Questions of work and identity, especially for teachers

There’s been a lot of discussion in the past few years in Catholic circles regarding problems with perpetual discernment–a phenomenon among many young people influenced by both a genuine desire to follow the will of God and an oft-cited anxiety around commitment that seems to afflict millennials more than previous generations.

As a result, many of us find ourselves continually discerning but never deciding. Or we try new things but do not fully invest in them–we go on a retreat here or there, we explore Catholic dating sites (well, I don’t), we try out a young adult’s group or bible study, we test out the waters, wondering when they’ll calm down a bit and stop seeming so stormy and treacherous…

Jesus walks on water, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1888)

Oh, right.

But there’s another problem going on here regarding discernment, and the best way I know how to get at it is to explore it from a (former?) teacher’s perspective. But even that parenthesis indicates my problem:

I was a teacher for eight years. Am I still, even though I no longer teach high school, even though I no longer have a classroom and grade papers and lesson plan? You see, there’s this part of me that wants to justify still holding some kind of claim to that title. Perhaps, because: if I’m not still a teacher, then who am I?

Not everyone defines herself by her job description, and some jobs seem more intimately tied to one’s sense of self than others. But if we think of doctors, police officers, soldiers, writers, poets, carpenters–and teachers–we might realize that a lot of folks see their jobs as outer expressions of their inner personalities.

And so the paralysis of perpetual discernment is not only afflicting those trying to decide whom to marry or those trying to decide whether to join consecrated life; it also seems to afflict many more people now in their professional choices. Many of us were told when we were young you can be whatever you want to be even more often than we were fed Disney love stories. The latter seems to involve fate or Providence–but the former, the loneliness of choice.

I’ve recently been auditing a seminar on Work and Vocation for undergraduates, led by my boss and colleague. He notes that many young people today are overwhelmed by a sense that they must find meaningful work–not just dignified work. That is, they feel they must search for a career that is not only lucrative but also engaging, that calls upon their creative capacities, talents, and interests–that somehow affords them an authentic expression of themselves. He contrasted this experience with that expressed by Lars Svedson’s description of his father in the mid-twentieth century:

My impression was always that he, for the most part, enjoyed working at the shipyard. Yet he was also eager to leave at exactly 3:30pm every single workday, and as a child I usually met him at the gates of the shipyard before we walked home together. There was a very strict distinction between work and leisure, and my father had limited contact with his work colleagues outside the workplace. If a particularly close colleague had fallen ill, he might pay him a visit in the afternoon, but otherwise work and leisure were strictly isolated social spheres. Questions as to whether his job was “meaningful” or whether it was an expression of his “true self” do not seem to have occurred to him. (Svedson, Work 1)

That’s the kind of work/life distinction I always idealized as a teacher, but it was never one that made sense to me if I remained being a teacher.

You see this conflation of job and identity a lot in the teaching profession, and I think it is intensified in Catholic circles. Not only am I a teacher, I am also a disciple of Christ, commissioned to invite other disciples. I’m not just supposed to teach a subject, I’m supposed to form persons.

My experience of being a teacher is wrapped up in my experience of discipleship, of following Christ, of serving the Church. If I stop being a teacher, what happens to all that?

I left teaching in large part because it felt like being in an unhealthy relationship with a bad boyfriend who was super demanding and not very good with boundaries. That could indeed be part of why I and (I believe) many other teachers who leave the profession struggle with questions of identity afterwards. But setting co-dependency and other issues aside, I think there is something beautiful about the connection between work and identity; the sense that your work was an authentic expression of your unique interests and gifts. There was something truly unique in teaching that called to you, and calls to you still, even if you are discerning out of it for whatever reason. Most people enter teaching out of a profound desire to do some good, to do something meaningful, to share a particular love of a discipline or even a way of life with others. That desire doesn’t just go away when you leave, nor should it.

