"So, what do you do?" "I'm a teacher." "Oh," said with slightly disappointed tone. "Little ones?" "Nope. Secondary, 11-18 years of age."
"Oh. Never mind."
Since when was teaching regarded as a profession to be pitied? At least since 1999, when the University of Warwick established that teachers in England were less content than any other profession.
Could this be because we feel devalued? Suddenly, in the "knowledge society", we are all "professionals" - from window cleaners to footballers.
In its statement of professional values and practice for teachers, the General Teaching Council for England describes teaching as "one of the most demanding and rewarding professions". Certainly, after Year 13, period eight on Fridays, I'd agree with the "demanding" part.
The statement goes on to assert that teachers have "met a common professional standard". Yet how can this be, when we have no common unified body to represent us? And when teachers in the independent sector are allowed to practice with no formal training?
Certainly, the media do not regard us as professionals - merely punch bags to be periodically vilified. We seem to bear the brunt of politicians'
blame for falling standards, and for all society's associated ills.
Government publications favour the view of us as "competent craftspeople"
whose skills can be reduced to discrete and finite lists of skills and practices. But "competent" is too inadequate a word to sum up what we do, and this description makes me feel like a tool, an automaton delivering the curriculum without question, not a qualified professional with ideas.
Have we lost sight of what education is for? Surely it's not simply about reducing pupils to grades and levels to satisfy the media, politicians and the Institute of Directors. Tony Blair has said that what is needed is "a modern professional struture capable of achieving our goals". Yet I don't see any new thinking coming from government, just a rehashing of previous standards-driven policies.
Of the many problems facing education, the failings of teachers isn't one of them. Our lack of collectivism and the threats to our professionalism are. Where is our voice? The unions do not speak with a unified voice, and the GTC is ineffectual and unable to speak for teachers. I don't know what our education system should be like in 20 years' time, but I do want the opportunity to shape the debate. I certainly don't want the answer thrust upon me by those who see me as merely "competent".
We need to cut through politicians' rhetoric and really transform learning.
That means rejecting short-lived initiatives which focus on inputs and processes. Teachers need to be at the centre of that debate. It will require a huge shift and a re-definition of us as professionals. When change comes, will we be ready? It's time for our profession to speak up.
Julie Greenhough teaches English in a London secondary school