On Containing Identity

One pleasure amid the shifted normality of school in lockdown is to have the opportunity to teach a module in Gender Studies as a pre-university elective opportunity for boys who would, in normal circumstances, have been completing A Level exams and jetting off on post-school holidays together. It has given me the chance to formalize some of my own informal interests in the area, developed from a social justice and personal perspective, and to translate into my teaching previous study as part of my previous Classics PhD and current Theology MTh work. However, such reflections inevitably begin to develop one’s thinking beyond the academic – indeed a lot of our discussion has hinged on a particular issue: the potential disjunction between the academic/theoretical and lived experience.

In truth, it is less the academic ramifications of this module that have been of interest than the practical consequences that have surrounded it. I should perhaps begin with a note of gratitude: teaching as I do within a Roman Catholic school, I was thankful to be allowed to run the course at all, given the tensions that it might seem to pose with Catholic teaching. I am also grateful to have found the students on the course not only to be open-minded, but also to be well-informed, and keen to learn and to challenge themselves. In general, few colleagues have made much mention of the course or its themes, other than to express (often considerable) surprise at the fact that any boys have chosen to take it. However, on the one occasion when I was asked about it in front of a couple of senior colleagues I’d run into on site, the response I encountered was one of homophobic joking between these two men (within my earshot but not directed to me), including derogatory comments about the possible sexuality of one of the participants. This I knew was the basis from which I would be working in trying to normalize any progressive discussion of gender within this community, but I was nonetheless struck by the blatant way in which their homophobia was manifested.

However, it is in an at once more subtle and more blatant way that gender prejudice has been exposed as part of this experience. In part this was brought about by my own naivety. To set the scene, I have long worn my hair in a short and high-maintenance pixie crop. When lockdown began and hairdressers closed, I was left with the prospect of an unappealing mullet or investing in clippers and doing my best to manage it myself. I had been doing this with semi-successful results until this month, when I made the decision, perhaps unwise in hindsight, to crop all of it to half a centimetre across my whole head.

I suppose in part I was full of my reading of Judith Butler and discussions about gender performativity. Although happy in my own female identity, I have long since adopted a look that moves somewhat fluidly between masculine and feminine aesthetics: short hair and heavy makeup; waistcoats and stiletto heels; floral tops with leather jackets; piercings and tattoos with dresses. None of this has ever seemed either controversial or unusual, though I have had responses that veer from compliments on my ‘androgynous style’ to unpleasant comments about my ‘lesbian hair’. And so to me, armed with my clippers on a Sunday afternoon, it didn’t seem a big step to cut off all my hair into a traditionally ‘masculine’ style: I had often wondered in the past how it would look and feel, and lockdown seemed like a good time to give it a try.

I am not so naïve as to have thought it wouldn’t be controversial. It even took me a while to stop the double-take whenever I caught sight of my reflection. At the same time, I liked the results: it felt empowering to have stripped away an aspect of my appearance that I and others were so used to. Nevertheless, at the same time I also found myself applying extra lipstick, checking my face more carefully than usual, implying not only increased self-consciousness but also a desire to make sure I was maintaining the ‘feminine’ aspects of my appearance to their utmost.

I reflected a lot on my own responses and tried to anticipate those of others. I forewarned my parents before their weekly Skype call, for fear of heart attacks. I assessed responses from my friends carefully, to try to predetermine what more hostile responses might look like. My regular circle were kind, and some friends and colleagues were very positive: ‘punk’ and ‘cool’ were the more generous adjectives, though more cautious responses spoke about associations for them between shaved heads and recovering patients. My parents, primed as they were, restrained their horror admirably, but were most concerned by how ‘unfeminine’ I looked and what ‘message’ I was trying to send. One friend also asked me whether I thought I would be more at risk of arrest if out and about in public! I had an honest conversation with my students, where we analysed how we felt it changed perceptions about me, and one of them shared the experience of a female friend who had acted similarly after a hair-dyeing disaster and now felt almost unable to leave her home. I became more aware of the strength of feeling that lies around self-expression through hair, and how much it affects people.

In spite of what I thought I had done to assess likely responses, I was nonetheless unprepared for the email from the Head Master, subject line: ‘Hair’. I should perhaps add a little context: there is nothing in the staff policy prohibiting women having short hair. Furthermore, the clothing policy has been suspended while we are teaching remotely, and we are not returning to school physically this term. Male colleagues in my time here have had long hair, shaved heads, and everything in between. In normal circumstances, I conform with little objection to the clothing policy, even wearing a jacket at all times (a rule that strictly seems to apply only to male staff), and always covering my tattoos during the school day.

However, the Head wished to enquire ‘what had happened’ to my hair. When I expressed that I had cut it off for the rest of lockdown, he raised concerns about parental perception. He was concerned specifically with the fact that he has just promoted me, with effect from September, into a role with a considerable public-facing element, implying that relationships with current and future parents would be undermined by the image he felt I projected. Clearly he must have realized that there was little he could do in the short-term, but he evidently wished to make it apparent that such a hairstyle would not be appropriate in the future. However, he did not express to me what he actually thought was wrong with a woman sporting very short hair.

In writing this, I have given a lot of thought about the extent to which I should be ashamed of my response. Because all I did was to assure him that it would have grown back by the end of the summer, acknowledging that I understood it was not uncontroversial (while also expressing my frustration at that fact). I did not raise the question of the discrepancy between his treatment of his male and female staff. I did not ask him to explain to me what exactly he considered to be wrong with my appearance. I did not protest my right to express my identity in a way that I choose, especially given that it does not contravene regulations. I did not object to the perpetuation of only conservative aesthetics or heteronormative gender performance. I just tried to quash the issue in the way that I felt would cause least damage to my own position and relationship with my employer.