I remember during my first and second years of teaching a lot of my friends were getting married and having kids. And I remember thinking to myself, as I sat behind my desk watching a group of my first seniors take their final exam, with a sudden surprise, “I haven’t been given that right now, but I have been given this; I have been given these kids.”

It’s hard to leave an experience like that.

But should I approach my work in that way—in the way many people in the modern Church talk about Vocation with a capital V?

Well, I suppose Flannery O’Connor did. In her Prayer Journal, she wrote,

I must write down that I am to be an artist. Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually—like this today.

Writing for her, and for most people who are truly great writers, isn’t a job. It’s a vocation in the sense of calling. Writers through the ages from Homer to Milton have cited the gods or muses that called forth from them the opening lines of their epic works–they talk about the experience as if they almost did not have a choice but to write down what they “heard.”

And though I can’t say I felt quite that way as a teacher, I think the experience is more akin to that than to landing an executive director position at a big corporation.

But if work is tied up in vocation, it’s also tied up in the questions of discernment with which we began. And in addition to struggling with discernment, whether one is discerning one’s way into the water or out of it, I think a lot of us struggle with questions of work and identity, or work as identity. And not in a workaholic kind of way (though maybe that, too) but in a quasi-spiritual kind of way.

It would be easy to say, “Well, obviously you are more than what you do!” It’s just as easy to say, “Obviously what you do shapes who you are!”

Whom you marry, or what religious order you join, or what job you accept determines, to a large extent, how you’ll spend most of your time. So how are you going to spend it? And how is that shaping who you become?

I can’t shake off this question: To what extent ought we to identify ourselves with our work?

Flannery, again—as a graduate student, wrestling with her vocation:

Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work. I have the feeling of discouragement that is. I realize I don’t know what I realize. Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted. That is so far from what I deserve, of course, that I am naturally struck with the nerve of it. […] All boils down to grace, I suppose. Again asking God to help us be sorry for having hurt Him. I am afraid of pain and I suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing. (Excerpts in the New Yorker)

I mean, you read that–“give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord”–and you think of her life, and you realize with fear and trembling that God said yes.

Her very next entry reads,

Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.

So–again, I ask whomever may be reading this, to what extent ought we identify ourselves with our work, especially if that work is something like writing or teaching?

I have no straightforward answers, actually.

But I find it interesting that even though Jesus called Peter and the others to leave their day jobs and fishing nets behind, to embark on a completely new way of life of preaching and healing and miracle-working for which they were completely unprepared, he still said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).

Their work was still to identify them somehow, to be characteristic of the radical new life to which he called them.

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew (Vocation de Saint Pierre et Saint André), 1886-1894.

7 Quick Takes Friday (2/14/14)


It’s Valentine’s Day. So the theme is love.


My friend Serena has written a beautiful article over at Public Discourse entitled “Politics, Art and Love: A Lesson from Dante.” You should read it. She gracefully weaves together an argument for the proper approach to debating political issues with a simple but profound explication of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

A taste:

Just like Dante, every person has the capacity to open himself to truths that are bigger than our minds can initially fathom. We can often lose sight of the fact that the answers to political questions on abortion or marriage, for example, are based on understandings of the nature of human life and love that are just too big and too profound for us to grasp all at once. The process of changing someone’s mind on such questions will probably be slow, but it can be helped along by relationships that, in love, persistently ask others to reconsider the philosophical foundations of their beliefs. (Serena Sigillito at Public Discourse)


Speaking of love…

Via Catholic News Agency Blog:


This may sound rather abrupt –

But I truly believe this: if you don’t love teaching, if you don’t love your kids, then go do something else.

You might be a very imperfect teacher (like me). You might not know everything about your content or how to “control” a classroom or how to help a student. I have struggled with all of these things. And I still do.

These things you can learn and improve upon.

But if you do not love the act of teaching itself — if you don’t love spending time with young people, if you don’t love your kids, then you should not be a teacher. You will not have anything to give if you do not have love.

