5 Vows Every Teacher Should Make For The New Year

I love end of the year self-improvement articles – especially if they come in list form. Imagine my surprise when I found teaching advice that’s more than 100 years old, yet still pretty fresh as well as easy to listify.

Among the many wonders of the Internet is Project Gutenberg where you can download several lifetimes’ worth of free ebooks. Which is how I came to know Craftsmanship in Teaching by William C. Bagley, published in 1912.

Bagley was an elementary teacher before becoming a professor of education at the University of Illinois and later Teachers College at Columbia. 

Surely, I thought, this old book would be something to laugh at over a glass of champagne while I keep myself warm burning worksheets in my fireplace.

But I was wrong. This surprisingly modern read has quite a few insights for teachers and anyone involved in helping people.

There is one small annoyance: because it’s a product of its time, the book uses the male pronoun for every example. So yes, it’s a bit sexist.


Mr. Bagley – or as he was known to the ladies: Mr. Bagley

The first part of the book concerns itself with vows that Bagley encourages you to take. Bagley asks readers to commit to their work like they would if they were becoming a knight – by making vows.

Vow #1: Artistry do the work in the best possible manner without worrying about cost or reward

 “…it represents the essential attitude of the artist toward his work…to the true craftsman the work that he is doing must be the most important thing that can be done…[you will know] the joy of doing well the work that you know how to do.”

As Bagley elaborates, what he describes sounds a lot like falling in love and getting married:

“At first you will be fascinated by the novelty of your work. But that soon passes away. Then comes the struggle, – then comes the period, be it long or short, when you will work with your eyes upon the clock…Then will be the need for all the strength and all the energy that you can summon to your aid.”

He warns teachers that after three years, if you’re not past the clock-watching phase:

“then your doom is sealed.”


And then the spider clocks came for Ms. Smith

Vow #2: Craftsmanshiptake the role of an artisan seriously and continually improve

“If a human calling would win the world’s respect, it must first respect itself; and the more thoroughly it respects itself, the greater will be the measure of homage that the world accords it.”

He comments that true artisans only care about the opinion of other artisans and can tune out:

“the interference of laymen…[and] resent officious patronage and ‘fussy’ meddling.”

Finally, the true artisan fights for the betterment of all other artisans.

Does your teaching contract include swords? You might want to check

 Vow #3: Poverty genuine artists, poets, scientists and inventors don’t do their work for the money

Bagley saves his longest explanation for this vow, naturally. He doesn’t mean that teachers shouldn’t be paid a fair wage equal to those of similarly skilled professions (comparisons here), he’s saying that focusing on how much money teaching pays will take away your creativity.

“…who prostitutes his craft for the sake of worldly gain is quickly relegated to the oblivion that he deserves.”

Bagley warns that commercialization of art ruins it; therefore focusing on money not only ruins your personal artistry, but also ripples out and ruins society.

“Success at any price is the ideal that has been held up…and today we are reaping the rewards of this distorted and unjust view of life”


Which is also how the snakes and naked demons got here

Vow #4:  Serviceresponsibility for the growth of others

Bagley compares it to being a good parent where you see each child as unique:

“[this is when you begin] to find [yourself] in the work of teaching.”

He explains that when teachers drop their egos and a need to be liked, they begin to truly see and help the students in front of them:

“…the true test…is the degree in which [the teacher]…lives and toils and sacrifices for them just for the pure joy that it brings.”

Bagley promises that you will become immune to critics and as Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi’s research has found, you will enter a flow state, which is the secret to happiness (his excellent TED talk is here).

Bagley is also describing what research is discovering about the ability to be present and to be confident – less anxiety, less stress, better memory, more focus, less reactivity, more satisfaction in relationships, and more cognitive flexibility.
Frederick Dielman (American artist, 1847-1935) The Widow

Example of cognitive flexibility: cat collars

Vow #5: Truthstaying open minded and ready to admit when you’re wrong

“Science has triumphed over superstition and fraud and error. It is the teacher’s duty to see to it that this triumph is permanent, that mankind does not again fall back into the black pit of ignorance…”

Bagley warns that education is what stands between our civilization and “savagery” and therefore, teachers should be regarded as heroes in the classic sense of “one who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself”
He ends with the symbol of light:

“And so it is the teacher’s province to hold aloft the torch, to stand against the materialistic tendencies that would reduce all human standards to the common denominator of the dollar, to insist at all times and all places that this nation of ours was founded upon idealism, and that, whatever may be the prevailing tendencies of the time, its children shall still learn to live ‘among the sunlit peaks.”

What do you think?


Images credit:

Teachers College Record

Spider Scupture by Daniel Proulx

Oath of the Horatii, 1784 by Jacques-Louis David

“Avarice Lincoln Cathedral West” by Wikimedia Commons –

The Widow by Frederick Dielman


3 thoughts on “5 Vows Every Teacher Should Make For The New Year

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  1. Shanna, by the end I was standing in my living room, holding Bryn’s empty bottle as my torch and chanting, “Yes! Yes, I am a teacher! I can’t wait to get back in the classroom to encourage and guide!”

    Thanks for my personal pep rally!

  2. It strikes me that everything Mr. Bagley wrote also relates to a good newspaper reporter. Not the news business, which now focuses on making money as its primary goal rather than serving the public, but the individual people who write good stories, vivid stories, accurate stories. They too are artists who devote themselves to constantly improving their art and who certainly don’t devote themselves to that particular craft for the money. Good stuff, Shanna. Keep it up.

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