If this were just about me, I don’t think that I would feel so bad. However, in the same week I had published a statement as part of a press-release regarding my new leadership role that had expressly referred to creating an environment at the school in which all pupils could grow into their own identities. And yet I had just colluded with the limitations that we place upon what those identities should look like. Like many independent schools, we have a strict uniform policy, and, as we go co-educational, this will include different uniforms dictated along binary gender lines. Our hair policy is not as strict as many schools’, but certainly draws implicit lines along traditional gender expectations for boys’ hair and girls’. Although identity expression is obviously limited in all ways by the very existence of school uniform and appearance policies, the effect these have on freedom to perform gender is particularly palpable.

My decision to cut off my hair was not a strong statement of my gender identity, although it is certainly a manifestation of certain important aspects of how I perceive and present myself. As much as I like the look, it will not be hard for me to let go of this period of self-expression once my hair grows out again. But for others this might not be the case. I have learned the lesson that to survive in the contemporary workplace it may well be necessary to comply with the unwritten rules as well as with policies, and, in this sense, I suppose uniform policies prepare our students well. A part of me knows that just to have presented pupils, even for a short period and only via video calls, with an alternative view of a woman’s appearance may help progress acceptance of difference. But I must now accept that, on this occasion at least, I have also failed to stand up and ask those who create and perpetuate rules that may be harmful to those whose identities fall further outside traditional norms how they justify doing so.

I am not unsympathetic, or at least not without understanding, of the position of a Head Master trying to attract parents to consider a fee-paying school with a conservative identity. He is not wrong that people balk at the presentation of non-normative identities. And yet we are educators and, furthermore, we are Christian educators, whose love of the individual for who they are in the image of God is supposed to be at the heart of everything we do. If we seek to police and indeed close down the expression of individual identity in this way, are we really fulfilling our calling and our duty?

Fragmentation and Identity: Institutions in a Time of Lockdown

A few months ago I started writing a piece about institutions and liberalism, from the context of working in a historic boarding school. How does valuing institutions fit within my liberal philosophy, given their potential incompatibility with concern with the individual? Do I, in fact, value them, or just tolerate them as a necessary evil? It was taking a bit of time, not least because I have an instinct to reject institutions in and of themselves, yet also must acknowledge that I am myself thoroughly institutionalized, and was trying to work out what it is that might be different about the particular institutions of which I am a part, most particularly the Church of England and the school at which I teach. I thought I’d given myself a bit more time and come back to it over the Easter holidays…

Since then, of course, the world has changed unrecognizably. Like all other schools in the UK, except where staff are doing wonderful work to care for the children of key workers, our doors have closed. The boarding houses became their hollow ghostly holiday-selves prematurely. The classroom has moved from physical to virtual space, and for a week before we broke up for the holidays – itself a strange whimpering end to the term, where little seemed to alter from one day to the next – we saw our pupils only as distant camera images at best, as thumbnails with disembodied voices at worst. For all that the technology available to us is an immeasurable blessing, within a few days we went from full classrooms to empty, and the everyday personal contact with pupils and colleagues that we had taken for granted was transformed into pixelated distant encounters. Just as families mourn the absence of relatives with whom they do not live, and lovers and friends feel the tremendous loss in being unable to see and hold one another, so too, albeit in a different way, I write this from a point of grief for the community that has – however necessarily – been torn apart.

However, if anything, this strange and depressing scenario has sharpened my understanding of how institutions do remain valuable in my worldview, even as the two with which I have such close yet problematic relationships (the Church and this school) fragment and reimagine themselves in ways they could never have predicted. Fundamentally, I’ve realized, it comes down to the communities that they engender, and my conviction that strong institutions with clear values create valuable communities, bonded by shared concerns and beliefs. This is not to say that the communities created by institutions cannot be toxic, nor to argue that communities created by institutions are in and of themselves better than those created in other ways, but simply that good institutions can be excellent ways to create community.

So, what is happening to these institutions under lockdown? Given that, in these two instances, the identity of the institutions is bound up, at least in their day-to-day functioning, with bricks and mortar, one of the existential challenges has been posed quite simply by what matters once physical space is removed from the equation. At times, I have been guilty of downplaying the physical space aspect of the current situation. For example, while I don’t doubt that the response to the closure of church buildings even to clergy has brought out some shameful clericalism, poor pastoral awareness, and shoddy theology, it is too easy also to dismiss the value of sacred space defined by the walls of a church or the power of the tradition of many of our religious buildings. There is also the sense of belonging that buildings create: it is vital as a teacher at a boarding school to remember that boys have been wrenched prematurely from the place that is not only their learning environment but also their term-time home, and, in too many cases, they have not been able to return to their actual homes because of restrictions on travel. Even now, I wander through common rooms to see names signed up for trips that never happened, posters for concerts that were cancelled, the evidence of normality ruptured and a home broken.

But neither the Church nor the school are the buildings. Both are the people, bound together by a shared purpose (respectively the worship of God and the education of children), and defined by their beliefs as to how this should be done (their theology on the one hand, their educational philosophy on the other). And so, while the Corona virus lockdown challenges all of these, the strength of the institutions lies in their ability to stay true to all of these things while reimagining them for new circumstances. And rather than limiting us, these changed circumstances can actually challenge us to be more true to the real purpose of our institutions, and to continue both to serve their communities and to live out our part as members of those communities being true witnesses to our institutional values.