The truth is, if you do not love teaching, then maybe you really are called to something else. You can show your love and serve God in a different way. And that is okay.

But please don’t stay a teacher because you get summers off and because you’re “qualified.” If you don’t love you’re kids, then you’re not qualified.

Okay. Rant over.


Here is a fascinating article in the Atlantic on “Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators”, whose pithy title alone seems to explain my entire academic career both as a student and as a teacher.

I have always struggled with procrastination, even though I have done well in school and pretty consistently turned assignments in on time. McArdle explains:

Most writers manage to get by because, as the deadline creeps closer, their fears of turning in nothing eventually surpasses their fears of turning in something terrible. (via  The Atlantic)
This is very true. The adrenaline rush that an impending deadline provides is a much stronger motivator for me than almost anything else. Since I feel as though I no longer have a choice in the matter, the words come. They come out of my fingertips though the keyboard and onto the screen almost in spite of myself.
What makes this article even more awesome (besides explaining me to myself) is that it cites Carol Dweck’s research on success and failure, growth mindset and fixed mindset, terms that have greatly influenced my own teaching for the last few years.
Dweck argues that people often procrastinate because they are afraid of failure. If a student plays video games all night instead of studying for a test, he can always explain his failure on the test later by saying “Oh I didn’t even try to study for that” rather than by his own poor abilities or lack of understanding.
It is easier not to try in school than to try. If you try, you actually are putting yourself on the line. You are putting yourself into your work. If your work then receives all sorts of red marks on it, you feel as though you have nowhere to hide: you are a failure.
But if you don’t try at all, no matter how many “red marks” you receive, you can always attribute them to your lack of trying–not your actual talent or performance.
It’s safer that way. But it’s also cowardly, and prevent real learning from taking place:

“You never see the mistakes, or the struggle,” says Dweck. No wonder students get the idea that being a good writer is defined by not writing bad stuff.

Unfortunately, in your own work, you are confronted with every clunky paragraph, every labored metaphor and unending story that refuses to come to a point. “The reason we struggle with”insecurity,” says Pastor Steven Furtick, “is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” (Ibid)

We forget that writing–and all learning–is a labor of love. Key word: labor. No labor, no love. No mistakes, no learning.

Happy Valentines Day! Or, as some of my students informed me, “Singles Awareness Day”… aka S. A. D.
My friend Emily posted this wonderful list of Catholic Social Teaching Pick Up Lines in honor of the day.
I like these:

2. You must be poor, ’cause I’ve got a preferential option for you.

3. Hey, don’t I know you? I could have sworn we were in solidarity with one another once?

And this:



For those celebrating the S. A. D. version of today, there is a beautiful article over at the CNS Womanhood Blog about living the single life.

Best of all, the author, Elise Italiano, looks to Saint Edith Stein for her advice:

As Stein notes, one’s singlehood might not be deliberately chosen. But one does have freedom in the face of it. Father Jacques Phillippe writes in Interior Freedom, “We need to understand that there is another way of exercising freedom: less immediately exciting, poorer, humbler, but much more common, and one immensely fruitful, both humanly and spiritually. It is consenting to what we did not originally choose. (Italiano, “Edith Stein’s Advice to Single Ladies” CNS)


Which brings me to the topic of vocations.

Brother Justin Hannegan, a fellow UD graduate, recently wrote in Crisis Magazine about vocation. He made a rather startling argument – that discerning one’s vocation to the religious life, married life or single life has less to do with searching through one’s desires than it does with one’s abilities. One should not ask: what does my heart desire? But rather: what am I able to do? In other words, if you can do the religious life (with God’s grace), then do it.

He references the Church Fathers (especially Aquinas) and seems to have the first 1900 years of Catholic tradition on his side.

