Teachers told off for having curly hair...or being ill

When Emma Kell asked teachers about being reprimanded by school leaders, the examples they gave were eyebrow-raising

Teachers have been told off by senior leaders for laughing and leaving Blu-tack showing on wall displays, writes Emma Kell

I used to hate being in trouble when I was a pupil. I still remember the hot sting of shame and would go out of my way to avoid putting my head above the parapet. 

In the past few years, I’ve been chastised in schools more than I ever was as a child, from literal finger-wagging at my choice of outfit to an entirely unambiguous: “I hope we don’t have to have this conversation again because there will be consequences.” 

I don’t actively seek to rock the boat – really, I don’t. But with age seems to have come an increased tendency to over-exert my spontaneity, to act on initiative without seeking the right permissions first and to proudly sport the lime-green 1970s disco trousers that made me cheerful.

Also with age has come a new realisation: that, as long as I haven’t actively hurt anyone, I actually don’t mind, and wear my zany badge with not a little pride.

In preparation for my previous article, about Sheila, the teacher who is constantly in trouble, I asked real teachers to give me examples of being in trouble with colleagues or bosses at work. The responses were truly staggering, triggering howls of laughter and, at one point, actual tears of rage at the sheer inhumanity that is possible in schools. 

Sartorial advice for women teachers

A rather disturbingly dominant theme is the one of female staff being chastised for their appearance. Now, I’m all for challenging a visible G-string or two (yes, I have had to do this as a manager), but for self-expression to be so widely slammed down is hard to stomach. Here are just a few of the comments I received…

  • "No trousers allowed. When this person attended an interview in trousers, she was asked if she was a “secret feminist”. She assured them that it was no secret…"
  • "Curly hair not being as “professional” as straight hair."
  • "Wearing red high heels in a Catholic school."
  • "My colleague and I (both in our 20s) were told that our trousers were too fitted and that we should change our style and wear loose ones."
  • "Back in my early career, I was pulled up for my use of black eyeliner by the head. Apparently not appropriate for blondes. I have seen the light since and dark brown is now the weapon of choice."
  • "My headteacher found out I was thinking of getting an eyebrow piercing – I was taken into her office and told that would not be happening. I am now a headteacher myself – just got my nose pierced and have pink hair."
  • "I used to be a size 6-8 in clothing. Got told I was 'too shapely' to wear dresses. Advice: 'Go and buy some clothes that are too big for you.'"
  • "Swishing my ponytail aggressively."

The ridiculously petty

  • "I once chastised a member of my staff for sneaking open a tub of Celebrations in the staff room, rooting through and pocketing ALL the Maltesers before anyone else arrived. Totally justified, right?" 
  • "A headteacher I worked for liked all the staples running in the same direction. I had to take down my first Christmas display and re-staple it, watched over by the headteacher and deputy."
  • "Some years ago, my head of faculty disciplined me for sending my apologies for missing a faculty meeting. Why did I miss the meeting? I was running the dress rehearsal of the school production." 
  • "Having a substandard Christmas tree."
  • "Not going to the staffroom often enough was quite a common one. One teacher had on her appraisal targets to 'eat lunch with others more often'."
  • "In my PGCE year, I was told off for not eating lunch with the English department, because I was eating lunch with the drama department instead." 
  • "Laughing too loudly in the staffroom"
  • "I was told off for 'sitting in the wrong place in the staffroom'. Apparently only senior leaders sat near the kettle."
  • "Swearing in my garden. A pupil was passing by on a Saturday afternoon and heard me cursing the barbecue."
  • "My practical music lessons were too noisy. Much too 'musicky music' going on in the music room. I handled it very professionally, by laughing out loud."
  • "Told off for putting work up on the window into the corridor in a way that meant the Blu-tack showed. I had to exactly align another piece of work on the outside so the Blu-tack didn't show. The chair of governors took me aside to explain how important this was."

The borderline unhinged

  • "A friend was once sworn at and had a shovel thrown at them by the headteacher, because the headteacher thought they hadn’t got out to the car park quick enough to help clear the snow."
  • "A colleague had a bin thrown at her by her head of department, in front of the rest of the team. When she asked her (politely) not to do it, head of department waited for us all to leave and screamed and then shouted at her for undermining her in front of her team."

The downright inhumane

  • "We all got told off for not showing more Dunkirk spirit (and following police advice) for not driving to school in heavy snow. School had to be closed: our fault, apparently."
  • "I had a personal home visit from my headteacher following a spell in hospital. She asked if I could please make sure I apologised to the staff on my return for the inconvenience they had incurred as a result of my absence."
  • "I was asked to apologise to staff for the inconvenience incurred by my having been on paternity leave."


Of course, sometimes we have to suck up a telling off and it’s fair enough. But goodness, if schools spent a bit less energy infantilising their staff and a bit more actually making sure they felt valued, we might have far fewer problems in schools today.

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching

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