As a member of a Church community, and a Eucharistic one in particular, I have been grateful for my parish priest’s decision to continue Sunday Mass from his study, streamed over Facebook. Although the physical exclusion from church buildings and from the sacraments is deeply painful, to form part of a virtual congregation, knowing that the priest receives communion on behalf of all of us, is a profound comfort. However, more even than this, it is the shared fellowship over email, What’sApp, Zoom, Facebook, both within my own congregation and far beyond, that has reminded me that the Church is the people, whose Christ-like love for one another has been authentic and overwhelming. I spend so much of my time railing against the worst aspects of the Church that to be confronted with the response of a grieving community to the rupturing of the norms of that institution’s nature – and to find it fundamentally to be caring, loving, and striving for the Kingdom – has been a humbling experience. A reimagining of Church away from the building, away from travelling to a Sunday service, towards the maintaining of faithful worship from the individual though not in isolation, but rather in constant awareness of the prayer offered across the institution and the community, has been at once challenging and nourishing.

As a teacher at a school with a liberal teaching philosophy that centres on the development of every individual as a person, not only academically but across all aspects of their character, we have been challenged to think about how to retain that across the internet. This has included centralizing live teaching in our practice, maintaining pastoral support, working out how – even if the cricket season is looking unlikely for now – we might offer as much as possible of our co-curricular and community service programmes remotely. Each day, we are now encouraged to ask ourselves the question: how can we continue to know one another and grow together as people when we are physically apart? These things are core to this school, core to the purpose of this institution, and they are what bind us together as a community: we are all being challenged to creativity in maintaining them, while also becoming, I think, more reflective teachers in the process. The frustrations of this institution and the many characteristics that I find hard to tolerate have paled beside the essence of its values, played out in a time of crisis, which focus us first and foremost on simple care for our pupils.

It is, I suppose, unsurprising that I consider the teaching of Classics to be integral to the identity of this institution, not least because part of our educational philosophy is also to accept a wide range of academic abilities, and we make sure that Latin is not offered exclusively as an option for the most able. The benefits of a classical education, as I have written about in the past, should not be restricted to an academic elite. However, translating this to the more challenging environment of online teaching is pushing me as a teacher to think about how to use the best of the available technology to continue to make it a subject that everyone can access, without getting lost within a busy video call or struggling at home with a challenging exercise. As much of a challenge as this is, it is also a huge opportunity. Good teaching requires us constantly to challenge our pedagogy and the methods by which we achieve our educational aims, and the situation offers real impetus to do this. On one simple level, I have been tweeting daily from the department with a Classical activity to be done under lockdown, and the requirement to think broadly and creatively about what might interest our pupils across the widest possible range of areas has been a real opportunity to reconsider what we mean by Classics for all.

These are challenging times, and I am fully aware that my ability to approach the current challenges with optimism and a sense of opportunity rest in part on a privileged situation: I do not have children to home school or vulnerable family to care for; I still have a salary coming in; my mental health remains fairly resilient. However, that does not mean they are easy for me, either. I really have drawn comfort from institutions of which I have been all too dismissive in the past. They offer values and structure, community and purpose, and when this is all over, I hope I will take them less for granted.

Classics in Tory Britain: Reflections on Privilege

Cultivating a greater consciousness of our own privilege is, I hope, something that is becoming more of a priority for all of us, along with how we do that in a way that is positive and constructive, without either amplifying that privilege or reducing it to an unhelpful source of guilt or shame. In my own case, my privilege lies in my being middle-class and white, with a high level of education. My responsibility for awareness of my privilege feels, to me, to be heightened by my job as a teacher, not least because I teach in an independent school filled with young people whose privilege is largely similar to my own. When I reflect on my own privilege, I am reflecting by extension on theirs, and I feel obligated, as their teacher, to assist them in own journey towards reflectiveness.

I began this post before the General Election, particularly as part of the thoughts provoked by running a mock election for the pupils at school. However, as the results of the real election emerged, it was hard to finish writing: it was just too difficult to be reflective in any positive way from beneath the deep sense of despair that the outcome provoked in me. It was easier to maintain an objective perspective when not faced with the reality of leaving the EU and five more years of government by the current manifestation of the Conservative party. Like many people I am sure, I have been left questioning my own place in the system in a far more hard-hitting way than ever before.

An independent school is, by definition, going to be a bastion of a certain sort of privilege that comes with money and access to a good education. Classics specifically, when Boris Johnson is the most famous Classicist in the country, is being confronted by a new challenge. I, for my part, am faced with a new lens on the problem of teaching a group of pupils who are associated through their school with an objectionable wealthy elite (the reality is of course more nuanced and varied, but the point remains). This rings especially true when teaching them the very subject that is perhaps linked most conspicuously with that character in the consciousness of much of society, and especially among the liberal left of whom I consider myself a part.

A further facet to the picture emerges when I reflect on the fact that this is a Christian community, with a strong sense of its Roman Catholic identity. Although not a Roman Catholic myself, as a practising Christian I believe in an obligation to vote with the concerns of the most vulnerable in society at the heart of my thinking, for it is there that Christ focused his own ministry. In the current the climate, the distance between this interpretation of Christian teaching and the interpretation held by many in the school community feels particularly wide and stark.

However, after a school mock election in which, although the result was more varied than perhaps I had feared, pupils and staff voted for the Conservatives by a landslide majority, it now feels hard to believe that teaching in such an environment does anything more than collude in the creation of a further generation of Boris Johnsons. Many of the pupils I teach, even the most thoughtful of them, believe that their education situates them above state-educated peers, cannot discuss poverty without alluding to a blame narrative, or are simply unable to understand the distance between their own life situations and those of the most vulnerable in society. This is rarely born of malice or intent, in my experience: they are merely a product of their environment.

