What do you do for a living?

By | 4 March 2010

Ah, there’s the rub.
Some occupations are worth choosing for their kudos value in conversations with strangers. “Rocket scientist” has a nice ring to it; instant respect; what enormous brains you must have. And these days, “footballer’s wife” has potential; what big – no, let’s not go there.
The rocket scientist may have the sneaky advantage of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing, like the really fast cars which don’t look brassy and obvious, but zoom past surprising you.  Exciting when they do.
But how many teachers thwart or deflect enquiry with a not-quite-straight-forward answer? I know one who swore that saying he taught physics just ruined his holidays: strangers would then launch into diatribes about their own dismal days with dire physics teachers boring them to death.
So he told everyone he was a scientist working for the gas board. Actually, I think he could well have stopped with “scientist” and skipped the gas board bit. “Scientist” is fascinating and mysterious enough for most casual enquiries.
Oh, the possibilities – neuroscientist, astrophysicist?
Just being a common or garden scientist is a step up from ordinary mortal-dom, even if the speaker’s degree was a poor third from a less than top flight university. “A scientist” has achieved so much in their field, he or she has become part of the small, select army of “ists”.
As it happens, the “ists” in any staffroom are quite a diverse group, including the artist and the classicist. Oh, especially the classicist; I’ve always thought they verge dangerously on the elitist, too. They know, understand and can do things which mere mortals simply cannot comprehend. Like rocket scientists, but deep in history rather than the future.
Historians bring us to the other handy sub-group for teachers who would rather not own up: the “ns” – historian, mathematician, musician.
Both historians and mathematicians – and probably a lot of the “ists” as well – are surely often asked: “Oh, so what do you do?” There is something about the statement of “ist”-ness or “n”-ness which presumes that you must be capable of many things, that many worlds are open to you, including saving the one we live in. “How exciting! How interesting! Tell me more!”
Sadly, this is a rare response to admitting to spending one’s life teaching. So who can blame those who could spend a lifetime in the classroom and would still rather define themselves – in the thumb-nail sketch demanded by casual acquaintances – by the subject they studied for three years when they were still wet behind the ears?
It is a sad indictment of our lives and times that such a truthful answer is almost reluctantly given and perceived as giving us low status, making us less interesting, less useful, yeah yeah, whatever.
The world has tried to change this, with jobs for advanced skills teachers, and awards like Oscars to celebrate excellence in the classroom. But you can hardly say, “I’m an advanced skills teacher” – can you? It would be like saying, “I’m a really good accountant”. Silly.
But why do we have so little pride in the job, pride in what we do, pride in what we achieve by, with or from all those pupils whose lives we touch? Without us, in the classroom on a daily basis, actually doing the job we chose or which chose us, the next generation of “ists” and “ns” and “ers” (lawyers and footballers) and “ants” (accountants) and even “kers” (don’t go there) would not reach their own dizzy heights.
So where do I fit in to this pattern of “ists” and “ns”, sounding cool and suave and proud and mysterious and interesting? I have two degrees in English literature, and tried to teach the joys of our language and literature to as many children as would listen for 25 years. I never found it possible to recast my qualifications into an “ist” or an “n”. So when anyone asked who I was and what did I do, I only had one answer: I am Hilary Moriarty, and I am a teacher.
Originally written for SecEd and published at http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/cgi-bin/go.pl/article/article.html?uid=46870;type_uid=7

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