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Photo of Allison Backous Troy

Abandoning mastery

A new teacher learns that vocation is not something to claim, but rather something to grow into.

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July 13, 2010

The day I interviewed at my city’s community college, I looked flustered and sloppy. My hair was a frizzy mane and my sweater hung crooked on my shoulders. I had called the dean’s office to set up an interview, and when our schedules didn’t work, the dean’s secretary paused.

“Can you make it in at 4 o’clock this afternoon?”

I had only an hour to get ready, and I felt frazzled beyond belief. The interview was for an adjunct position in the English department, teaching composition and beginning writing. The dean, whose sleek slacks and cropped hair marked her as a seasoned professional, smiled at me from across her desk. I tried to smooth my hair; I smiled back.

“Tell me about your experience teaching,” the dean said. “You are, of course, very young.”

Like many people, I used to assume that the signs of vocation were absolute joy and instant mastery of whatever you were called to: parenthood, scholarship, ministry. Being in a classroom sharpened my senses in a way that I had not felt before college: I was vocal in class, spent hours writing papers, and worked as a teaching assistant, grading and researching for my professors. When one of my professors pulled me aside to say that I would be a good professor someday, I took that as divine intervention: this was what I was supposed to do. This was the voice of calling. And it sent my blood racing.

One of the metanarratives that permeates contemporary Christian life is that vocation is all thrills and affirmation, that we must be perfect at what we do in order for it to be our primary calling. For me, the term vocation evoked images of a classroom, chalk in my hand and students’ faces lit by the fire of learning. For others, the picture might expand to a packed sanctuary, to rows of parishioners’ faces lit with a similar expectancy. These are images of success, pictures that reflect our gifts in action, working for the good for which they were intended.

Often we see vocation as something to claim, not something to grow into. We do this, I think, because vocation identifies us, not only to the world, but to ourselves; carrying a label wards off fear, insecurity and mystery. And we label ourselves as “masters,” our insecurities hidden, the future predictable and bright.

The first time I led a class by myself, I was a senior in college. I taught a freshman writing course to fulfill an internship, and worked with one of my favorite professors, a man I greatly admired. One day, when it was my turn to lead class discussion, I was overtired and had arrived late. With the students’ eyes watching me, I opened the textbook and began to speak. Nothing came out. Nothing. My gut heaved, my hands shook, and the next thing I knew, I was weeping with my head in my hands, whimpering, “I’m sorry, I am so sorry.”

My professor, in his wisdom, reassured me after class. “There is not one teacher who, in their first year of teaching, does not have these moments,” he said. My first boss, the program manager at a charter school in Chicago, told me the same thing while I taught high-schoolers reading and writing skills. I had to give detentions and plan classes for teenagers who read like first-graders, and whose life circumstances taught them to see me as both a target and an enemy.

“You just have to assert yourself,” my boss told me, patient and repetitive. “You are the boss. This is your classroom. And you will learn how to believe that.”

In that community college interview, I had more failures to mark my teaching experience than anything else -- moments of indecision, poor insight, bad planning and plain laziness. The rush of claiming teaching as a vocation had been replaced by a history of weakness, of experiences that proved how little mastery I actually held.

Despite my crooked sweater and lack of preparation, I was still excited to be in the dean’s office for that job interview. I was excited to talk about writing, and about those experiences, because they were what I had, and because (as the saying goes) I had a lot to learn.

“I want to come into my own as a teacher,” I told the dean, “and I want to learn how to serve my students in whatever capacity that may be.”

Those words were a gift to me; I did not think them up on my way to the interview. They testified, I think, to what vocation truly is: an unfolding of gifts that match particular needs in the world, the acceptance of those gifts, and the long reshaping of self that those gifts require in order to be of use.

My weaknesses as a teacher, and as a daughter and a friend, have forced me to look beyond myself to what is needed in a given moment: What is this student thinking about? What does she need to know in order to put together a paragraph, a thesis, a response? How can I give that to her, and what do I need to do to make sure that she gets it?

I got the adjunct position, and spent another nine months seeing the depths of those earlier weaknesses. But I did it with a greater sense of how to see myself, and how to see what I needed to do, in a way that served my students with increasingly better attention and direction. Vocation, as I now know it, is less about a named position than it is about serving the present moment, mastery abandoned, every missed attempt uncovering more of the gift that places you in the world, ready to serve and receive.