As a teacher, I cannot be explicitly political in the classroom (though – rightly or wrongly – I was always honest when asked for personal views in the run up to the election). However, I hold it as a general rule that all teaching, at least for a Classicist, is in some way political. After all, I choose the modules I teach; I dictate the direction of the narrative within the scope of the curriculum; I make decisions to reject textbooks that white-wash the realities of slavery, gloss over the subsequent impact of the Roman imperial story on colonial attitudes, or write women out of the story. I can lead the conversation in my classroom through the questions I ask, and challenge the views that I consider to be unacceptable. I can encourage a global outlook when we approach the ancient world; can explore the Aeneid as the story of a refugee one day, a colonizer the next; can initiate discussions over contemporary manifestations of Classics in the rhetoric of parliament, or Silicon Valley, or the Red Pill community. However, I am one teacher, teaching small numbers, and even fewer who actually care: how much, if any, of this really permeates the dominant narratives in our pupils’ lives?

Of course, in a boarding school in particular, a teacher’s involvement is greater than in the classroom. Implicitly political conversations occur in my Assistant Housemaster role: topics lately have ranged from whether Trump is a racist to whether videos that objectify women are appropriate viewing. Running the Public Speaking Society provides the opportunity to question speakers on the talks they give, challenging whether a single mother holding down multiple jobs should be blamed for struggling to provide her children with nutritious meals, or whether women should be allowed equal roles in the military. Most rewarding, perhaps, has been the shift in attitudes towards the homeless since the school started supporting homeless charities over the past couple of years, and the opportunities I have had to address the school on their Christian duty to those on the margins. It is, without doubt, possible to pull out glimmers of hope where one feels that, if nothing else, it has been possible to provoke reassessment of prevailing attitudes.

The question I am asking now, however, is will it ever make any difference? The very fact that individual cases can be listed in this way reflects how few instances there are to draw upon. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that no teacher really impacts very much on a pupil. When one feels like a minority voice, the impact is presumed to be even less. However often I use the hashtag #Latinforall, the truth persists that this is an elite education for the very few, within an environment where their privilege suffers little challenge day to day.

There is no doubt that whether I can ever be a real force for good in this role, or – in the Christian terms in which I view it – am living a life that in any way contributes to a making a world that reflects the Kingdom, is a question that now keeps me awake at night. Supportive colleagues and friends remind me repeatedly that if I were not here, we would have one fewer voice to challenge our pupils to think about their beliefs. They are, after all, only children, and maybe one day something they learned in my classroom will resonate differently with them and my belief in the possibility of a just and equal society will start to become theirs. However, in this dark December, it is hard to believe it.

Beaten by a girl: cricket, academics, and the perception of gender

It was a beautiful summer’s afternoon, the sort that makes the Trinity term seem, in one’s memory, like a blissful few weeks of sunny outings, drinks receptions on the terrace, picnics on the lawn, rather than the reality of exam panic, report-writing, and chaotic upheaval to the normal school routine. Out on what must be one of the most beautiful cricket pitches in the country, the school’s first XI (all young men aged between 12 and 18) took on a county women’s team, in an exciting and enjoyable afternoon of play.

The afternoon has stayed in my memory less because of the cricket (I’m trying to learn to appreciate the game, but I confess I have a long way to go), and more because of an anecdote with which I was regaled by the coach after the match: in the spirit of ‘banter’ with one of his players, who had just come in from batting, he had wittily admonished the young man with a cry of, ‘At your age, you’re supposed to be taking girls out, they aren’t supposed to be catching you out!’.

I was not present at the initial delivery of this ‘quip’, so I do not know in what spirit it was received, nor indeed in what state of mind the batsman was at the time, whether dejected, resigned, or pleased with his performance. I do know that, however poorly thought through, the remark was well-intentioned, rightly or wrongly intended to help rather than hinder morale among the team and rapport between boy and coach. By and large, I think this is also how it was received by the audience alongside me for its retelling in the Ref after the match.

None of this removes the fact that this kind of comment epitomizes for me a very typical way that persists in speaking to young men about their relationship with women, not only in a sporting environment, but across the spectrum of ordinary life-situations, at school and beyond. I am not, of course, alone in noticing this nor getting riled by it, but I am also concerned that my perception that everybody is starting to bristle at everyday comments such as these is, in fact, skewed by the echo-chamber of my own Twitter account and social circle outside of work. Among my colleagues, and plenty of other people I encounter in the wider world, I suspect many would have thought of the comments as nothing more than a passable witticism, and certainly would not agree with my own analysis. I therefore have a particular personal concern with it as a teacher of boys, who will shortly become a teacher of girls again, too, when the school becomes coeducational in a year’s time.

I see two particular issues raised in microcosm by the cricket comment. The first, which I shall perhaps return to more fully in another post later, is the reduction of male-female relationships to the (implicitly) sexual before anything else. The role, here, of the man is to ‘take girls out’, that is to initiate ‘dates’ or other encounters that, if not actually erotic, have overtones of leading to an erotic relationship of some sort. As well as being explicitly heteronormative, if not heterosexist, in its worldview, the assumptions behind this are also that men are sexual initiators who control the woman in the encounter, ‘taking’ girls out running deeper than just the play on words.

The second issue is of course the message that it is ‘bad’ for a boy to be beaten by a girl. Leaving aside the question of whether or not it is ‘bad’ for a school cricketer to go out against a county team, we have a huge problem if schoolboys are being told that there is something inherently wrong with a woman being better than them at sport, or indeed at anything else. To take this to its logical extent, we must conclude that boys are receiving the message that their maleness alone should give them a right to do well. And, on the flip side to this, that to be beaten by a girl is ‘emasculating’ or a failure to themselves and their gender. Furthermore, since it is still early days in the appreciation that cricket (and other traditionally ‘male’ sports) may be played and excelled in by women, we have a potential added pastoral concern here, that young men are being told that they are failing specifically in their gendered role if they can be beaten by a woman in a ‘man’s world’. Take that perspective on cricket and apply it, for example, to the City workplace, and we have a far more concerning issue on our hands than gender in sports-‘man’-ship.

