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And Speaking of … Blue Hair, Tongue Rings, Tattos and Dress Codes

Posted: 03-11-2016

Earlier this year we received a CV with a photo on it from a highly experienced teacher in a learning area where we are often short of candidates. We checked her out with the most recent employer, who is a good client, and he had nothing but praise for her as a teacher and administrator. Eight months later she still is not employed. Our worst case scenario for qualified and experienced teachers with good references is usually 60 days from CV to employment. So what went wrong here?

In a nutshell, tattoos. She seems determined to display them liberally at every interview, and schools (being highly conservative places) try to look everywhere except the exposed body art – and then say “Thanks, but no,” despite the fact that she probably is the best candidate they have seen.

But. If the candidate chose to challenge the schools’ appointment of a less qualified less experienced candidate, is there any danger that she might succeed? Yes there is – if your Dress Code has not been updated recently.

The Dress Code lays out the standards of dress and personal presentation for employees. While it may need modification for some of the job descriptions, most teaching posts are fairly standard. But it does need to address body art (sometimes temporary), hair (the colours now available are … er … amazing), piercings and perhaps finger and toenails (one head objected to the length of the toenails of a teacher who played Springbok waterpolo. We wont tell you why the teacher grew the nails, or what the head said to him …) Things which ten years ago would never have been an issue, are today – and most of us need to update our Dress Codes.

The complications are endless. Would you accept a visible tattoo of the Mona Lisa but not a Chinese Dragon? Why? Would you accept a 63 year old teacher dying her hair to appear younger and then letting it grow out for six months – but not the art teacher who dyes her hair blue? Can an African teacher have dreadlocks, but not a Caucasian one? Can a black teacher use white dots on their face – but a white teacher can’t use smoky eye make-up? Tongue rings? And so I could go on. The rules you need are not going to make anyone happy, so get used to the idea that this will take some negotiation!

Last week a regular client saw a lady for a pre-school post. They phoned back positively shocked. She turned up with body art from head to foot (well, those parts they could see anyway, which of course left everyone wondering about what they could not see, which in any Gr 9-12 lesson means the entire period is lost completely!) and bright mauve hair which stood up on end like a … well I’m not allowed to say what it was like. I don’t know what she was thinking, but I do know what the school thought, I hear it when I try to sleep at night!

My own take on this is somewhat different. Tattoos are twenty-first century cultural currency, whether we conservatives like it or not. If the stats are correct, one in three pre-school parents either HAS a tattoo or would like to have one. When they see the preschool teacher HAS the tattoo there is a bond – “she understands us!” – no comparable bond would exist if the teacher looked like …. Well, to put it bluntly, you and me. Ditto in High School – the dahlings WANT a tattoo to prove they are not like their parents (half of them have one in places we are unlikely to find – at least, I hope ….) When they see the teacher HAS a tattoo oh my, they understand me … and some of the latest research says that the bond between the teacher and the learner is THE most crucial in the serious business of learning. Sad about you and me, we are old fashioned and past it. Sorry for you – but we are.

If I were head of a school now I would go through the Dress Code with the Board, the Teachers, the Parents, and (if it was a school offering gr 9-12) the learners before I made any final decisions. I actually don’t think I would like what was in that code at the end of the process. Any more than I liked it in my first year of teaching when the Deputy Head told me that my (lovely!) dress had insufficient covering on the shoulders. They weren’t spaghetti straps (unknown!!) – the straps were 30cms wide at least!

“Old fashioned nonsense!” I said, and I was right.

But so was the Deputy Head.

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