, and myopia.

Acknowledging the Call

There are just a few times in my 61-year existence that I’ve felt called professionally.  The first time I didn’t even recognize it until much later, long after I had moved on from that work.  Fact is, earlier in my life I was called to teach.  Plain and simple.  Who knew?  Not me.

Teaching children represented my purpose in life at that point.  It was what I was meant to do then.   I had been gifted in ways that made me well suited to the role, and despite my struggles to learn the requisite art and skill of the craft and my fears about serving my students in the way they deserved, it always felt right to me.  Whether it was divinely inspired or not (and now I believe that’s the case), I was supposed to be a teacher.

In turn, K-12 teaching set the stage for my next career pathway — being a professor who taught aspiring teachers.  The university expectations of teaching, research, and service came naturally to me and provided enormous professional satisfaction.  And I’d like to think that I helped form a large number of skilled, dedicated, and compassionate teachers along the way.   I’m not sure if my professorial work rose to the level of a calling, but I was supposed to be a teacher educator, too.  

But as luck, destiny, or  a Higher plan would have it, I found myself in the role of an academic administrator at Penn State for a decade and then Southern Illinois for three years.   Although I eventually adapted to the work and became proficient at it, these roles NEVER felt like a calling to me.

called to serveThat feeling changed after I came to Marquette to be dean of the College of Education — though, not right away, mind you.  The first two years, when my job amounted to positioning the College for national re-accreditation, the work felt as far away from being a calling as almost anything I could imagine.

It wasn’t until later when I began to conceive of what came to be the Greater Milwaukee Catholic Education Consortium (GMCEC), the partnership of the Catholic institutions of higher education in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to help our local Catholic K-12 schools, that the possibility of being called myself  EVER occurred to me.  Maybe just maybe, being a dean at an excellent Catholic university like Marquette, where I can be a social justice innovator, is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.

Even then, it took quite a while for my GMCEC efforts to lead me to acknowledge that calling.  You see, my dance card of job responsibilities already overflowed.  The absolutely last thing I needed to do was take on more work.  But I did.  And a lot of it.

Yet, when I ALWAYS somehow had the energy for the additional duties, and NEVER grew tired of them in spite of the hardship and sacrifice, it hit me.  Being called represented the only explanation that could account for what I was experiencing.  And for the record, I’ve felt exactly the same way about the work I’ve done for a Cristo Rey High School in Milwaukee the past two years.  I’ll hold off on that topic for a future post, however.

Teachers Who Are Called

Right now, I want to focus readers on the very best of our school teachers — as passionate and skilled educators, tireless child advocates, and whose personal identities are utterly commingled with their  career choice.   To them teaching is far more than a job or a vocation or even a profession.

Whether they know it or not, they are called.

Those who know typically won’t say as much, because of humility or fear of embarrassment.  I hope that those who don’t know at least suspect their calling.  At any rate, my advice to both varieties of these special teachers is this:  do not hide the light of your calling under a bushel.  The beauty of finally and fully accepting one’s calling is that you literally no longer care what other people think.

I’ll leave you with a quote from St. Catherine of Siena, patron saint of the church I attended growing up.  Maybe it’s not a coincidence that she and Marquette’s own Jesuit inspiration, St. Ignatius, thought similarly about the impact we can have on the world.

Saint Catherine quote

2 Responses to “Teaching As a Calling”


  1. 1 Mike Soika February 7, 2014 at 9:25 am

    Bill – your article hit home for me. My former pastor and long time best friend would often remind me that most people only recognize their calling after the fact. He challenged that the best we all can do is to follow what we believe is a call and see what pans out. If the doors keep opening – then keep walking through them. If they keep closing – time to step back – be quiet and listen.

    Like

    • 2 billhenk February 7, 2014 at 8:18 pm

      Thanks for reading the post and commenting, Mike. Glad it resonated with you. Your pastor’s metaphor about the doors is an apt one, and he’s right that the key to recognizing a calling is quieting oneself and listening. For that matter, I’ve been listening closely to my work with Milwaukee Succeeds of late, and it is sounding increasingly like a calling as well.

      Like


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