As part of a school community preparing itself to welcome girls into a long-standing masculine all-boys institution, I am hyperaware of the damage this sort of messaging is doing not only now, but also looking forward. One of the questions I am frequently asked is whether I think that the introduction of girls into the school is going to boost our overall academic achievement, or, more specifically, improve the academic achievement and attitude among boys at the school. On the one hand, I understand where this question is coming from, especially as parents, staff, and pupils alike come to terms with the changes that will occur in a school whose single-sex identity may have played a part in their decision to join its community, and wish to understand the possible benefits. I have read the research and think that academic improvements among the boys may well be a by-product, if we get the transition right, and I am fully aware that I have said so in response to such questioning.

However, the comment of my cricketing colleague, along with other daily encounters with similar messaging, has also left me with another concern. The more we answer ‘yes’ to the claim that introducing girls can have a positive impact on boys’ academic achievement, or use it as part of a justification for going co-ed, the more we are at risk of promoting, however inadvertently, another message to our young men: academic achievement is what girls do. We are, implicitly, claiming the academic sphere for the girls. We may, therefore, end up with the same sort of negative by-products as I see promoted in our cricket match. On the one hand, we have already sent a message to boys that they should not allow themselves to be beaten by girls, which will therefore challenge the place of girls’ success and their right to do well once they join the school. However, we may also have started to promote the idea that while boys should be triumphing at the cricket ground, the academic sphere is the girls’ – after all that’s why they are joining the school, we told everyone – and to succeed there (arguably a greater challenge in our current school culture than it would be for boys to succeed at cricket) is in fact also to emasculate oneself, a gendered ‘failure’ that still looms very large in our aggressively masculine environment.

It is hard to know exactly how to address issues such as these. However much I see a promising increase across society in the understanding of gender, its fluidity, and its diversity, I see alongside this a strong persistence in ill-informed gender stereotyping and construction of masculinity, in particular, which runs so deep that a well-meaning bit of jovial ‘banter’ will perpetuate toxic gender-identity-messaging without thought and without reprisal. Unless challenged, we create a culture which may inform the perception on issues that really matter: academic achievement, workplace roles, relationships. Worst of all, we perpetuate the toxic and damaging idea that for a young man to ‘underachieve’ in a ‘male role’, or perhaps succeed in a ‘female’ one, is to have failed in his masculinity and let down his own gender.

taceamus. Shouting and the Classroom.

In May this year, over a year and a half into working at an all-boys senior school, I had a moment of clarity over an aspect of my teaching that I realized had changed profoundly over that time:  shouting.  I finally acknowledged that I was shouting in my lessons on a regular basis, and, worse still, it had become my default response to poor discipline in the classroom.  A boy persistently talked: I would address him loudly and angrily; another spoke rudely to me: I would respond with a raised voice; I heard inappropriate language between pupils: I would assert my critique with a loud intervention.

I am not so un-self-aware that this change in behaviour revealed itself to me in an epiphany.  I was well-aware over the course of the previous two terms in particular that I was increasingly raising my voice.  I had been putting it down, however, to the personnel and dynamics of my classroom, with a particularly difficult Year 9 cohort, whose reputation was bad across the school, and an increasingly frustrating lack of self-control among immature Year 7s and 8s.  I lumped it together with my increased use of the detention system, more and more pupils finding themselves sent out of the classroom for disrupting lessons, and more of them receiving angry red notes about missing prep in their exercise books.  Although, by and large, discipline is extremely good at the school, I had attributed my increased vocal levels to the increased low-level poor behaviour.

To some extent, this was true.  Behaviour this past year has, by and large, been slightly worse than the previous year, and the aforementioned Year 9 group have significant issues that have often manifested in rudeness, poor work ethic, distracted and distracting behaviour, and offensive language.  This was not, I think, any worse in my classroom than in anyone else’s, but handling it was a regular issue, which I found both draining and depressing.  I felt that I was going from maintaining a steady classroom atmosphere, held in check by my personal engagement with pupils combined with a highly-renowned hard stare, to one in which I was losing both authority and control, albeit at the lowest levels of poor behaviour.  I consulted regularly with colleagues about how they were handling similar issues, seeking advice from those who had been longer at the school, or were in leadership positions, and support and suggestions were forthcoming.  I also watched and listened to how other teachers were handling their encounters with the poor behaviour of pupils.  Slowly, both deliberately and unconsciously, I began to change my strategies.

I work in a male-dominated macho environment, and outright disrespect of female authority from some quarters is a known quantity.  This is not to say that I think that the behavioural methods I saw modelled and which were proposed to me are conducted by all men, nor that they are conducted by no women, nor that they are the only problematic methods of behaviour management; however, I do associate what I saw and was recommended with a certain strain of masculinity.  As I began to pay attention, I realized how often I heard colleagues not just with raised voices, but with bellowing that seemed to manifest both real anger and conspicuous aggression.  However, most importantly for me at the time, I saw that heir method was effective, at least in terms of short-term responses:  miscreants would stop their actions and would rarely answer back.  Furthermore, in my own practice I was advised to single out one individual from among the perpetrators, and direct my loud opinions directly at them, in a strategy of divide and rule that was widely advocated.  Not only was I explicitly encouraged to shout, I was offered support with my classroom management by a senior colleague who burst in to do the shouting for me.  Again, both in response to my actions and to his, I saw immediate results, albeit little longer-term behavioural change.

Writing this, I realize how unacceptable this all sounds, but within an environment where it is normalized, that swiftly ceases to be the case.  Nobody is questioning how we use shouting because it is simply the accepted way of delivering behaviour management.  I should add that it is relatively rare to hear a pupil shout back.  Shouting is the instrument of power a teacher wields, and is largely accepted as such by the boys.  In spite of the fact that I have a real distaste for shouting within my personal life, and believe it has little place in civilized relationships or public life, this normalization may explain why it took me so long to start to question my own new tendency to raise my voice.

