They can label you from a mile off

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Do your clothes betray you? Do you have the knack of clearing a room at a social occasion with just one sentence? Kevin Berry laments the fact that teachers can be rather dull

There is a question I used to dread being asked. Always at social occasions someone would enquire, in a booming voice: "What do you do?" Which was quickly followed by: "Oh, and what do you teach?"

Kids. What else?

I spent 20 years learning how to answer the first question without opening myself up to the second. Teaching was enjoyable but it was also tough and I needed a break from it. I craved stimulating adult conversation.

Telling people what you do can have embarrassing consequences. A neighbour who is a famed writer was told by Noel Coward never to reveal his profession: "Because dear boy, you are sure to meet an unpublished poet who wants your opinion of his turgid verse. He will have it about his person and you will feel forced to read it."

Revealing what you do is certain to get you involved with someone who is suing a school, or wants to be a school governor and introduce regular thrashings. Or someone who is deeply disappointed with the school leaver he has taken on. "Eight grade B's and he gets on the wrong bus!"

Getting involved in such conversations can backfire. Whatever you say, even in jest, can come back to haunt you. Your advice will be sought as to which is the best school in the neighbourhood, or in Bristol or Bishop Auckland, even if you live a hundred miles from there. You are a teacher, therefore you should know.

Don't fib. Admit what you do and move briskly on. Enquire how your new acquaintance knows your hosts. Where does he live? and so on. You could, of course, turn the tables and ask what he does.I witnessed an earnest teacher empty a room of hitherto happy adults. He answered the first question and then proceeded to relate, to everyone within earshot and with sickening enthusiasm, how he had worked out a new timetable for his science department. He had had to shuffle the demands of physics, chemistry, fitting in three part-time teachers and changing exam boards.

Colour drained from people's faces. The man who had asked that first question apologised to his hosts and left. The teacher carried on and on and on... I grabbed my wife by the hand and made for the door. That house emptied faster than the prison camp in The Great Escape.

A neighbour who was head of the largest comprehensive for miles around enjoyed coming to my house for our New Year's day brunch. But he always checked where the teachers were. "They're in the lounge, on the left," I would say. "Thanks. I'll turn right and head out to the conservatory," he would say, with a conspiratorial grin.

Teachers talk shop when they're socialising because they have so little contact with adults in their job. A few snatched minutes during morning break, 10 minutes at lunchtime - it isn't much. It's hurried and intense, as if everyone is conscious that the bell is about to ring. And it's invariably to do with school.

Teachers even dress similarly. Study your colleagues. Go down to your teachers' centre when the retired teachers are in for their afternoon tea.

They're still teachers. It is as if they're wearing uniforms. I had cause to be grateful to an assistant in a large Leeds department store. I had asked for a sports jacket, three buttons and double vents, and trousers to go with it. I did use the word flannels, which rather dates me.

"I know just what you need Sir", he said. "We get a lot of your sort at this time of the year."

It was the autumn half-term. Sort?

"Yes, you're a teacher."

My wardrobe changed overnight, though I never did work out the significance of that time of the year. I took to wearing the clothes of a war correspondent, which was appropriate for the school where I was teaching.

Did you know that most teachers read the Guardian during the week and the Sunday Telegraph for "balance"? It's true, many a newsagent has mentioned this.

Other adults turn to teachers when there are lots of children to deal with.

Take the case of poor Cynthia. She goes on annual family holidays to the Isle of Wight with her brothers and sisters and their offspring. Guess who gets to babysit the children and any friends they might make? Correct! Why does she get to babysit ? Because she's a teacher. She looks like a teacher, she talks like a teacher. Cynthia knows the words and actions to Bananas in Pyjamas.

People are surprised to discover that my friend Windle is a teacher. It usually takes six months before they realise. Windle loves his job but he rarely mentions school. Windle is a fascinating man. Windle will live long and happily.

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