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Is teaching a profession or vocation?

BEFORE the advent of formal teacher training, parents, elders, religious leaders and sages were generally responsible for the teaching of children and other members of the society. As time went on, learned individuals, took on students and taught them for free! Students learned the craft by obtrusively observing and practicing the methods of their own teachers. Successful ones ended up becoming teachers to propagate their master's teachings.

Over the last century, teacher training has seen great improvements, and efforts to gain professional recognition have increased. With these developments, teachers have begun to consider themselves as educators and organized in an effort to ameliorate working conditions as well as work hard for the improvement of quality of education.

To do minimal justice to the complicated subject of teaching as a profession or a vocation, therefore, involves attention to at least three subjects. First, we must examine the present state of the conversation about the general idea of vocation.

Second, we must consider the activity of teaching both as a general human endeavor and as a profession. And finally, we must wonder what difference, if any, it should make to regard teaching as a vocation rather than as simply one of several forms of professions.

Vocation is a theological word. It has been defined as a career with a spiritual calling from deep within. It is important that other people recognize and confirm your vocation but ultimately it is something very personal concerned with your core values. The Cambridge International Dictionary of English however defines vocation as a type of work that you feel you are suited to doing and to which you should give all your time and energy or the feeling of suitability itself.

intellectual techniques
On the other hand, a profession is generally defined as an occupation characterized by skilled intellectual techniques, voluntary association and code of conduct, and teaching is certainly that, it is characterized by public standards to which all members are accountable.

The truth is that the professional teacher is someone who handles his commitment in a responsible and open manner with colleagues and pupils or students. However, Teaching is a relatively new profession when compared with medicine and law.

teaching occupation
In Ghana, the teaching occupation is still in the process of attaining full professional status because we do not have any development program; we do not reward excellent performance; we do not have a career ladder; we do not have high-quality induction; we do not have supervision and evaluation, These are basic elements of a profession!

In fact we even have teachers who are not fully certified to teach or are not fully certified to teach the subjects they are teaching so how do we identify qualified and trained teachers. The argument here is clear as the cat was let out of the bag in the Ghanaian chronicle on Tuesday August 11 2009 when a center spread story carried by the paper made a stunning revelation over how untrained teachers dominates the teaching field in the Western Region. Perhaps Western Region is not the only region in Ghana where the teaching field has been taken over by unprofessionals.

Anyway, there are many people for whom teaching is obviously a wrong profession or occupation, because they have entered teaching out of frustration rather than the joy to see others learn and develop. But, for a dedicated teacher, the profession is also a hobby and a vocation.

The possibility is that you may find many teachers regretting that they had decided to become teachers. But the reason is not the profession nor is it the working environment. It is the low earnings of the teacher which needs to be addressed adequately as a nation.

Besides, the myth and unique respect associated with other professions like law, medicine, engineering and so on can not be said to be same with the teaching profession. Schooling is now democratized and teachers are generally considered as ordinary workers with mediocre skills. Teachers at the Basic school level, for example, are considered generalists and therefore cannot claim to be experts in their field as other professionals like legal and medical officers.

Furthermore, teaching is also seen as an occupation for failures in the academic field. This argument can easily be amputated considering the competitive nature of academic requirements of teachers especially in higher institutions of learning like the Universities and Teacher Training Colleges. A further point which negates this argument is the creditable manner in which many teachers perform when they become politicians, business men and women, and theologians amongst others. Majority of teachers in rural Ghana usually feel teaching is perhaps the most comfortable way of living as a destitute in the absence of any better alternative job avenues.

This perception of teaching by teachers and non-teachers alike is equally reflected in the following advice, which is generally given by parents and friends to the youth who are looking desperately for employment. "Why don't you look for a job as teacher while you look round for a better job?" In this distressful piece of advice, one can easily infer that teaching is considered as a convenient and useful standby occupation. It is no wonder that there is high degree of internal and external attrition in the teaching profession.

professional careers
In one of my lessons, I asked my students to identify their future professional careers. Interestingly, whiles some said they wanted to be doctors, lawyers; others wanted to be engineers and scientists. But to my utmost surprise one of the students openly said before me that “sir, I will like to teach for a while and later look for a better professional career like law”

Additionally, teachers do not have their own well-articulated body of skills or expertise. The fact is that even if they claim to have knowledge in educational theory, it is in most cases not applied after training.

Moreover, pedagogical skills are regarded as common sense knowledge about controlling children by literate persons. This argument does not have logical legs to stand on because effective teaching requires high knowledge of pedagogy in addition to the subject matter.

This can only be mastered in a systematic way. After all and all things being equal, there is a significant difference between the performance of an untrained teacher and trained teacher.

national economy
There is, however, the urgent need for employers of teachers to recognize the immeasurable contribution that teachers make to support the national economy. Teachers are the real determinant of quality in education.In view of the above reasons it can be said that teaching in Ghana is still in the process of "professionalization". To me, unless we remind ourselves that teaching is a vocation that extends far beyond disciplinary guilds and self-contained classrooms, we risk misunderstanding both its nature and its purposes. If we think of teaching simply as a professional activity, we will be inclined to make one of two fundamental errors.

We will either reduce teaching to a set of methods and techniques, turning it finally into a technology, or we will mystify it by turning it into an occult practice that defies rational description. Good thinking about good teaching, however, begins with the recognition that teaching is a basic human practice whose excellence depends upon the exercise of certain fundamental intellectual and moral virtues.

Teaching is closer to an art than it is to a craft or technique, and, though it certainly involves mysterious transactions, it is nevertheless a public activity that is improvable through practice and criticism.

Teaching is, in other words, a basic human activity before it is a professional one.

Once we recognize that teaching is a basic human art more than it is a professional practice like medicine or law, we see as well that if we want to develop a rich account of good teaching, we must begin to understand what the lives of excellent professional teachers have in common with the lives of grandparents teaching their grandchildren how to sew or how to fish, and with barge pilots or fly fishermen teaching apprentices how to read a river. Before we think about teaching English, Mathematics, chemistry, history, philosophy, or economics, we need to think about generic human excellences that make teaching of any kind possible.