In May, I read a book that I can describe as the single most important and inspiring text I have come across in educational writing: Boys Don’t Try? by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts.  It is a book to which I will doubtless return in future blog posts, not least because of the impact it is having on my work revising how I teach Latin, but there is one section that matters particularly for this topic, where they cover dealing with public reprimands, their lack of effectiveness, and, in fact, the damage they can cause.  Suddenly, as I read it, all the practice that I had cultivated and been encouraged to adopt struck me hard with the problematics that I should have seen all along.  And so I stopped.  Since May, I have not shouted in school.  For one month of teaching (since that is all there was until the end of the school year), I did not shout at a pupil.  It does not sound like much, but the results have been significant and humbling.  

Firstly, I had to acknowledge that it was not easy.  From someone who barely ever raised their voice and hated confrontation, my exposure to and adoption of the shouting method had made it my default.  I have read enough about the cultivation of toxic masculinity to know that aggression breeds aggression, but it was tough to acknowledge its increased presence in my own personality and behaviour.  I had adopted the responses I encountered in those around me, and with them had unleashed a resort to an aggressive tendency that quickly became an instinct.

Secondly, I became increasingly conscious of the use of shouting and loud public reprimand by colleagues, and, in some instances, its worst possible manifestations.  Behaviour that I would never have tolerated if it were directed at me, or directed by one pupil to another, had become, I realized, the normal way of communicating authority.  Underlying the shouting, moreover, would often be tactics of shame or humiliation, of toxic adult-child power dynamics, or of right-by-might.  In fact, the very behaviours that one would seek to control among pupils were being modelled by the adults around them.  Given the wide body of evidence that good leadership models behaviours it would wish to see emulated, we were sending an entirely wrong and conflicting message to our pupils.

Thirdly, particularly in response to the insights of Boys Don’t Try?, I started to realize that the counterproductivity of shouting is truly manifold and deep-running.  Not only does it model aggression as a positive or necessary aspect of relationship or leadership, exactly in opposition to the sorts of behaviours we would like to see young people enact, it specifically feeds the culture among boys to win a badge of honour through attracting and enduring a teacher’s wrath that is far easier to win than their affirmation through hard work.  The kudos within an anti-academic aggressive masculine club comes from attracting the anger of a teacher, and the more public that anger, the greater the kudos.

Finally, I had to relearn patience.  Shouting in a classroom quickly becomes a kneejerk response, but also produces quick results.  My famed hard stare had worked wonders in the academic girls’ school in which I worked previously.  Speedily other girls had closed down the bad behaviour of whichever miscreant I was waiting upon, and the class resumed without further ado.  Rarely was a reprimand of any great significance given, let alone a pupil sent out from a classroom; the occasional pupil was taken aside for private intervention, but I do not ever remember having to raise my voice, except perhaps over the top of occasional overly-exuberant chatter.  However, having removed shouting from my arsenal, and with little time left in the term to develop my own way of implementing many of the techniques Pinkett and Roberts suggest, I returned to my old methods, resorting to quietly intervening to quell distractions, dealing with problematic pupils away from the rest of the class, and pausing lessons long enough and pointedly enough for pupils to self-regulate.  Although the process was largely slower and self-regulation was more limited, provided I remained patient, its successes were palpable.

I don’t think that the school I work at it is in any way unusual for the prevalence of shouting in its behaviour management strategies, though there will be many other schools where these sorts of techniques may be obsolete or were never necessary.  However, wherever they do prevail, I hope that teachers may be provoked to challenge them.  The most telling moment for me lay in the response of a pupil who recently suggested that the bad behaviour of his class, himself often included, would provoke me to shout at them; when I replied that I had decided I would no longer shout in my lessons, he asked me, ‘But how will you be able to keep control of us?’.  It is by our behaviours and the lives we lead that we teach our pupils; by shouting at them, we teach them that aggression is the only means of power.

On the Transient and the Permanent

I have recently finished teaching Ovid’s Ars Amatoria III to my Lower Sixth pupils, a text that is, like so many of Ovid’s works, riddled with reference to the poet himself and to his enduring significance.  In the didactic context of the Ars, his self-characterization is, of course, as teacher, and the text culminates:

ut quondam iuvenes, ita nunc, mea turba, puellae
inscribant spoliis ‘Naso magister erat.’

As once young men, so now let my crowd of girls
inscribe upon their spoils: ‘Naso was my teacher.’

While Ovid teaching the art of seduction to the women of Rome may ostensibly have little similarity to the Classics teacher educating Sixth Form boys in Classical Civilization, I was nonetheless struck by the way in which Ovid desires for his impact as a teacher to be recognized, for his name to be ‘inscribed upon the spoils’. As it is also the season in which teachers across the country say goodbye to pupils and send them out into the adult world, there is surely a part of many of us that hopes our teaching will leave a mark upon those whom we have taught.  And, perhaps, that we shall be a teacher whom they remember, whose name, or at least influence, will be carried on with them as one who directed their minds and shaped their youth towards adulthood. 

Ovid writes of inscribing a teacher’s name upon one’s spoils, but the extension of the metaphor takes us to the inscribing of learning and ideas on to the mind and personality of the pupil.  The image is one I find striking in the context of teaching and learning, and of human concern with the permanent.  If one were to seek a similar image for the modern day, I should offer the metaphor of tattooing (though I acknowledge that inscription is no more a practice forgotten by the modern world than tattooing is one unknown to the ancient).  Tattooing is a practice that invites one to contemplate the permanent and what it might mean to inscribe upon oneself.  Even in the face of laser treatment options and temporary alternatives, a tattoo represents an act of marking an image permanently upon a person, in a way that has an outward impact upon others, when they encounter and interpret the tattoo, and upon the person whose body carries the image, which they see upon themselves as an inseparable part of their own skin.  Even though teaching can often feel a bit like chucking a lot of spaghetti at a wall in the hope that some of it sticks, rather more than it does choosing the most significant ideas to leave with one’s pupils forever, I don’t believe it to be naïvely optimistic to aspire to some permanent legacy from the classroom.

