Teaching as Vocation: Answering the Call
God has called many of us to serve His people as teachers. But are enough of God’s people willing to answer the call? When God called Moses from within a burning bush, Moses replied, “Here I am” (Exodus 3:4 NIV). After God revealed the Israelites’ great need for a leader, God convinced Moses, despite much protest, to follow the call and lead His people. In much the same way, though often less dramatically, God has called many of us to serve His people as teachers. But are enough of God’s people willing to answer the call?
Teacher Supply: A National and Synodical Problem
It will likely surprise no one involved in education to hear that we are currently experiencing a teacher shortage in the United States (Garcia & Weiss, 2019). Many factors contribute to this growing problem. Teacher attrition and increased retirements contribute to a decreasing supply of teachers that cannot keep up with the demand. Decreasing enrollment in teacher education programs exacerbates the problem. In fact, “Since 2010, enrollment in teacher preparation programs nationwide has declined by more than one-third” (Camera, 2019, para. 8). Given these circumstances, the problem is likely to get far worse before it gets any better.
Our Lutheran school system is not immune to national trends. Synodical statistics show that many potential, qualified teachers are not currently serving in Lutheran schools. According to the LCMS 2019–2020 Statistical Analysis, of the 21,655 educators in the database, only 26 percent (5,647) are rostered, active workers. Matthew Bergholt, Manager of Online Support and Services for LCMS School Ministry stated, “While this is not a definitive statistical point related to a teacher shortage, it reflects changes that our schools have seen when it comes to who they have filled open positions with.” This report also showed an increase in emeritus workers every year since 2013–2014, with nearly a 40 percent increase in retirements over this time period. Note: This includes all Commissioned church workers, the majority of whom would be teachers (Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 2020).
The average number of
call-eligible education candidates from the Concordia University System (CUS) is 114….Requests for new church workers average about 500 annually. Over the past five academic years, the average number of call-eligible education candidates from the Concordia University System (CUS) is 114, with the lowest number occurring in 2019–2020 (92) and the highest in 2017–2018 (134). Requests for new church workers average about 500 annually, approximately 475 of which are requests for teachers (Concordia University System, 2021). Despite the demand for synodically trained teachers in our Lutheran schools across the country, a significant number of graduates do not start their teaching career in a Lutheran setting. Bill Schranz, Director of Education and Synodical Careers, Colloquy Director at Concordia University, Nebraska, noted that “even though almost 100 percent of these projected candidates get jobs right out of college, only 60–65 percent actually accept a call.” While statistics were not available for where the other 35–40 percent of candidates took positions, it seems clear that a lack of available openings in Lutheran schools was not the cause.
Understanding the Solution
The teacher shortage in the nation and the LCMS is a complex problem. Often, well-intentioned advocates for Lutheran education will propose that our Concordia system needs to produce more teachers, congregations need to pay better salaries, or tuition needs to be reduced (or financial assistance increased). Certainly any of these ideas could contribute positively toward encouraging young people to consider Lutheran education, but none of them alone will solve the problem.
So what is the solution? The challenges of Lutheran schools and the reasons we are experiencing a shortage of teachers may be easy to identify. Rather than lamenting the shortage by focusing on problems, perhaps we should explore the motivation of those who have decided to go into Lutheran teaching despite the many challenges. Why did they decide to become Lutheran school teachers? By understanding this, maybe we can find ways to unlock that same motivation in other potential teachers.
Why I Want to be a Lutheran School Teacher
In my role at Concordia University, Ann Arbor (CUAA), I have the great privilege of working with young people who want to become teachers. Their level of commitment, maturity, determination, and desire to make a difference in the lives of young people and families is truly an inspiration. Our nation needs more passionate, inspired, and skilled young people to enter the teaching profession to impact the next generation. And our church needs more of those same young people serving in our Lutheran schools.
In an attempt to gain insight into the journey of some of these young people, I interviewed five Lutheran teacher candidates (three elementary, two secondary) at CUAA. This was a random, convenience sample, so the results cannot be generalized to the larger population of teacher education candidates at CUAA or in the Concordia University System (CUS). However, their responses shed some light and provide food for thought regarding the future of Lutheran education.
Four of the five candidates interviewed indicated that they had wanted to be a teacher from a very young age. One stated that she had wanted to be a teacher “since I was old enough to understand the idea of a job.” Although the source of inspiration varied, ideas of being a teacher were “planted” in them at a young age. It would seem, then, that to inspire future teachers, we may need to reach them early.
Not surprisingly, without exception the interviewees were inspired by teachers. Not surprisingly, without exception the interviewees were inspired by teachers. In some cases, they shared experiences of amazing teachers who were able to create that “Aha” moment of learning. Experiencing that as a student can create the desire to want to be the one who delivers that special moment to others. Several also had relatives—grandparents, parents, aunts, or uncles—who were teachers and provided a strong role model. For example, one candidate often sat in on classes her mother taught at a junior college. Her mom would often ask her for ideas on how to better engage the students, so even as an elementary student, this future teacher was starting to think like a teacher.
In making a decision to go into Lutheran education, the CUS played a specific role for several of the teacher candidates. One discussed how her most influential high school teachers “all went to a Concordia University.” The influence from teachers, however, was not limited to Lutheran teachers. One candidate discussed how her public elementary school teachers always treated her like she was “really special.” Interestingly, this same teacher candidate actually described a couple of ineffective teachers as a source of inspiration. “There was a certain math teacher who seemed like she didn’t care,” she shared. That experience made her realize how a teacher can make a student feel. This future teacher wants to be sure that she never makes her students feel what she has felt.
