I recently heard a conversation on the BAM Radio Network entitled, “Teachers, Tattoos, Piercings and Provocative Dress: Fashion Anarchy vs Fashion Fascism?” As someone who has spent a large portion of her life as a non-conformist, I definitely connected with the topic. First, let me say that I believe that the way teachers dress for school sends a message to their students about how they feel about their students and how they feel about their job. I am NOT saying that teachers have to always look like they are heading to an important business meeting. Teachers need to be free to sit on the carpet, do an art project, monitor recess and walk around the classroom all day. However, we still need to keep in mind that what we wear does matter.
That said, I think I finally learned how to dress myself at age 22 when I started to realize that, as an adult, I was being judged and mistreated by other adults, who assumed that I was 16 (I look young for my age). Now, ageism could take up a different post entirely, but in a nutshell, I learned pretty quickly that what you wear matters. Even now that I know how to buy clothes that (mostly) fit me properly and shoes that match my outfits, I still have a number of tattoos on my arms and legs that, during the winter months, can be covered up by long sleeves, but in the warmer months are on display. I have often gotten looks from people who look at my tattoos and then look at me with this puzzled expression, saying, “They let you teach with those?”
Luckily, tattoos have a lost a lot of the stigma they once had. Still, these kinds of reactions are very common. But before I answer the question, let me back up a bit.
In high school, I was in National Honors Society almost every year, I had mostly A’s and some B’s on my reports cards (Except for Pre-Calculus, which kicked my butt. It was the only C I’d ever gotten.), I was yearbook editor-in-chief, I was in French Club, Art Club and I took part in 3 high school musicals (before they were cool). Needless to say, I was a pretty good student.
I also happened to have a bright pink, pixie-style hair cut, wore spikes and black eye makeup, wore clothes that I bought at rummage sales and wore nothing but sneakers and boots. From the outside, I looked like your average Goth/Metal/Punk kid. A misfit, if you will (a big wink to anyone who gets that joke). Anyone who didn’t know me would immediately judge me by my appearance. That judgement would stick until they actually had to interact with me and realized that I was a lot smarter than I looked. This trend continued when I entered Oberlin College, a place known for individuality and non-conformity. I went to school with some of the smartest, most passionate and engaging people I’d ever met. We may have looked like a bunch of crazy hippies, but we were smart, engaged, motivated and passionate students.
Oberlin, at the time, did not have a school of education, so I was not on a direct path to becoming a teacher. Though I did spend a large amount of time volunteering in classrooms, I did not spend four years thinking about what my classroom would look like or worrying about whether a school would hire me with tattoos, piercings and stretched earlobes. There are many teachers out there, like me, whose decisions earlier in life when their career path was either unclear or not clearly teaching, may have modified their bodies in some way. This does not make them unfit for the job. I would argue that there are more people turning to teaching as a second career than ever before. No one should have to change who they are and who’ve they’ve been just because they chose to change careers.
For most of my youth I was judged by how I dressed and how I looked. At the same time, once I opened my mouth, people were forced to change their perceptions. I keep this in mind when I am quick to judge young people, and I keep this in mind as an adult judging other adults. I will not pretend that I am free of stereotyping (is anyone?), but in the back of my mind I always remember that things are not always how they seem.
Which brings me back to the radio show.
I had the unique experience in high school of working four days a week in an office building, and after my freshman year of college I worked as a temp as a secretary for an HVAC company. I learned how to “code switch” my appearance when necessary (though my pink hair started to show through at my temp job as the black dye started to wash out). I learned early on the art of work clothes vs play clothes, though I’m sure that I was barely successful in pulling off “work clothes.”As a professional adult, I strike a balance between maintaining a professional appearance while also expressing my individuality. My experiences have shown me how important appearances are, but they have also shown me that it is important that professionals are able to maintain their individuality because, in the long run, what matters is how well you do your job. Honestly, if someone won’t hire me because of my tattoos, I probably don’t want to work there anyway. Instead of sending the message to our students that in order to be a professional you have to look a certain way or lose your individuality, we should be modeling for them how to do your job well, have a professional attitude and demeanor, dress the part and still be able to express your individuality.