Q: I realize that in the grand scheme of things this is a small problem, but why does everyone think it’s OK to make snarky or exaggerated comments when they hear I teach in a middle school? They’ll either say, “I could never do that,” or “You must be a saint,” or “Oh my God, that must be the job from hell.” They often chase those comments with more specific negative statements about middle schoolers being evil or horrible. I’ve never heard someone say to a dentist, “I couldn’t poke at gums all day, yuck,” or tell an orthopedist, “Ewwww, do you actually LIKE setting bones?” I happen to love what I do, and I love middle schoolers, and I find these comments really, really annoying. They are so off-base and make me feel defensive. Any ideas for how to handle these people? Even the people who know it’s flat-out rude to insult someone’s profession seem to have a blind spot when it comes to middle-school educators. I don’t get it.
A: As someone who loves and works with middle schoolers, too, I couldn’t pass up your question.
You may find these people less annoying if you understand the psychology behind their behavior. Keep in mind that they actually experienced middle school themselves, and they may remember it as an intense time, full of heightened emotions and tremendous changes in every realm, from the physical to the social to the intellectual. We’re all wired to remember the negative, so even if a woman had a generally happy middle-school experience, she’s going to vividly recall that one time a kid called her a bulldozer when she was 14. Even a secure adult man might meet you and suddenly recall that time two boys tied his shoes together and he tripped down the bus aisle.
In other words, the mere mention of your profession may be triggering them. It doesn’t really have anything to do with your job, or with you personally. I’d do your best to summon some empathy. You can even try pretending you’re talking to a middle schooler! There are other options, too. You can resolve to shrug it off and let it go. You can redirect the conversation and ask them about their own middle school experience, or talk about their profession, or shift the conversation to something else entirely. If you’re motivated, you can try to explain why you like the developmental phase — and perhaps even shatter some misconceptions about the age group. You might feel less defensive if you have a “ready-to-share” anecdote about a time a student was particularly altruistic or empathetic, or an interesting factoid about a middle schooler doing something good in the world.
I wouldn’t go on the offensive or shame them for making the comment. It’s unlikely to tamp down your irritation or change their behavior. Plus, they’re not trying to be inflammatory or unkind. For better and for worse, these people talk to you about your job differently because they view your job differently. In that moment, they’re identifying with you. They feel an immediate connection and desire to unload. If it makes you feel any better, it could be worse. Chances are there are plenty of others who feel tempted to say something negative, but resist the urge.
Here’s the good news. Unlike a middle schooler, you’re old enough to know who you are and why you do what you do. You have perspective. And these people are probably right — they likely couldn’t do what you do. Consider it a point of pride.
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