Monday, 13 February 2017

It's just my job, five days a week

Partha Kar, one of the #DocsOfGBDoc, caused quite a stir this week with this well-argued blog post about whether being a doctor is “just a job” or something rather more noble – a vocation. His post argued that being a doctor, even a consultant with multiple responsibilities and involvements like his, is for him a job, no more and no less than many other jobs, a conclusion that some might think somewhat at odds with his much-admired persona as a doctor who so obviously does far more than what he needs to. Surely, we might think, if ever we needed proof that Medicine is a calling, then we have it in the life and work of our Dr Partha.

Like all good blog posts, this one set me thinking. Is there such a thing as a vocation? I am a teacher, married to a teacher, the son, grandson and great grandson of a teacher on one side and the son and grandson of a clergyman on the other. I am father of an exceptionally dedicated teacher, a passionate recruiter of university students and a proud welfare assistant, so I have always been surrounded by people who work in jobs which are anything but nine-to-five, and which you often bring home at the end of every working day. Surely, I have seen people living out a vocation, and indeed I have lived out a vocation in a thirty six year career in teaching. I have never regarded devotion to work as anything other than the norm: my father often used to break family holidays to conduct funerals requested by the families of loyal parishioners, and in the days before safeguarding my mother often used to invite pupils from her school into our home for extra practice before important piano exams. 

As a teacher, I have always believed in doing what needs doing in my students’ interests rather than just doing what I’m paid for. I am also very conscious that I give off a very strong “teacher vibe”, and always have done. Strangers always guess what I do for a living, and I’ve probably been addressed as “Sir” more often than by my name over a lifetime. Former pupils, even when well into middle age, or even famous, still call me “Sir”. Some of the younger teachers at my school address me as “Sir”, not that I have ever encouraged it, and even some of my new friends on the #GBDOC use the term, despite having only met me as an equal, or in some cases not met me at all. I can’t shake it off, and I feel very much like the proverbial Mr Chips with a lifelong vocation in teaching. 

Yet the more I think about it, the more I agree with Partha. I’ve loved every minute of being a teacher. I’ve given it my heart and soul, and worked every hour God sends when necessary. But it’s just a job, and when I’m not doing it I’m very happy to forget all about it. 

Shock horror! Doesn’t he care? Of course I do. But the more I think about it, the more I feel that the whole idea of a vocation is flawed and potentially harmful.

Firstly, it carries for me the whiff of obsession, with the attendant risk of fatigue and burnout. I’m far from convinced that it’s healthy for either the individual or the profession for the former to be completely taken up by their job, and anyone who calls their job a calling risks seeing themselves as indispensable and losing a sense of perspective. I like people to have what is these days called a "hinterland": I always feel added respect for people who have an unexpected, unusual or incongruous interest – like trainspotting rock singers, wildlife-loving footballers, dancing politicians or rugby-playing doctors. I’m sure that a contrasting interest makes an individual more balanced, grounded and therefore more effective in the day job.

Secondly, and more importantly in my view, the idea of a “vocation” for medicine, teaching, nursing, the church, social work or whatever strikes me as rather arrogant and belittling towards other jobs. Surely it is possible to do any job with a sense of commitment, going beyond the call of duty and service, and I have to say I like nothing more than seeing another job well done. I’ve seen and benefitted from doctors, teachers, nurses, vets and clergy with an awesome sense of duty and commitment, but I’ve also had the pleasure of witnessing a true sense of vocation from car mechanics, waiters, chefs, painters and decorators, financial advisors, car salesmen and every job imaginable. The most dedicated professional in popular song is not a doctor or a teacher, but the eponymous Wichita Lineman.

I recently bought a replacement car battery from Halfords, and as I was very busy at the time, I elected to pay to have it fitted. I was so glad that I did so when it turned out to be an unexpectedly fiddly job because of badly corroded fastening clips, but I was even more glad that the job was done by a cheerful, resourceful and chatty young woman, whose manifest pride in a simple yet tricky job showed a true sense of....vocation. The fact that it was a woman doing a job traditionally associated with men was just an added bonus. Why should it not be a vocation to do anything and everything?

Of course saving and preserving lives matters more than changing car batteries or serving food. Of course teaching five year olds to read and write matters more than getting a smooth gloss finish, but we can’t all qualify to be doctors or teachers. What literally anyone can do is take pride in a job well done, give that little bit extra for no financial reward. And therein lies a vocation in which we all can share. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" may be an unfashionable motto, popularised by the in some ways discredited Karl Marx, but it has always seemed to me to be a pretty good basis on which to build a decent society.

We are all “called” to do something, and that something is our job. It’s how we put a roof over our head and food on the table. I hope that I’m not being naive and idealistic when I say that to do your job with a sense of selfless pride and vocation means you’re more likely to enjoy it. But in the end, in the words of Elton John's Rocket Man, ”It's just my job, five days a week"