Why is how you look still an issue in teaching?

Of all the things we have to worry about in education, why does what a teacher looks like still cause so much debate, asks Haili Hughes

Haili Hughes

teacher standards

I am a very tattooed person. I have peach hair. I wear clothing from the 1940s every day.  

Hunting for a job as a teacher can be a minefield. And I often meet colleagues who tell me I am “lucky” to be able to express myself in the schools I have worked in, like I should be grateful that they indulge my quirky presence. 

I don’t believe I should be valued only if I am ‘lucky’. And I don’t believe job hunting should be a minefield. I know I am an outstanding teacher – and schools would be lucky to have me. 

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But the notion that what I wear and what I look like matters persists. Why, in the 21st century, are schools still judging teachers on their style and not their substance?

Only days ago, I was offered an interview for a senior position in an up-and-coming school with an excellent reputation. Before I accepted the interview, I thought I would read the staff code of conduct, a hefty tome reminiscent of The Old Testament, with values to match. 

Rules for teachers

Inside this draconian handbook, it laid out detailed guidance on how staff should behave from the minute they arrive on the school premises, including instructions on upholding their professional values outside of school. This included regular spot checks of social media by SLT, to see that nothing inappropriate was being shared or posted.

A little Orwellian, I thought.

Some may say that this is pretty standard, but their section on dress codes, professing that staff must wear suits at all times and that members of SLT will decide on the suitability of outfits and may instruct staff to get changed, left me a little shocked. When did it become OK to infantilise staff like this? 

Professional standards?

I suppose it all comes down to that golden word that schools seem to love to spout: "professional". But who decides what looks professional? 

Of course, I am not going to come to school in what I would wear at the weekend, but the insistence on wearing suits every day doesn’t make me a better teacher. It is just all so corporate. 

We are not working in a Wall Street bank; our currency is young people’s futures and I don’t think turning schools into sterile environments where all staff look like personality-less robots is necessarily the answer.

My results and relationships with pupils mean I am a consummate professional – not my outfits or body art.

Lack of solidarity

What’s even more worrying to me is the attitude I have seen some colleagues have when it comes to appearance. One teacher on a social media platform stated that staff shouldn’t be allowed to have tattoos, fake nails or piercings as students may want to copy them and get some themselves. 

Now, it’s a long time since I have been a teenager but I certainly never had the compulsion to copy my teacher – “I really want to look like my teacher,” said no teenager ever. 

And yet what we do want is to have a number of different role models for children to look up to and for them to understand that society is diverse and richer for it. 

Role models

When I was a pupil, I would have loved to have had a role model like me, who proved the old adage: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” You can break the mould and not fit into a corporate box and still be successful. I think my three Masters degrees and current Doctoral study prove this. 

So let’s be sensible about this, shall we? Let’s put this one onto the scrapheap with learning styles, triple marking and doing things just for Ofsted. Let’s let teachers look how they feel most comfortable. 

We need to force the change. If you are a teacher reading this who has struggled to find a job due to not wanting to change your style, or you are currently feeling stifled in an infantilising school, there are other options out there. You don’t need to compromise who you are. Know your worth.

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Haili Hughes

Haili Hughes is an English teacher at Saddleworth School in Oldham, Greater Manchester. She tweets @HughesHaili

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