Professional boundaries… where does it all end?

I was reading a newspaper article recently that reported the dismissal of an air steward because his body weight ‘had become disproportionate to his height’ – in other words – he was obese.

I’ve never heard of a teacher being dismissed for ‘obesity’ but I guess it begs the question: is there a point at which some personal issue in our lives – our weight for example – might have a bearing on our professional position?

It is of course conceivable that becoming obese might inhibit us from carrying out the roles and responsibilities of our job – if I were PE teacher for example – where the physical demands of the job are particularly acute – or a nursery teacher, where my responsibility to quickly evacuate young children from a building in an emergency would be crucial.

Is there a point (and where is it?) that others might legitimately question confidence in my ability to do my job effectively – like the employers of the hapless airline steward  did?

And where does all this stop? What about other personal issues?

I met a student recently doing a maths degree at a top university who wanted to go on to train as a teacher. She was bright, articulate, sociable, worldly and wanted to work in an inner-city school – she was gold dust for the teaching profession.

She also had body piercings in her nose, lips and ears and tattoos covering her neck and arms.

Does it matter?  It certainly wouldn’t stop her becoming an excellent maths teacher if she had the aptitude and talent.

But is there a point at which others, parents for example, might not want their children taught by such a person?  Are there issues for her colleagues too?  Do either of them have a right to say so?

And what if you are a chain-smoking teacher? Is that the business of anyone else but you and your tobacconist?

I was at school in the 1970’s. In those days, staff room doors opened and clouds of cigarette smoke billowed out. I don’t remember thinking any the worse of my teachers for their chain smoking habits – as some of them clearly had.

These ‘boundaries’ between our personal and professional lives… where do they end?

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17 thoughts on “Professional boundaries… where does it all end?

  1. Excellent post but I guess the question comes down to how much we believe children are capable of their own thoughts and won’t be swayed to actions based solely on someone they look up to (which is what children tend to do). I don’t doubt that people with tattoos up and down their arms could also be good role models, but it wouldn’t be too much to ask for them to cover it up in front of children as they are easily swayed by someone they admire, and if this person they admire has tattoos up and down their arm, perhaps they will be more inclined to get them themselves and not on their own accord. The same is to be said for people who do not take care of themselves and are obese. These are the same teachers teaching health class; why would any child listen to someone who doesn’t practice what they preach? If a teacher I looked up to and loved with all my heart was telling me to exercise but clearly didn’t model it themselves and suffered from obesity, I might not be so inclined to go out for a run. But the same is to be said by teachers who model healthy behaviours and keep their look professional. Children would quickly respond to that and want to emulate what they see. My mother can still remember the one teacher who, by being so kind and affectionate to everyone and encouraging students to be accepting of all people of all nationalities, changed her into the kind woman she is today. It is through that positive role modeling that students pick up their own habits and behaviours.

    1. Thanks Claudia. You’ve made a lot of considered and thoughtful comments there which I’m sure your fellow teachers will find interesting and useful to reflect on. It’s an interesting thought you have given us – do the outward signs of a teacher’s appearance have a bearing on the way we might respond to them? and is that a ‘legitimate’ bearing? Do teachers have a right to say: “This is me… take me as you find me… tattoos and all”? Do pupils, students and parents have a right to say to a teacher: “Your tattoos offend me, please cover them up?” It’s interesting stuff and I really appreciate your response – thanks.

    2. Hi Claudia, I think you raise some really important and interesting issues. I completely agree that teachers are important role models for their pupils, but I don’t think that means that pupils will necessarily emulate their behaviour. If a health or physcial education teacher is overweight or obese, I still think that he or she can be an effective teacher and even a good role model. I had an overweight teacher whose energy and enthusiasm made her one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. She was also a coach. We all recognized that she was overweight, but it didn’t affect her ability to be a wonderful teacher. That’s not to say that a teacher’s image doesn’t have an effect on pupils; however, I think that if a teacher has a good rapport with his/her students and creates a positive learning environment that the teacher will be able to inspire pupils and be a positive role model.

