Called to serve: called to teach
Posted: Thu, 09 Jul 2020 20:41
In this week's article, Catholic teacher Mike Bennett reflects on the vocation of teaching and his own experience of God's call to teach the young as a layman.
'The Priest' by Jimmy McGovern is a retreat in two hours. Like all of McGovern's work, it is real, grounded, rooted in the everyday experiences that so many of us can relate to. I watch it at least once a year if I can. For me, it is a story of resurrection. The patterns of death and renewal appear in all of the main characters; whilst it is hard to watch, I feel it is necessary: its lessons are too important to miss. There is one scene where an old priest who has struggled with his vocation sits with a young priest who has many struggles, yet he is, in the words of the wise old priest, 'blessed with certainty of vocation'.
Vocation is a big word, and I was once told off by a priest when I said I had a vocation to teach! Father told me that 'we must be careful not to water down the meaning of the term, as in reality, vocation refers singularly to the vocation to priesthood and religious life.' I could see his logic, yet it did not feel right.
I still believe now that I was called by God to teach. Like the young priest in the movie, I felt certain that teaching was what the Lord wanted of me. In fact, I did not so much feel called but pushed. Like many of those who feel a sense of vocation, I resisted. Firstly, my friends would laugh when I told them I wanted to study Theology: 'What job will that get you? Do you want to be a priest?' Secondly, many of my teachers were telling me that there was more money in medicine, law … and plumbing. Friends were working and earning money, able to buy cars, go on holiday and save for flats and houses. A friend's mum was clear that I needed to grow up and get out of school and make my way in the world. I had to ponder, pray and discern. My parents, who had worked in factories all their lives, did not fully understand education, but they valued it and 'had my back'. I am dyslexic, thus study was hard. I had many dark days through my A-Levels; even darker in university. Yet I kept pushing forward. God was good and was with me in those dark moments.
In the first term of my PGCE, I was convinced I would be no good as teacher. When I was about to walk away, it clicked. I taught a lesson and the pupils were there, switched on, ready to listen, and I had something to say. They let me in. Whilst I had always wanted to teach, the journey was just too hard, and I really was about to walk away, to what I don't know; but that lesson in December 1997 to Year 8 on Judaism gave me the 'certainty of vocation'.
One of my spiritual superheroes is Dorothy Day. Like another of my heroes, Thomas Merton, Day was human. She did not float on a cloud, but was rooted in her mission to serve the poor. Day said this of vocation: "You will know your vocation by the joy that it brings you. You will know. You will know when it's right."
By God's grace, I found something that brought me joy. I say grace as it is not something I deserved. The joy my pupils bring me is more than I deserve or could hope to expect.
On my second teaching practice, God gifted me with the presence of a young Salesian priest. Although I did not know it then, we would become close friends, and I would learn so much about my own vocation through him.
Teaching is a vocation, the ministry of teaching is a gift. And those who struggle with it, and those who discern this vocation, will have dark days! This is good and necessary suffering, as Richard Rohr would say. It will galvanise the individual and lead them through to experiences of joy that are beyond words. Both St John Bosco and S. John Baptiste de la Salle faced this necessary suffering when they thought that they could not go on. The constant battles with the civil and, sadly, Church authorities, must have seemed too much to bear. Yet as the Psalmist says:
For You, O God, have tested us;
You have refined us as silver is refined.
You brought us into the net;
You laid affliction on our backs.
You have caused men to ride over our heads;
We went through fire and through water;
But You brought us out to rich fulfilment.
They picked up their crosses and carried them!
At this time of the year there are many people looking forward to starting their PGCEs and PGCDs. Many people have an eye on September as this marks NQT year and the first steps in their vocation to the ministry of education. To them I say this: it will be hard; you will doubt yourself and your vocation. But please stand firm in your certainty that this gift is freely given to you by the loving hands of the Almighty, who knows you better than you know yourself. In the dark times that will come, listen to the voice that whispered in your heart to teach.
When I have felt like walking away I have prayed these work from Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." And I thank the Lord that the spirit appointed me to teach.