Reflections from the story of Jonah and on choosing a vocation

Teacher talk

Posted: Friday, August 22, 2003

On the first day of my college Hebrew class, the professor, an ancient linguistics Ph.D. with white hair that grew sparsely on his head and abundantly in his ears, gathered us around him and told us the old Hebrew story of Jonah and the whale.

Jonah, Professor Hanson said, was a man afraid of what he was supposed to do with his life. News of his vocation frightened him so much that he ran away. And then the whale swallowed him, and Jonah was glad to be able to hide for awhile.

In the four years since I graduated from college, I have been hiding in a whale's belly, too, insisting to anyone who would listen that although I did not know what I would do with my life, I would not become a teacher. I wanted to do something important and exciting and world-changing, not teach. I wanted to write moving stories and to read good books. I wanted to help people. So I wandered. I worked as a camp counselor, as a social worker, as an ESL tutor, as an admissions counselor. I thought about going to graduate school to become a family therapist.

I subjected my poor husband to my increasing anxiety: "What should I do with my life? What can I do that's important?" And then, the whale vomited me onto the beach. That was Professor Hanson's favorite part of the Jonah story, that Jonah's eventual acceptance of his vocation wasn't initially voluntary. The whale vomited him onto the beach. There he was, revealed, exposed. Similarly, on a long northern day last summer, I threw all of my applications for master's programs in counseling in the trash, and called Bob Larsen, my professor-mentor-second dad. The conversation went something like this:

"Bob, I suddenly think I'm supposed to be a teacher!"


"What, have you known this all along? I wanted to do something important! I wanted to change the world!"

"You will."

And there it was. Teaching - the one vocation I had been avoiding - was the most important, the most exciting, and the most world-changing thing I could do. As a teacher I could use my love of reading and writing to reach teenagers and to help shape them into self-aware adults who could change the world.

I stood in my kitchen feeling stunned, glad (and not a little afraid) to have finally stumbled onto this truth, to have been vomited onto the beach where I could accept my vocation at last.

Now, after six intense weeks of classes, my Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) classmates and I are about to become intern teachers in the schools. I worry about silly things - what I will say in those first moments with each class at JDHS, what I will wear, what the students will think of me. But beneath that frivolous anxiety is the deep joy in finally knowing what I want to do. I am becoming a teacher. I am opening myself to a year of learning from my mentor teachers, from my students, from my classmates. George Frasier said that "no one should teach who is not a bit awed by the importance of the profession."

Well, I am awed. I am awed by the gravity of what teachers do every day. I know I will have days when discipline problems and flat lesson plans make me feel far less idealistic, but I have journeyed to this point through a whale's mouth. Teaching is my vocation, the most important way I can contribute to the world. That, I think, will pull me through the difficult days and weeks.

And I'm not doing this alone. I'll have mentors like my host teachers, Casady Herding and Ali McKenna. I'll have my 15 MAT classmates, with whom I've developed a close cohort these past six weeks as we've wrestled with issues and questions.

And I'll have the wisdom of my own past teachers who shaped who I am and who hinted that I should become a teacher before I was ready to hear and accept it.

• Sarah Hahn Brooks is a Master of Arts in Teaching student at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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