As a person with tattoos, I find that I am often told that I will regret them when I am old:  ‘What you think looks good now, on a young woman’s skin, will not look good once that skin wrinkles and sags’.  However, it is precisely with the ambition towards permanence that I have chosen to be tattooed, and the knowledge that one day the ink will start to fade and fuzz on an aging canvas is part of that.  My tattoos are markers of significance upon my body, a way of inscribing upon myself the ideas that mattered within the moment, a message to carry into the future beyond the memory.  In my case, the ash cross on my back marks a fresh start with God at the point of a new beginning in my life; the text of Sappho on my arm makes sure I never forget the significance of my voice (as written about on this blog).  I may get more in the future, or may not, but either way, they are one outward way of inscribing my learning about myself upon my body.  When they and I grow old, I shall want to look back upon them as certain significant markers in my own development, highlighting the way in which every significant event shapes and develops a person into whom they become.  The older version of myself will have been as much marked by the events that led to the tattoos as by the needle that drew them.  It matters to see the skin age and change, still marked by those images, because I too will have aged with those moments inscribed upon my inner self, just as they are on my outer self.  It matters, too, that others may see either the tattoos themselves, or the marks of these points of learning upon my character.

Ovid, as is well known from the Metamorphoses, desired from his writings to achieve more than the inscription of his teaching upon transient individuals, cursed with mortality.  He wanted his words to deny the transience of memory:

cum volet, illa dies, quae nil nisi corporis huius
ius habet, incerti spatium mihi finiat aevi:
parte tamen meliore mei super alta perennis
astra ferar, nomenque erit indelibile nostrum,
quaque patet domitis Romana potentia terris,
ore legar populi, perque omnia saecula fama,
siquid habent veri vatum praesagia, vivam.

When it will, let that day, which has no power except
over this body, end the uncertain span of my years:
yet, in my better part, I shall be borne above the lofty stars
immortal, and my name shall be indelible,
wherever Roman power extends over her conquered lands,
I shall be spoken on the lips of the people, and through all the ages,
if the prophecies of the poets hold any truth, I shall live through fame.

This, I posit, is not the hope of many teachers.  Ours is not a role that offers fame or permanence.  Even those of us in the most traditional of public schools have largely moved beyond the days when a teacher might spend a lifetime at a school, teaching, living, coaching the rugby team, until they retire and the new geography block is named in their honour.  There is plenty of evidence to say that teachers and schools have far less impact upon the development of young people than we might like (a fact that a senior colleague often cites, unhelpfully, to those of us aspiring to influence our pupils away from the baggage they bring with them from their home environments).  However, I, at least, try not to be cynical yet, when I plan, as this academic year draws to an end, how I might do better next year, teach better, inspire better.  There is, of course, with almost every job, an element of monotony, and teaching is no exception:  however different each school, each class, each child, the fundamentals of Latin grammar remain the fundamentals of Latin grammar.  And yet, in every class, there is another chance for a teacher to contribute something that will be carried forward, beyond my retirement and even beyond my lifetime.

And so, however small, there is a part of me that hopes that every year I might teach better, and leave just one important mark, whatever it might be, on the person of each pupil who appears in front of me.  Not, I hope, solely because I want my name to be inscribed upon the characters formed in my pupils, but at least in part for that reason.  Teaching is, to return to our metaphor, the writing on to the people we teach the ideas we, as teachers, offer in our classroom.  If we let go of the fact that we may, at any moment, tattoo upon their characters a lesson that lasts a lifetime, we lose all sense of the important of what we do.  Those marks upon the pupil, however minute, are permanent and will remain there, however faded and fuzzy, throughout their lives.  And it matters most that we remember this, because the lesson that marks them may not be the lesson in the satisfaction of Latin grammar, or the cleverness of the Virgilian simile, or the power of the emotion in Sappho’s lyric.  It might be the lesson about how shouting is an acceptable means of control; the lesson about how the pupil who struggles in the classroom will never succeed; the lesson from a classroom conversation that it is okay for prejudice over race or gender or sexuality to go untackled.  Or, preferably, it might be the lesson in patience, in kindness, in generosity modelled by a teacher; the lesson in how joy in learning is acceptable; the lesson that every single pupil has something to offer when they head off from school into adulthood.  We do not have to have Ovid’s sense of self-importance to admit to ourselves that it is no small responsibility we hold:  while every cohort of pupils is only ever passing through, in the transient part of the teaching life in which we see them arrive, grow, and go on into the world, some element of our influence leaves with them, inscribed upon the spoils of their education or tattooed upon the people they become.

Classics, fragments, and voices

It is over six years since I left the academy, entering other worlds of education, and adopting the liminality and limitations of the independent scholar whose day-to-day life had moved away from the world of Classics proper, as I saw it, while retaining it as my touchstone.  I never resigned my identity as a Classicist, never stopped teaching Latin and Greek, but I largely ceased to engage with research, with the occasional foray back for a conference or article.  I certainly resigned any sense that I was or could be a voice in Classics.  I admit that I equated ‘teacher’ with ‘failed academic’ in how I posited my identity; I never felt that the role of teacher lacked inherent value or was in any way demeaning, but to be a teacher was to not be a scholar.  Where I did engage with the scholarly community, I therefore saw little value to my own contributions, even on the publication of my book; I lacked any confidence in what I wrote or said, perhaps a classic case of imposter syndrome, enhanced by my lack of status, as I perceived it, as one who listed no university affiliation on my conference name badge.  Hindsight suggests that subconscious awareness of my own youth and gender, and the impact of these in my interactions within a largely older and male environment, only increased my sense of inadequacy and inclination towards silence.

