My Last Two Jobs

My last job before this one in Shanghai was bartender. I worked in a very busy London bar, which this time last year started to approach critical mass as the days got darker and colder, obviously requiring more beer. It was great work, and I miss it (except for the night bus commute).

Approaching six months in China, I’m thinking more about the similar skills one needs to be a bartender and a teacher. To be either is relatively easy, but to be a truly great one is very hard.

First, you have to be prepared to sweat. You will burn more calories behind a bar (and especially in the cellar) than in any office job. Teaching is physical work, too. Some teachers sit down a lot during class. Lame! I bounce around, spin in place, pretend to sleep on the floor, put chairs on my head…I dance, sing, and act all at once. A teaching triple threat.

Another similarity is here: bartenders and teachers both have to put on a certain stage presence. There is a definite demarcation between ‘backstage’ and front of house in both positions. Kitchen and teacher’s room? Swears, copious caffeinated beverages, and quick changes of clothing.

The skill of setting boundaries, and following through on them with consequences, is key to teaching. It’s key to bartending.

‘What can I get you, ma’am?’

‘Ggginnn. And tonic. Slim tonic.’

‘Single or double?’

‘Double or nothing!!’

Maybe serve, anticipating the need to cut her off next time before she climbs onto a table. In the classroom, anticipation of bad behaviour goes a long way. I have to know what four year olds’ tells are for naughtiness, just as I had to know the common signs of over-drunkeness in the bar. Incidentally, in both cases people think they can get away with a lot more than they can. Everyone sees you picking your nose. Everyone. In the classroom or the bar. And yes, this happens every single day in both. People forget that the bartender and teacher has eyes!

Bizarrely, art skills are key to both jobs. Good handwriting is key for signs and menus. The ability to write on a board is up there. Witty ways to get attention are every day, every hour skills in bars and classrooms. Less known skills, like how to wipe a toilet seat covered in pee without touching anything germy (four year olds and drunks both miss the mark consistently!), come up and get honed through daily practice.

Perhaps the closest resemblance? Sidework. For every hour you put on the ‘show,’ you’ll spend another hour folding napkins, organising flash cards, polishing silverware, marking tests, or kicking the dishwasher/printer/laminator while swearing under your breath. The sidework is the real work, and you’ll stuff your face during breaks while trying to get it all done as a teacher or a bartender.

At at the end of the shift, you’ll be craving a cold one and covered in ink, chalk, germs, food, and general mess. A full-blown, Ebola-level hand scrub will be necessary. Two repetitions of Happy Birthday To You, with soap and hot water. Your feet will ache, and you’ll have another long day to come. ‘Clopen’ shifts where you have less than twelve hours to go home and sleep are common for both.

And if you aren’t careful as either a bartender or a teacher, someone might puke on the floor at the end of the night.

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