A man with a beard and a bee in his beanie-hat recently threatened legal action against a magazine. He claimed that it had not sought permission to use his image alongside an article explaining why non-conformist “hipsters” all ended up conforming and looking exactly the same as each other.
Turned out – you’ve guessed it – that the photo was of someone else with the same style of beard, hat and chequered flannel shirt. It was a rare case of mistaken self-identity. The man had unwittingly confirmed the very point that the piece was making about the so-called "hipster effect".
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The “hipster effect” is nothing new to teachers, of course. We are all familiar with students who rebel against school uniform in a uniform way, or who defy the school rules in the same regulated manner.
What is new, though, is that we now see this conformist, “hipster effect” taking over nearly all of us. As individual schools, academy chains and teachers, we may like to believe that we are carving our own niche, but surely the opposite is happening? The general picture is of an increasing number of us looking and sounding almost exactly the same.
Whenever you’re a bit bored and are looking to have a break from the marking pile, try visiting a few school websites at random. The chances are that you will have much the same experience wherever you click. Just about every website follows the same formulaic layout – school motto or mission statement along the top, then a beaming headteacher offering the same introductory mantra about how “inspiring”, “caring”, “safe” and “inclusive” a community it is there. Nothing wrong with a school having those values, but you would tend to assume that to be the case. I await the longed-for headteacher introduction simply saying it how it is: “We’re all doing the best we can here, but the bastards have made off with our money.”
But instead, a typical school website will simply go on to offer the now standard recipe: images of goggled students entranced by a science experiment, others busily writing in books, pictures of young performers on the school stage and sports field, a few pupils sitting and sharing a joke together on a sunlit bench, someone rock-climbing, a recent trip to Berlin, some suitable story about exam success.
The eternal loop
Go to another school and we find a similar degree of conformity wherever we go. Everyone and everything is on a loop, everywhere. The latest school promotional video will be on a loop in reception, everyone has their identification looped around their necks, we all have brief conversational loops as we busily pass each other in the corridor – no time to pause properly. (“How are you?”,”I’m good thanks, how are you?”, “I’m good thanks, how are you?”)
Many of us have, as with those so-called “hipsters”, even started looking the same – well, certainly in the case of the male staff. Any male teacher with vaguely thinning hair now seems compelled to reach for the razor and dispense completely with any lingering locks. Skinheads rule now. Gone is the creativity of all those personally-crafted comb-overs of old. There was a time when pupils were not allowed a skinhead haircut, but nearly half the male staff now sport one.
The good news, however, is that the next stage in “hipster effect” theory is that a crucial number in the group eventually start to rebel against the new conformity. Hipsters will start to shave off their beards, male teachers will stop shaving their heads, and schools will turn away from uniform corporate branding and all that goes with it. There will be a new age of wild and edgy school websites, male teachers with crazy, this-is-me hair and every school rediscovering its true soul. Well, maybe.
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire