I grew my first beard aged 19 and was really stupidly proud of it, in a month I spent with some nuns in what these days might be called my “gap year.” The sisters’ reactions were varied: for some it was a real curiosity, having seen men with beards and men without but not a man actually starting one off; for one Dominican sister it was nothing she hadn’t seen before, and she would advise on itchiness, shampoo &c. quite happily. As a woman who had served in the WRNS, she explained, she had “seen plenty of boys [ouch] try out a first beard.” I shaved it off when I got to University: other students used to ask me things like where the library was and I would tie myself in knots trying not to admit I was as lost as they were. But this was where I learned something about beards: they make you look like you know stuff. The history of beards suggests that they are markers of sagacity, in the west, certainly – but also of scruffiness and a lack of care. A wobbly history of disputed masculinities in the West? The attitudes change, of course (this is a great digested read, which points out great beards of the past as well as work-place “clean shave policies;” Margaret Thatcher was apparently deeply opposed to beards); it’s really quite an ephemeral thing.
It is clear that some school managers feel strongly that children have naturally fewer rights around what they wear, how they behave, and that these codes will reflect issues of belonging and compliance to a degree that means non-compliance is bad behaviour. Teachers will likewise dress “appropriately” or “professionally,” and while I would often advise trainees about to enter a placement in a general way, and sometimes have had to discuss dress codes with individual students (never a happy conversation), dress as a teacher has always been something I’ve found hard to grasp. Early Years men, unless they are in an institution that has a uniform, can be a bit torn. I was asked to wear a suit when teaching in Reception – but at the other end of the spectrum also not to wear shorts in one nursery. For women, shorts and the dread “strappy tops” seem to constitute some kind of marker in the same way. Shoulders are “inappropriate;” knees too. Jeans? Someone ( a resolute chino wearer) recently suggested I was “bold” to wear jeans in Higher Ed. Sandals? Is a bow-tie appropriate or comic? Kilt? Gown? There seems to be no simple way to manage these routes to appearing like a professional.
Tattoos. The recent fashion for body art has reached employed and employable people in new ways over the last maybe ten or so years and teachers are sometimes asked not to show theirs. The Vox Pops (or should that be Voces Pops?) here in the Guardian give a good idea of the pros and cons from school leaders. I had an ear pierced as a trainee teacher (my first headteacher asked me not to wear a ring in my ear to church on Sundays); I had three ravens (from Thomas Ravenscroft’s song) tattoed on my shoulder a few years ago, in my late fifties. I’m not hiding them; they are where I wanted them – occasionally on show, and something I can see and smile at. They are there rather than my forehead because I don’t think my forehead would look very nice with a circular tattoo. But of course this is where the trouble lies: what is “nice,” or “appropriate” or “professional”? Fashions change, attitudes to fashion change, how fashions mark professions or “class” (or lack of these) change. Maybe, too, the placing and reason for the tattoo matter: a wedding ring finger tattoo is approved of, where a heart and anchor and “Mother” might not be. But an arm tattoo is OK as long as you keep it covered? What about the educator with a usually covered tattoo who wears a short-sleeved shirt that reveals it? Dress codes are subtler than they first appear, and context is everything.
And so at length to professionalism. NQTs or about-to-be-NQTs are concerned about this (I remember a poolside conversation on this in Greece [the marvellous Pension George, actually – but is this product placement?] once with three young people just about to start their NQT jobs), and while I can understand the punctuality and dress professionally stuff, of course I can, all I think I’m really saying is that there are ways of expressing authority and professional attitudes that go beyond outward markers. We might consider what they are. They probably need to be embedded in teacher training: the outwards signs of professionalism may change (hence the previous paragraphs) but the need to appear a member of a caring and well-educated profession sees to me to be a fixed point.
Planning is a good marker, and all those pedagogic behaviours sort of go without saying, although adjusting to different schools’ ways of and attitudes to planning/record keeping can be a shock for an NQT – or indeed for anyone moving school. The subtler things like how to sound professional face to face and in terms of address are not as hard as they look: a bit of distance but coupled with a warm greeting will top off the ways in which you convey your knowledge. Does it need a tie? Know the children, be clear about what the school has planned, be able to pull out the big words and big ideas when necessary – and be ready to talk plain and simple teaching-and-learning without waffle. This is basic.
But the ground is shifting. Sod the beard. the suit, the tattoo and all that stuff: how many followers have I got? Social media seduces us – me – into thinking that professional status is akin to celebrity.
A very thoughtful blog post came my way at the start of the month. Thoughtful, but painful, Twitter’s @MrHill34 is bemoaning how much of the inimical and confrontational material on social media “exhausts the energy needed to develop some meaningful actions/solutions to such issues. We solve nothing this way. All we do is hang our professional dirty linen up to dry within a giant online echo chamber.” Great image.
It seems to me that we are in a time of such flux that Headteachers can go public with their political views, and when soi-disant leaders on Twitter can use all sorts of wolf-pack strategies and bullying that (one would hope) they would crack down on in the school they teach in (of course some don’t teach in schools, but that’s a distraction). I would join him in my disquiet about pontificating (knowing I am guilty of it) and the ways in which seniors in the profession – or at least self-professed leaders – bully, mock and indulge in name-calling without regard for the standards of the profession they aspire to influence. This can’t be the message we give to new teachers: shout as loudly as you can, be abrasive to people you will in all probability never meet, as long as you score the point or look brilliant on Twitter, or get your name in the paper.
There is a sense – and maybe it’s the uncertainty of the times that encourages it – that what we really need is coherence, compliance. Put-up-and-shut-up is part and parcel of the rise of the guru: not listening is endemic in our politicians. And when we don’t get the compliance we want (I think that emphasis is important), we are entitled (somehow) to mirror the name-calling of our most infamous of current world leaders. We look far worse on social media than we do with a bit of scruff as the beard grows in, or with that tattoo about love that shows when you roll your sleeve up. What this snarling does, of course, is to make us all look incompetent, losing our way, a squabbling bunch of people arguing about their seats in the lifeboat. And that’s not professional.
Perhaps we should look at a different model of human interaction here. One that is fashioned around respect as well as passionately held beliefs, one that is founded on a genuine regard for others rather than point-scoring, one where arguments about behaviour are not a reductio ad absurdum, where phonics is not an excuse for ad hominem snapping. My school is better than your school? My pedagogy is better than yours? Really? We cannot have a system that is genuinely compassionate (and that can mean high standards for the marginalised just as much as it can an understanding of the out-of-school lives of the disruptive: I’m not making a point here) without this sense of respect for one another as colleagues, a real attempt to see what is at the heart of the educational project for these people who so readily object to others or do them down.
As Sue Cowley has said on Twitter:
I yearn to see more coverage of HTs quietly doing good, inclusive things in their schools without feeling a need to generate headlines or talk negatively about the work of their colleagues…