  2. I totally disagree with Claudia. I do not think it would be appropriate to ask a teacher or expect a teacher to cover up their tattoos in front of children in order to prevent a possible negative? influence on them. A teacher, like Claire mentioned that creates a positive learning environment, engages students and facilitates learning is what is important. Specifically, in regard to tattoos, the legal age to get a tattoo is 18 and by the time a student reaches that age, they are capable of using their own judgement and personal motivations that would incline them to do so. Furthermore, I am surprised that in this day in age, people are putting “limits” on what would be acceptable it terms of physical attributes to be a teacher. There are many non-physical characteristics some teachers exhibit that have students, parents, administrators and colleagues feel offended or uncomfortable. Teachers that are egocentric or narcissistic, those that are ignorant or not empathetic, those that don’t recognize the inherent teaching opportunity for the teacher that has tattoos. Someone needs to wonder what to do about these teachers and these problems not whether a teacher has tattoos or is overweight. I think your mother’s teacher had it right Claudia, “be accepting of all people.”

    1. Thanks for that Shauna. So, in your view, is there no limit in what a teacher can do to him or herself? and still retain your confidence? For example, a discreet tattoo on the shoulder or ankle is one thing. Are you still ok with a teacher who has tattoos all over from head to foot? Or body piercings on the nose, lips, ears & eyebrows? Just trying to see where all our boundary limits are – if at all. Interesting stuff. Thanks.

  3. This is definitely a topic I feel passionate about. I am a teacher, and work diligently to kept at the forefront of teaching practice and the use of technology to enhance student achievement and engagement. I believe in kids and I believe in working hard to educate them and engage them. That being said, I have eight earrings, 4 per ear, and tattoos up both arms in complete sleeves. I have a back tattoo in the planning and the images of my children are in consideration for two portraits on my sides. Prior to my first teaching interview, I removed 8 of my earrings – 4 from each ear – I had 8 per ear prior to my interview. Realizing that the teaching profession was rather conservative in nature (although not believing it myself), I removed 4 earrings from each ear to establish the “acceptable” image required for the interview . I did not remove them all as I have to be true to myself and be comfortable with who I am. Removing all of my earrings would eliminate my identity and my comfort with myself. So, I came up with a happy medium to remove half of my earrings per ear for the interview. That being said, I also cut my hair as I had a length to my waist line prior to interview. I knew that this, too, may be seen as negative by some and cut it to a much shorter length to fit the “norm” that I knew was expected. I did not agree with the change yet knew it was necessary to make the hire. Being comfortable with oneself also means understanding the expectation of the culture of which you are a part. I appreciate and love tattoos and piercings, yet understand that our culture does not necessarily see it that same way as a whole. When young, I may have countered the system with a “us versus them” mentality, but as an adult, a deeper understanding of the system and how to work within it is much mire powerful.

    Flash forward 6 years, and I can tell you in retrospect that I encountered a progressive principal and he was more interested in my portfolio and teaching ideas than he was my appearance. He will admit to this day that the earrings threw him off but he was more interested in what I could do for kids than what I had in my ears. Judging a person by the length of their hair or the metal in their ears or the ink on their arms is no different than judging them for the colour of their skin or shape of their eyes. The goal of all teachers is student engagement and achievement – appearance and lifestyle is irrelevant. Will some people look at me negatively? Sure. Will they be limiting the scope of their child’s education as result? Definitely. I have 2 undergraduate degrees, a Master’s degree, and a Bachelor of education. I have presented at many regionally conferences and will present tat the ISTE conference in Philadelphia in the summer of 2011. I am a qualified teacher and work hard to bright rh most relevant and innovative curriculum top students every month of every year.

    In the early years of my teaching practice, I wore long sleeved shirts to work. Students saw the peak of my tattoos while I wrote on the board and asked my regularly if I “had” to cover them up. I always told them that I didn’t have to, and I didn’t, as telling me to cover them would certainly result in a discrimination claim. I also tell them, however, that it is important to understand that some people do not understand or appreciate the differences of others and that sometimes we have to cover up to be accepted. It is terrible that we have to draw attention to that fact, but we all know it to be a certainty.

    Individuality has always come at a price.

    I can honestly say, that no parent has looked at me as if I am deficient in the teaching of their child. Parents want to know that their child is well taken care of.Often, the conservative nature of the p[profession is more than the issue of the shareholders themselves.

    1. Aaron, thanks for that excellent post. You cover a lot of ground there which I am sure will be food for thought for a lot of people. You give us the fascinating example of times when you have covered up your tattoos as a way of avoiding controversy. You are clearly a very tolerant person and have a very good understanding of other people’s sensitivities (and even prejudices) – which in my view is an excellent thing in a teacher. I am sure you would therefore be as tolerant and understanding of a teacher who was teaching your child.

