• Paula Turcotte

I am not my job

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

“What do you do?”

You know the drill. You’re at a bar, or awkwardly being introduced to your parents’ friends, or even chatting with strangers at the dog park. After their name, the question is often the second thing out of your new acquaintance’s mouth. 

Before I go any further, I should specify that I’m completely complicit in the “What-do-you-do?” cult, but only because I haven’t yet come up with a better conversation starter. Sometimes, I’ve tried “would-you-rathers” (Would you rather never be able to use a knife or never be able to use a spoon? Would you rather go deep sea diving or go to Mars?) but it turns out that not everybody appreciates my particular brand of weird. I might still venture there if you’ve laughed at my off-colour jokes or if you aren’t my new boyfriend’s parents, but otherwise I’m still left in the job-question rut.

I’ll confess now that a large part of the reason I’m so irked by this convention is that I’m a middle school teacher. Unlike, say, software development or consulting or designing tiny clothing for bearded dragons, pretty much everybody has extensive firsthand experience with the inside of a classroom. Hence, the field of education possesses the (fairly) unique quality that almost everybody has some opinion on how it should be conducted and delivered. When people hear that I teach Grade 8, they tend to do one of two things:

  1. Immediately relay that they were a nightmare at the age of 13, so I must have the patience of a saint (I do, but I’m also not sure how to respond to this), or

  2. Launch into a diatribe about what was wrong with their own education, or what is wrong with the current education system, as if I am directly responsible for these offences

I wish I was kidding -- I nearly had to pick my jaw up off the floor.

Earlier this year, I met an older baby boomer at a friend’s birthday party. Upon hearing that I teach social studies, he said, and I quote: “Well, I damn well hope you’re teaching them IMPARTIALLY. Kids need to learn to think for themselves and not be brainwashed by their liberal teachers.”

I wish I was kidding -- I nearly had to pick my jaw up off the floor. My friend hastily pretended to see someone else he wanted to introduce me to and dragged me away as I was retrieving my phone to start referencing the Alberta Program of Studies while I chewed this gentleman out. 

I’m hoping you can see why I might be somewhat reticent to answer the question, “What do you do?” Although my profession requires, at minimum, a specialized bachelor’s degree (and many teachers, including myself, hold multiple degrees), it feels that confidence levels from the general public are at an all-time low. Without knowing me, or ever having stepped foot in my classroom, everyone and their mom has an opinion on how I’m failing the next generation. 

Anyone who knows me will vouch that I’m truly terrible at remembering people’s jobs which is, I think, not a coincidence. I’ve only just begun to realize that this subconscious manifestation is intertwined with my newfound annoyance surrounding The Question. However, I can absolutely tell you someone’s dog’s name or what flavour of ice cream they ordered the last time I saw them. I can tell you where they last went on vacation and the name of their favourite winery. I can probably tell you about the cousin they dislike or who’s on their latest Spotify playlist. Certainly I won’t claim that this means I know someone better than one who can detail the minutiae of their job - but one tree does not make a forest.

Perhaps what I’m railing against here isn’t the desire to know what someone does for a living so much as our societal failing to see people as more than their utility. 

In discussion with non-teacher friends, others express similar sentiments about this seemingly innocent question, for various reasons. So often, we are reduced to what we do from 9 to 5 (or, let’s face it, 8 to 7--we are millennials, after all). If you really want to know me, you should know how seriously I take my coffee. You should know that I’m happiest on my bike, or camping far out of cell-service range, or reading almost anything. You should know that cooking (and eating what I cook) is my stress relief. You should know that therapy changed my life, and let me tell you why it will change yours too. Sure, teaching is an important part of who I am. But if the connection stops there, you haven’t really scratched the surface.

Sadly, this essay doesn’t end with a five-step plan in which I will tell you how to begin replacing “What do you do?” in your conversational lexicon. It’s so deeply ingrained in all of us that the thought of a week without this question is, if I’m being honest, slightly jarring. Of course, I understand the ostensible purposes of the question: finding common ground, forming a general picture of someone in your mind, even just filling a silence. Perhaps what I’m railing against here isn’t the desire to know what someone does for a living so much as our societal failing to see people as more than their utility. 

It feels right to recognize here that the privilege I hold is innately tied up in my exasperation. It is thanks to second-wave feminism that career paths for women are no longer limited to teacher, nurse, or homemaker. However, I was born to parents who told me I could do anything and had the financial means to back up that statement when I wanted to complete six years of university. For so many women, reality dictates otherwise, due to systemic racism in job-hiring practices, unequal pay for equal work, or a variety of other sometimes insurmountable obstacles. For every woman with supportive maternity leave, there is another somewhere who has been asked in a job interview if she’s thinking of having children any time soon. I think, though, that this makes my point all the more imperative. I see a necessary continued shift in attitudes toward capitalistic practices to reflect the reality of women’s lived experiences. To me, this includes a more holistic view of women’s identity - beyond just our kids (or lack thereof), our partner (or lack thereof), and how we pay our bills. 

Mostly, reader, I hope that next time you start to ask “What do you do?” that this may give you a bit of pause. I wonder how we, as women especially, can branch out and come to give each other those opportunities to be real(er). Because yes--I’m a woman; I’m a teacher; I’m a professional. But I am not my job. And I’m proud of it.

Paula Turcotte

Paula Turcotte was born and raised in Calgary and received her B.Ed. from the University of Alberta. She has self-published a book of poetry and spends most of her weekends on a bike, in a tent, on cross-country skis, or hanging out with her dog. She makes a mean chocolate chip cookie.

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