The Money Issue
Compensation can be a major influencer in a young person’s career path. All of the interviewees recognize that their Lutheran school teacher pay will likely be below what they could make in another profession or even in a public school setting. Their attitudes about finances in their career and adult life included “not really concerned about it,” “a little bit concerning, especially with student loans,” “it’s not what’s important,” and “I’ve given it to God; I’m confident He’s called me and will take care of it.” All were aware of but unhindered by potential financial challenges.
While the most prominent negative influence discussed was money, it was not the future teacher’s concern about money, but rather money concerns presented by other people. Peers often discourage their career choice, saying, “You’re not going to make any money.” High school counselors, teachers, parents, and friends’ parents, who are also teachers, have explicitly encouraged them not to go into teaching because of the pay. Two of the interviewees specifically mentioned adult influencers who stated that they should do something other than teaching because they are “smart,” implying that choosing education as a career path was somehow settling for something less than the realization of their full potential. Despite these influences and their own concerns, these future teachers have pushed money down on their personal and professional priority list.
Without exception, these future teachers indicated that their motivation to become a Lutheran teacher was strongly influenced by their own faith and their desire to share it with others. Their faith is not just an important component in their lives, but it is essential to who they are. “I don’t want to suppress who I am. I want to live out Christ in me in my teaching,” stated one teacher candidate. Others expressed the importance of being able to pray for and with their future students. As many of them were inspired by their own teachers, they want to be a faithful inspiration to their future students, creating relationships that transcend a typical student-teacher relationship.
Recruitment Ideas from Future Teachers
At the conclusion of the interview, I asked the interviewees to share their own ideas about how we could recruit more capable young people into the teaching ministry. Below are several of their ideas:
- Elevate the profession. Teachers are important influencers, impacting their students’ lives here and for eternity. Young people who are deciding their future vocation and who may be gifted as teachers, need encouragement from those who are in the teaching ministry.
- Consider public school graduates. Several interviewees did not attend Lutheran schools, and they felt like that put them in the minority in their undergraduate cohorts. However, their field experiences in Lutheran schools opened their eyes to ministry opportunities. We need to let all of the young people in our congregation know that Lutheran ministry vocations are an option.
- Provide financial assistance. Even though money issues were not of primary importance for these future teachers, surely there are many gifted young people who have chosen a different career path because of money. We need to support them to remove, or at least minimize, this barrier.
What Can We Do?
What if every person reading this took the time to identify one young person who may have the gifts and talents to be a future teacher?What if every person reading this took the time to identify one young person who may have the gifts and talents to be a future teacher (or pastor, DCE, etc.)? What if we took the time to acknowledge their gifts and to share our thoughts about their potential? What if we prayed for God to work in their hearts and to inspire them to serve Him in their future vocation? Certainly not every one of them would become a church worker (nor is that the goal), but if we take God at His word, He surely will respond to our request for these “good gifts” (Matt. 7:11 NIV).
- Can you identify any young persons who may possess the gifts of a teacher? How can you encourage them to determine God’s will for their future vocation?
- How can congregations or districts provide (or increase) financial assistance for future church workers?
- How could we better support Lutheran teachers, especially those who are new to the ministry, with managing their financial resources? Could we provide financial coaching or other support systems?
We can promote the idea of vocation, especially in our own students and others we lead and mentor. Veith (2002) said, “Vocation is in the here and now” (p. 49). We can instill in our students the need to work hard and study, not just to get a good grade, but because in doing so, they serve God in the now, as well as in the opportunities He will provide them in their future vocations. We can help our students understand that they are called to their vocation. They do not get to choose. It is God’s will that directs them to the ways in which they can serve Him best (Veith, 2002). And we most definitely can provide examples of the fulfillment we have from living out our own calling and vocation in service to Christ. We must prepare them so that when God calls, they have a ready reply: “Here I am.”
Our students and our future teachers deserve no less.
Kyle Chuhran currently serves as Associate Professor of Education and the Elementary/Early Childhood Education Coordinator at Concordia University, Ann Arbor. He received a B.A. in Education (Music and English) from CUAA, an M.S. in Education Administration from Concordia University, Wisconsin, and an Ed.D. in Instructional Leadership from Concordia University, Portland. He resides in Lathrup Village, Mich. with his wife Cheryl, who is also a Lutheran educator. They are proud parents of four adult children and have been blessed with three grandchildren.
Camera, L. (2019). Sharp nationwide enrollment drop in teacher prep programs cause for alarm. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/education-news/articles/2019-12-03/sharp-nationwide-enrollment-drop-in-teacher-prep-programs-cause-for-alarm
Concordia University System (2021). 2020-21 Projected Candidates and Comparison of Projected Synodical Graduates (data documents).
Garcia, E. and Weiss, E. (2019). The teacher shortage is real, large and growing, and worse than we thought. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/education-news/articles/2019-12-03/sharp-nationwide-enrollment-drop-in-teacher-prep-programs-cause-for-alarm
Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (2020). LCMS Statistical Report 2020.
New International Version Bible (1984). The Zondervan Corporation (Original work published 1973).
Veith, G.E. (2002). God at work: Your Christian vocation in all of life. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
“Moses and the Burning Bush” by Gebhard Fugel, c.1920, Wikimedia Commons. Photos © iStock/bonnie jacobs; fstop123
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