One of our content writers mulls over the conundrum, to what extent should your ‘school self’ be your true self?
It’s a truism that teaching involves a certain amount of acting; whether putting on a straight face or a stern one, sometimes disguising your true feelings is by far the best approach. But just how much should you sublimate the real you?
For me, this question has rarely been any more critical than how far I can bend the teacher dress code… Is a suit and trainer combination ever acceptable? Is there any theoretical evidence linking the choice of footwear to pedagogical outcomes? Maybe the rumpus occasioned by my once daring to bare my ankles is all the evidence required! Brown brogues don’t have that effect. Sensible shoes equal sensible students. Clothes-wise, best stick to muted tones of black, white, beige and grey. Safe. But seriously boring.
Of course, the classroom is not a catwalk. Just as student productivity routinely dips on non-uniform days, a teacher in flamboyantly provocative clothing is liable to distract from learning. Lady Gaga teaching Home Ec in her meat dress would be a sight to behold if not altogether practical or hygienic, but sartorial eccentricity in teaching staff doesn’t normally extend much beyond kitten heels for females or comedy ties for males. An appreciation of its purpose does not prevent me from feeling the pain of teenage pupils longing to flout the uniform policy and express a bit more individuality.
For some, however, the question of self is far more testing than whether to tint or bleach? It may have been repealed fifteen years ago but Section 28 still casts a shadow over the profession for the LGBT community. Is it ok to be “out”?
Legal acceptance is one thing but, as teachers of all creeds know, winning the acceptance of your pupils is quite another. One of my pre-school son’s favourite books right now is Tom McLaughlin’s Along Came a Different, in which different shapes of different colours are hostile to each other until they eventually learn that being different is in fact the best thing ever. Infants seem to be astonishingly accepting of diversity yet this tolerance often appears misplaced by the teenage years, almost as if the conformity of school trains them to hone in on the smallest little differences.
After discovering with some dismay that a Stonewall poster was far more scandalous and stimulating to a GCSE English class than anything myself or Shakespeare could muster, I feared for the new art teacher whose outré fashion sense made my conservative boundary-pushing pale by comparison. Naturally, pupils picked up on the exotic new lifeform walking among us and whispers about his sexuality mingled with homophobic slurs in a schoolyard where staff were constantly battling non-metropolitan attitudes.
Brilliantly, his uncompromising La Cage aux Folles attitude of “I am what I am” meant that without ever actually having to confirm or deny his own persuasion, he acted as a role model for all pupils who felt uncomfortable in the straight (in all senses of the word) identity that had hitherto been dictated by the dominant culture of their classmates. Five years on, he could come to school in a habit or a hijab and people probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid. What’s more, because somebody with a strong character dared to show it off, it’s now mundanely acceptable for me to go sockless on hot summer days!
It is undoubtedly good practice to celebrate your own quirks and idiosyncrasies, although it hopefully goes without saying that not every sordid detail of your existence is classroom-friendly. The standard social media etiquette of not sharing anything you wouldn’t want your grandma to know is probably as good a yardstick to go by as any. If necessary, give them the outline and let them colour it in with their imaginations.
Life is a kaleidoscope of colourful characters and varied cultures. Closeted teenagers with narrow lived experiences are not always as wise to this as they could be, so presenting them with a sepia snapshot of yourself is ultimately only short-changing them as well as you.