      But here’s one more scenario for you to consider, or rather two. First, let’s say a female teacher colleague for example, liked wearing revealing and ‘skimpy’ tops and short skirts in the summer time when it was hot. This attracted the attention of students and parents alike, both approving and disapproving. You are the headteacher or principal of the school. Do you say anything?

      Secondly, your child’s new teacher is a devout Muslim who chooses to cover her body from head to toe including her face (though not her eyes). What’s your take on that?

      You don’t have to post an answer to these if you don’t want to – as you can see – I’m just pushing the ‘hypotheticals’ a little further and hopefully it stimulates even more thought and discussion. But thanks for your response and I’m really glad you found the original question interesting.

  4. I’m a secondary teacher in my 3rd year of teaching. When I went into teaching I had one tattoo now upto 5 of which in the summer months at least 3 are on constant display. Like the previous comments I ensure they are covered up for professional meetings and interviews but feel this is also a large part of my identification.
    I’m also in the current process of growing dreadlocks and radically changed my appearance by cutting all my hair off to begin the process of not having chemically treated hair.
    This has been well received by the kids I teach, and haven’t had any of the assumptions or rude comments I was possibly expecting at the start of the process.I believe I’ve acted more so as a role model for young people because I represent individuality, and I send out the message that it is OK to be professional but not necessarily conform.
    The scenario of dress code, in my opinion does come down to professionalism I wear, bright colours skirts and dress not dressing like any other teachers but I ensure the appropriate bits are covered up as I’m fully aware of the attention attracted and its a choice and selection I make each morning. Tattoos are permanent and hopefully made with wise decisions. My visible tattoos are ‘liberate our minds by any means necessary’ which reflects my passion for education and teaching and a band that represents love, life and loyalty. If students ask about them I am able to express the choices I made, and make them reconsider rushing into getting one without any thought.

  5. As a tattooed and pierced teacher I believe that professionalism is more how you behave than what you look like. For the most part my tattoos are covered during work but that is more by coincidence. I don’t make a conscious decision to cover them and the kids see me out of school as well so it makes no real difference if I do (most of them are on my arms, the others remain covered in most situations anyway).

    I know from talking to the kids and their parents that basically, they don’t care what I look like. What they care about, as far as appearance is concerned, is not having butt and cleavage showing, something I personally wouldn’t do anyway. But what they care about most is that I work my heart out for the kids in my care. I have a large pile of cards from students and parents that proves that to me.

    I suspect, like Gadget, my tattoos are often an advantage in my teaching, particularly when working with disaffected students who may connect with me in a way they do not with other adults in their lives. The majority of kids don’t even mention my tattoos. Those that do ask normal questions, get an honest answer and we move on. Many kids have come to me to ask about their own piercings and tattoo desires when they wouldn’t go to other people. I know that I have prevented a few bad infections or regretted ink. We do our children a disservice by assuming they cannot be engaged in honest and open discussion about such things.

    Not only that but do our students not deserve to be taught by a profession that represents the broad and wonderfully diverse societies in which we live and work? How can we honestly teach children to not discriminate when we are happy to discriminate against others ourselves?

    Health issues are perhaps a different matter than simple appearance though. As employers, and co-workers or friends, we have a duty to promote and support staff wellbeing. As far as issues like obesity are concerned, shouldn’t we be supporting teachers to try and live a healthier life rather than making judgements? Here in Sweden teachers, well most workers, are entitled to a state benefit that can be used towards preventative health care and wellbeing, such as gym memberships. In our school we even have a weekly staff PE session (at the request of, and organised by, the teachers). There have been schools I have worked in back in the UK that have given staff gym memberships and one INSET even involved massages for all staff. Surely that has got to be a better way than just dismissing what may be a truly inspirational teacher?

    1. Thanks for that lunatikscience – it’s such a well argued and measured response to a difficult topic, so thanks for taking the time. Lots of teachers make the point, as you do, that showing children you are yourself part of a society with diverse values and characteristics, can be a powerful thing in itself that can connect with disaffected or marginalised students. However, here’s a challenge to you… should you wish to accept it (as they say in Mission Impossible..!) and it’s this: Is there any point at which you think the public’s confidence in a teacher would be justifiably be undermined by 1) the extent of body tattoos (or piercings) or 2) acute and morbid obesity? Or is there no point at which you would accept it’s an issue?

      I’d be very interested to hear your response if you have time. Thanks again for a great post.

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