The Inkredibles

4th May 2007 at 01:00
Love them or hate them - should teachers have tattoos? Nick Morrison reports

David Beckham, George V, Winston Churchill's mother, Popeye and Helen Mirren: they may seem unlikely bedfellows, but they are yoked together in a way only lasers could tear asunder. While tattoos were once largely the preserve of sea salts and criminals, their popularity with celebrities has helped them become increasingly acceptable to the mainstream.

An estimated one in six adult Americans has a tattoo, while in the UK that figure is one in five, rising to two in five among 25 to 34-year-olds, according to a survey. But are there any risks for teachers in sporting visible body art? Could one person's mark of individuality be another's bad example?

Jon Treby (left) got his first tattoo, a heart on his left arm, when he was 21 and newly-graduated from university, and his latest, a dragon, just a few weeks ago. He now has seven on his arms and ankles.

"I thought about it for a long time before I got the first one, and after that it just kind of grew," says Jon, 30, a maths teacher at the City of Norwich School, an 11-18 comprehensive. His tattoos are discreet enough for him to have been able to cover them up at job interviews, although one is just visible if he wears a short-sleeved shirt.

"I would not go out of my way to show them off but I'm not particularly worried if someone catches a glimpse. Most people are surprised, but everyone at school has been OK. The children say, 'Did it hurt?' and 'Would you have it removed?' They seem to like them but I don't think they think I'm cool because I've got tattoos."

He says while some tattoos may be unsuitable for teachers, the fact a teacher has them should not affect their job chances. "It has nothing to do with me as a teacher and it shouldn't really matter. There is no reason why you can't be a teacher and do your job well because you have got a tattoo."

But while Jon says his school is relaxed about his body art, not every teacher feels the same. Sarah - not her real name - was reluctant to reveal hers to colleagues or pupils at her school, a primary in South-west England.

It helps that they are on her arm, hip and ankle and are easily covered. It was only during last summer that anyone noticed. Earlier this year, she got one on the back of her neck, although this is hidden unless she ties her hair up. "I love my tattoos, but they're for me and I don't think it would be appreciated if I showed them off," says Sarah, 37.

She has kept them hidden for job interviews - she wouldn't want to think it was the reason she had been turned down - and says she would be more embarrassed than upset if asked to make sure they were not visible at school. "You dress a certain way for work and I have always done that, but in my own time I do what I want. Where you work is only a small part of your life. I did think carefully when I got them because I didn't want to be defined by them," she adds.

Guy Broster, 33, got his first tattoo to relieve the boredom of living in Bosnia, where he worked as a computer programmer for Nato. He is now in the second year of a two-year PGCE at Liverpool John Moores University and keeps his jacket on whenever he meets a head or head of department for the first time so they can't see the dragon on his right arm.

"First impressions count and unfortunately some people still see tattoos as unprofessional, even though it doesn't affect your ability to do the job,"

he says. In the classroom, however, he is happy to let the children see it and says it has led to discussions about the dangers of going to backstreet tattoo artists, as well as whether it hurts. "It humanises you, which I think is a good thing," he adds.

Had he not started training to be an IT teacher, he says he would have got a full-sleeve tattoo on his left arm. "Lots of people have tattoos now and in 20 years all the headteachers will have one, but at the moment you never know who is going to be interviewing you. You don't want them to think you are too different."

Ruby Clogg (right) has been volunteering in schools and in September starts her Graduate Teacher Programme at Henry Mellish School, an 11-16 comprehensive in Nottingham. She has tattoos on her wrists (left), arms, chest, back and behind her ears, and says she has not had any adverse reactions from teachers.

"I have always covered them up until I found out the school's policy. In my last school, it was quite hot and the head said as long as I made an effort to cover most of them, the odd one wasn't going to make any difference,"

says Ruby, 29. "I know some schools have different policies and I respect that."

She says she was horrified by some of the hostility towards tattoos shown on a recent discussion on The TES online staffroom ( "I thought teachers were supposed to be open-minded. I appreciate it is a profession and some people don't like them, and if I'm asked to cover them I would keep them covered. But I'm the same person with or without them and it's good for the children to see diversity."

When children have seen them, she says the reaction has been generally positive. "Some of the parents have tattoos, and I get children coming to talk to me about mine. They're usually interested, although some of them say, 'That is rank, Miss'."


The answer seems to be that it depends.

John Hopkins, head of Gwernyfed High School in Brecon, Powys, says teachers should be setting a good example and this doesn't include visible tattoos.

"If teachers have got tattoos I would expect they would normally be hidden.

If it was visible, it probably would predispose me against somebody at interview. It would suggest they didn't understand the ethos of the school," he says. "It possibly wouldn't be a good thing if parents said the teachers were showing it was acceptable for the pupils to have tattoos done."

Jane Lees, head of Hindley Community High near Wigan, takes a different view. She says a visible tattoo would be irrelevant to her decision whether to appoint or promote staff, unless the tattoo itself was offensive or was particularly prominent, such as on the forehead. "We expect professional dress and most tattoos would be covered by professional dress. But if they have the skills for the job, it wouldn't be an issue if they had a tattoo,"

she says.

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