If I stopped teaching, I worry people would think less of me

The question You said in a previous column that “a person is not their job”, which really resonated with me, 因为 why do we define people by what they do? I’m wondering whether this is limiting my life. Whenever we meet someone, the small talk inevitably turns to “And what do you do?” For now, I am ready for that question. 我是老师.

Although there is satisfaction from the work there is also the mental load of overseeing not only the education of pupils, but increasingly their welfare, and I struggle to juggle responsibilities of family and work. I regularly think about packing it in for something that does not take up so much headspace. Being a teacher is how I have defined myself for 20 年. How could I square it with myself, if I had to describe myself with a non-professional job? I can’t imagine saying “I stack shelves” or “I work in doggy daycare.” When I try to discuss it with my dad, he says he would be “disappointed because I like telling people you are a teacher”.

I know I have asked my own children about what they would like to do when they are grown up and maybe I’ve unintentionally shown more approval when they lean towards something professional, but I now realise that all I want is for them to be happy. 所以, how do I find the courage to just be me, without a label? And how do I instil this into my daughters?

Philippa’s answer 所以, if I understand the question, the problem is not who you are with yourself – you’d be happy working as a dog walker or stacking shelves – it is how you identify yourself to others and the weighty problem of your dad’s supply of small talk.

I’m imagining you working at the supermarket, taking on colleagues’ problems. Or at doggy daycare worrying about a dog’s fleas that his owners don’t seem interested in. I can guess, 换句话说, you will be taking your work home, whatever it was, because you care, it’s what you’re like. I’m guessing you have a capacity to take on problems – probably quite efficiently – and that if you empty your head of some of them, you’d find others to fill up that headspace. We get into these habits that take awareness and willpower to shift.

现在, you could stay in a profession that does afford you satisfaction, but learn how to be boundaried with yourself so you bring less of the headspace aspects of it home. But perhaps you are more fed up with it than that, and the only thing stopping you leaving is what other people might think.

You say you can’t leave your job because your dad’s small talk would run dry. That is the best non-reason I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard a lot). Thinking about you chatting with your dad about the possibility of changing jobs is making me smile. I think this is probably because, whatever your mental load, you also have a sense of fun.

In terms of how others may see you, I reckon you get invited out a lot because people want you around as you are delightful and not because you are a professional person. If you really want a less responsible job, sure give up the teaching, you’ve done your time and duty, you can have a new adventure. Your experience and work to date will not be wasted – it has made you what you are today. It can still inform your small talk.

Small talk is big talk in disguise. When we ask about the weather or what someone’s work is, what we are really saying is, “I’m friendly, are you friendly?” or “Can I get on with you?” but it’s too weird to say that, so “What do you do?” remains our stock phrase. And it’s not what we say in reply that matters – and I cannot stress this enough – but how we say it. I can imagine you at a party in a year’s time when you have given up teaching, being asked what you do and you replying something like, “I have the best job in the world. I’ve bought a jet washer and spend my days making people’s patios as good as new. It’s so satisfying, the only trouble is the work experience boy I’ve got working with me for a week is terribly unhappy as he is going through his first romantic breakup, I’m very worried about him…”

I wonder how many of us are doing responsible, professional jobs when we’d rather be, 说, taking people’s dogs for walkies. Not for financial reasons, but just because we worry what new people will think when we define ourselves in social situations.

Remember small talk is the big question of “Are you friendly, can I get on with you?” and all you have to be is friendly when you reply. If you get really stuck, you can go, “You first…” If they tell you they are a teacher and are getting bogged down with all the changing rules and requirements, I’m sure you’ll be very simpatico.

And how can you teach your own children to be happy? You can’t. But if you accept them and their ideas as they are, you will be helping to instil confidence and a capacity for happiness. 然而, if your attitude is more: I’ll accept you only if you are working towards a recognised, respectable profession and achieve that, 出色地, maybe that might compromise their capacity for joy and I think you suspect as much.

If you have a question, send a brief email to askphilippa@observer.co.uk

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