Hannegan’s original article: “Sacrificing Religious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism”

His response to critics:”Sacrificing Religious Life: A Reply to Critics”

But another graduate and friend of mine from UD, Gabbi Chee, respectfully disagrees:

We have also forgotten how to discern. On that point, I agree wholeheartedly with Br. Justin. But I don’t agree that searching one’s desires is the wrong way to go about discernment. But we need to clarify and define “desire.” Earlier in the article, Br. Justin quotes one of my favorite authors, Fr. James Martin, S.J., as saying “God awakens our vocations primarily through our desires.” I can’t speak for any of the other religious orders or for their take on discernment, but in Ignatian terms, desire is not just about what I want, like ‘I want a Ferrari’ or ‘I want to live somewhere sunny’. It is about what is at the core of my being and my heart. This is not something that everyone can articulate right away. That’s what discernment is for. Discernment requires that we stop and take stock of our life and the direction it is taking and the way that God has been leading us all along.

Read her excellent article too over at Saintable: “The Role of Desire In Discernment”

What do you think?


I’m considering responding to the questions about discernment Hannegan and Chee raise. In the meantime, however, I’ll just end with a beautiful insight from Italiano’s article:

[A Dominican priest] spoke to the temptation of the person in their twenties or thirties to measure their life in a linear way: to measure their worth and success by whether or not they had achieved certain standard markers that they felt they “should” have arrived at: obtaining degrees, landing a dream job, getting married, having a set number of kids by a particular age, and buying a house. The priest said that we ought to measure our lives vertically, like the corpus on the Cross. We should measure our lives by the depth that we enter into the present moment and how much love we are putting into it. (“Edith Stein’s Advice to the Single Ladies”)

It’s all about love, people.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


*Note: All student names have been changed.

I’m not a Mom. I hope to be, someday. But I think I know a little bit—a very little bit—of what that kind of love will be like.

My first year of teaching was easily the hardest experience of my life. I won’t go into all the details, but half-way through the year, I was seriously considering leaving my school and the ACE program. Exhausted, discouraged, and completely in over my head, I sat at my desk as my seniors came in to take their final exam.

And then I began to look at them, one by one. There was Maria, who had intimidated me so much on the first day with her bored eyes and sarcastic remarks… and who, later on, asked me to teach her and her classmates what plagiarism really was so that they could be ready for college. There was Jonny, who had a habit of giving up on everything difficult… and who had formed a new habit of actually finishing his essays. There was Lars—big, obnoxious, flirtatious, inappropriate—who had finally decided that Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice was a jerk, and he didn’t want to be like him after all.

There were also the ones who had been easier to love from the beginning: Gary, with his stubborn agnosticism and insistence upon questioning, Selina, with her gentle attentiveness and surprising perspicacity, Peter, with his hunger for knowledge and something to finally challenge him, and Catherine and Ashley—who came into my classroom one day, arm in arm like Austen’s ladies: “Let’s take a turn about the room! Ah yes, it is so refreshing!”

I looked at them all as I sat at my desk, and I felt astonished. So many of my college friends were finding love, getting engaged, having babies…

(Also getting more awesome at grading and lesson planning while driving to school.)

… but I had found a different kind of love.

I think I understand The Reverend Mother’s words a lot better now in The Sound of Music when she tells Maria that she needs to “climb every mountain” in order to find

 A dream that will need

All the love you can give

Every day of your life

For as long as you live.

I think I get that now.

Nothing else I have done has required more exhaustion and work and anxiety from me—and nothing else has given me so much love in return. Not thankfulness in return, necessarily—I think really good moms know they will and never can be truly thanked for all they do—nor understanding in return, either. I’m sure that a large percentage of my kinds don’t even like me.

(As I mentioned to my pleading junior class a couple of weeks ago – “I’m not here to be liked. I’m here to help you learn.”)

But I can’t help myself, to be honest. I love them—their comments, their nosiness, their complaining, their messiness, their mistakes, and their little triumphs. And I’m so grateful to God that he has given me my kids to love.

Go listen to Reverend Mother here, and don’t settle for anything less.