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?

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.