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  • Writer's pictureEducating Gender

The Dangers of Education as a Vocation

Often, educators are told, in implicit and explicit ways, that they are less than. “Those who cannot do, teach” is the classic line we are fed in America about the competency of those who go into the profession of education. Another perception is one of downright laziness.

“Teachers go into education because they get their summers off; they only want to work ten months a year.”

My response to that idea is twofold: that teachers do twelve months of work in ten and that the American economic system has trained everyone so well that if you’re not working all the time (or at least giving off that perception), then something must be wrong with you. Teachers aren’t lazy, it’s that American workers are being treated like a work animal or a slave.

Another impression which denigrates teachers in a different way; however, is in the form of a backhanded compliment that has little to do with the truth of why people go into education.

It’s when people call education a calling or more accurately, a vocation.

The notion of vocation in contemporary western culture has different associations than its origins. A vocation was originally associated with religious calling. This definition relies heavily on placing people into power hierarchies that differ when it comes to gender. Men, when called to vocation in religious cultures, can assume a certain type of societal power because of their relationship to believers and lay people. The metaphor of “the shepherd of the flock” comes to my mind. However, with females who see themselves called to the professions of religious devotionalism, complete self sacrifice, humility, and subservience, even accepted denigration are the package of “benefits” designated to them.

This status of vocation correlates to women who go into child care and early childhood programs where the assumption of a “calling” belies slave-like wages and a nonprofessional status. What women get in return is this sense that they have some type of magical ‘gift’ of protecting the most vulnerable, namely small children. The recognition of their gift is also then the only compensation they should ever expect from this social contract.

A vocation was originally associated with religious calling. This definition relies heavily on placing people into power hierarchies that differ when it comes to gender.

A vocation can often be confused in contemporary society with an avocation as the base definition of vocation has morphed to mean any career or form of employment with which one feels aligned.

The danger of this labeling and continued association of child care and early childhood education with this religious vocational framework became even more apparent during the pandemic as millions of Americans, predominantly women, found themselves in search of affordable childcare while they needed to work. Lack of professional status leads to poor pay and benefits. The poor working conditions can be justified under the self-sacrifice part of the job description even when these working conditions are where we place our own children. The “gift” or magical skills associated with this work leaves the thousands of people, mainly women, who go into this work ironically under-trained and ill-prepared to do their jobs at the highest levels.

This framing is also the perfect messaging for maintaining patriarchal structures as a model for what constitutes a good society. With 98% of women working in daycare and early childhood classes, the very personality traits associated with vocation are what keep its participants in line when it comes to gendered power relationships. If women complain about these inhumane working conditions, then they must not have the other-worldly gifts necessary to be successful. Self denigration, silence, and obedience become the litmus tests for positive role models in these positions in education.

As the pandemic amplified and exacerbated an already existing lack of affordable day care, which, by the way, should be free, it also highlighted the absence of a labor force willing to do this work with such demeaning pay and under such awful conditions.

We are currently experiencing a crisis in day care in the United States. The crisis is not because there aren’t enough dedicated individuals eager to do this work. Instead, unless we begin to disassociate the profession from the typical tropes of patriarchy and denigrating feminine stereotypes, we will have a vocation with no practitioners.

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1 Comment

Oct 20, 2021

Jason, there is a lot to think about in this piece. It reminds me of Tennyson's poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade," in which the poor decision of a battle commander led to an ill-advised charge of 600 cavalry troops into a valley to attack the enemies artillery positions. The cavalry were mostly annihilated and the few that returned were rewarded with "honor" and "glory" rather than pensions and health care. They carried out their duty and did what was expected of them. Compensation for that duty was not part of the deal.


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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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