Something has changed, and there is an irony, given this past perception, that this change arises from the context of working in a school, the very environment that I identified previously as an indication of my irrelevance to academic Classics.  I consider there to be two reasons for this, the one general, the other particular.  First of all, as Head of Classics in a school, I have had to reconsider what the purpose of Classics is: when I was a doctoral student and then as a lecturer, I mixed all the time with people to whom I did not need to justify my interest in researching or teaching Latin poetry, and was too junior to have to concern myself with the wider place or future of my discipline within the university; as a teacher, I encounter the opposite, an almost perpetual need to provide reasons to children and their parents for my subject being taught or studied, and, indeed, to the school’s leadership for the existence of an expensive department to be sustained for the benefit of a minority of the student body.  This is the general.  For the specific, I turn to an incident in which my voice, as an expert in my subject and as an experienced teacher of it, was closed down, in a situation that I consider to be both dangerous and damaging to pupils, society, and Classics as a discipline. 

When I am asked what the point is of the Classics Department, I have, historically, cited the value in Latin learning.  Apart from the well-rehearsed claims over Latin’s value for other languages, for literacy, and as a tool for the historian or theologian, I explain how the pattern-recognition we teach is good for the brain.  Latin, I tell my pupils, makes you clever.  To the SLT I make different claims in support of my department:  having a Classics department makes us stand out from other schools, I say; it shows that we still value subjects that have inherent intellectual value, rather than just the vocational; it puts us in the same category as those old and elite institutions that have always had Classics at the core of their curriculum, rather than making us sound like just another minor public school.  None of this is untrue, I suggest, but I would argue that it is not the reason why Classics matters. 

This is where the particular comes in.  Recently I introduced a Greek class for the first time to a poem of Sappho, in English translation, as a response, on the one hand, to International Women’s Day, and, on the other, to the suggestions from pupils at Streatham and Clapham High School that to include Sappho in the classroom was to help reduce the omnipresence of the ‘stale pale male’ on the school curriculum.  I was shocked that the pupils responded unanimously with a profound inability to approach the text other than through a homophobic and misogynistic lens, but more so when it was suggested subsequently that I invited such a response by teaching a homoerotic poem by a female writer with reference to its female and homoerotic context. 

I am teaching Classics at a time when classical references have been making an appearance in many uncomfortable contexts.  They litter the narrative of the public-school-educated male voices in politics, perhaps particularly those which dominate the Leave campaign, in which they are employed as a means to convey the dominance of an educated elite but also to hark back, at least implicitly, to the imperialist British identity within which classical education first rose to importance among that elite.  They are also being appropriated by far-right movements, most obviously in America, with a misplaced sense of the ancient world as one that underpins a narrative of white male supremacy.  Classics in the public eye, for all the work of many educators and groups to promote an honest version of Classics that is available to all, is at risk of becoming the misunderstood and misplaced property of a particular group.

It is in light of this awareness that the questions of ‘why Classics’ coalesce, within the particular context of my experience of teaching Sappho.  Sappho, as a fragmentary author, offers a microcosm of the joy and the challenge of Classics.  When we study Classics we are dealing with a distant past which speaks to us only through glimpses, just as our study of Sappho is filtered through the paucity of extant material and the snatches of her world that the fragments of her poetry offer.  While we have a rich tradition of scholarship and reception of Classics, really to return to the texts themselves exposes us to as many gaps as it does firm evidence, not least when we focus (as we do in particular in the school curriculum) on a narrow canon of literature in which the voices of the marginalized groups of ancient society rarely, if ever, feature.  In such circumstances, it is easy enough to use the Classics as a way to affirm our own prejudices, extracting from the sources a narrative that speaks to what we wish to find, just as Hollywood can turn the Iliad into a discourse on white heterosexual virility; at the same time, when Classics is revealed to challenge our prejudices, it can simultaneously (if we choose) be dismissed as other, distant and irrelevant.  Thus, we knit together the fragmentary with our own narrative, but are selective in how we allow Classics to inform us in return.

The pupils I teach are only children.  The narrative they bring to the text is still one they have only partly formed themselves; the rest is the narrative of their parents, their peers, their teachers, their home cultures, and their social media accounts.  However, this makes me believe my role as a teacher of Classics is even more important than I had perhaps realized.  To study Classics right is two-fold:  first, I intend that my pupils will learn to read what material we do have within a historically-informed context, in a manner that is methodologically sound, and with an awareness of the prejudices and presumptions that race, class, sexuality, education, gender, and religion are bringing to their reading; second, I hope that they will learn, if not to strip away those prejudices, at least to engage critically with the reflection in the mirror that Classics provides us, not imposing their narrative uncritically on to the fragments in front of them, but looking at themselves within what is reflected back at them.  It is in this way that I hope I may go a small way to preventing Classics from being something that can be adopted and manipulated to perpetuate a particular agenda, but a discipline that makes us challenge our opinions and assumptions, both within the classroom and beyond it.

It is in light of this assessment that I find myself reconsidering my own voice.  Not only does the importance of Classics teaching take on a new significance for me, I also find myself challenged not to let my voice be closed down, nor to close it down myself.  It matters that the voice of the younger bisexual female is not considered of less importance than the older heterosexual male, and especially that her expert credentials not be dismissed, as much as it matters that Sappho be taught as a female writer of homoerotic texts within the framework of her cultural context.  However, to be a credible voice, one must not choose to cease to be a voice.  I may never re-enter the academy, but there are important things to be said if we are not to betray Classics to the ownership of one particular elite, and from now on I choose to say them.