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Teachers, Tattoos & Working Class Culture

October 13, 2016


I recently read that 1/3 of Americans have ink. I'm unsure as to what percentage of Brits have tattoos, but it's certainly getting to the point that, if you want to rebel, staying tattoo free will soon be a rebellious non-conformist statement. Lots of us have tattoos. The old stereotypes of sailors, bikers and convicts being the sole owners of skin art is a dying misconception. 


Yet, some industries maintain a mindset that feels extremely 20th century in an increasingly inked world. The first I noticed to relent was retail. Probably inspired by David Beckham and other tattooed fashion icons, in a bid to appear "cool", Topman employees with back combed hair, skinny jeans and obligatory sleeve tattoos seemed to emerge from the woodwork about ten years ago. 


Next I saw the service industry follow suit. When I was a waiter, about five or six years ago, tattoos were to be covered at all times. I assumed that this was in case people were somehow put off their food by the servers choice in body decoration - slightly offensive, but rules are rules. This has certainly changed since. I'm frequently served by baristas, waiters and bartenders with visible tattoos. I even know a few coppers now, working in the Met and City of London police with visible tattoos. If the old Bill are getting inked, is that not the most obvious sign that the "criminal" image of tattoo owners is relegated to the pages of history?


One by one, many industries and organisations are relenting and, in that very English way, being forced by to join in with the 21st century with all of its scary post-modern, metrosexual ways.


However, amidst this cultural landslide of changing opinion, teaching remains one of the professions that does not, on the whole, permit tattoos to be visible in the workplace. Every school has its own uniform policy and codes of conduct, and no two schools are the same. But as somebody who has worked in and with many school and socialise with a disturbing amount of teachers, I have found that the tattoo is banned and forced to be hidden below sweaty long sleeve shirts in schools across the country. 


First and foremost I have to say, this is no criticism of any one school. A school, no matter how liberal the governors or leadership may be, can not control the wider culture and attitudes of the country.  This is more an observation of the general attitude present in British culture and British schools towards tattoos and how I personally think that this is at best outdated and at worst at odds with the ethos we are supposed to promote in schools today.


So, why no tattoos? A reason frequently given is that school teachers are professionals and need to remain professional at all time. They need to act professionally and of course present themselves in a professional manner. I actually agree with all of this. Teachers frequently deal with parents and other professionals and would be expected to conduct themselves in a responsible and businesslike way. I just do not see how a tattoo affects this. 


As educators we are constantly being reminded to teach children about "British Values".  OFSTED describes these as democracy, the rule of law, mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith and finally respect of individual liberty.


It could be strongly argued that self expression, through a piercing or a tattoo is an expression of individual liberty. We teach children to express themselves constantly, and rightly so, yet we do an awful lot to avoid them setting eyes upon somebody who might actually be expressing themselves in this one very specific way.


We celebrate all different faiths, beliefs and cultural traditions in our schools. And rightly so, the best way to combat racism and xenophobia in schools is to expose children to adults of various cultures and backgrounds. Hijabs, turbans and other forms of religious and cultural dress/ statements are welcomed and protected. To deny a teacher the right to express their cultural identity at work would be criminal! And yet teachers are not allowed to express themselves culturally through tattoos and piercings. Why?


Here's my theory. Tattoos and piercings, although becoming increasingly mainstream, still scream "working class". The working class have been demonised and punished by the popular press for so long now, that it is somehow wrong for the traditionally middle class profession of teachers to appear too working class. We have done much to combat xenophobia and racism in our schools and it's a battle that won't be won overnight, but what are we doing to combat classism? We are supposed to model high aspirations to our pupils (this is one of the standards a teacher had to meet to qualify). But if our image has too stronger link to working class culture, be it a nose piercing or a forearm tattoo, it drags our image down to the dirty working classes and somehow means that we have lower aspirations for ourselves and therefore the children. I have previously heard of teachers being pulled up for their strong Essex accent in a similar way ( I am not talking about poor spoken grammar here, it is possible, contrary to popular belief, to speak properly with an Essex accent.) This is outrageous. Why must we continuously associate all signs of working class culture with low achievement? ... Didn't a tattooed bloke landed a probe on a comet a couple of years ago?


It's fine for coffee shop workers, clothes outlet workers, waiters, artists, builders and burger flippers to be covered in tattoos from head to toe. And why? Because these are traditionally working class professions. But working class teachers have to seemingly divorce themselves or at least hide any signs of their social class, so that they can fit in with a middle class profession.


These kids may have parents covered in tats and piercings. They certainly have parents with regional accents. As a profession do we not have to consider which is more powerful? We can show them that to be professional means to look and sound different to their parents, that they must aspire to be better than them in order to succeed and that to excel they may have to turn their back on where they come from. Or we can show them that people just like they and their parents can be professional, that no barrier should exist to them be they black, white, religious, atheistic, bearded, clean shaven, dreadlocked, bald, southern, northern and yes tattooed or as fresh skinned as the day they were born. 


Obviously though, as with all of these sorts of things, tattoos and need to be taken on a case by case basis. Common sense has to be taken into account. I believe the police, although they allow tattoos within their ranks, have strict policies on what is considered appropriate for a public facing job. "Hello class, I'm Mr C.Manson, I'll be your new music teacher!" Exclaims the young teacher with a swastika etched between his eyebrows. This is not something I'm promoting here!


I guess, as a tattooed teacher, I'm slightly biased. What are your thoughts?


- Jacques

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