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Blog September 6, 2022

Haircuts, Piercings, and Pronouns: Freedom of Expression and School Rules

School administration moves slowly. Kids, however, rarely wait for the rules to catch up with their culture. They will be expressing their identities whenever and however they can. Are there basic principles that administrators in public education can use to avoid the conflicts that they are encountering daily? Perhaps.

We are at the beginning of a new school year, a time when some students have spent the summer reinventing themselves. They may be walking into school with a new haircut and/or hair colour; a newly pierced nose, tongue, or eyebrow; or a request that different pronouns and names be used when referring to them. The child who was she/her in June may now be they/them, he/him, or ze/zim, fae/faer, or xe/xem, and (rarely) it/its. And you teach English grammar. Do you say that “they/them” are plural and cannot be used with singular verbs, or do you just do your best to remember the long list of pronouns (at last count, there are 78), and hope the grammar is understandable? 

While the students have chosen to express themselves through these choices, you as a teacher, need to make some choices, too. 

Perhaps your school, like many, has a dress code. Chances are this dress code, somewhere in its mysterious depths, says that students must be dressed appropriately for school. What does this mean and who gets to say? Many students believe that if they are wearing it and they are in school, the clothes, haircut, or piercing, is appropriate for school. There have been a number of court cases in democracies around the world that have dealt with the piercing issue. In the US, it appears that the student fighting a school rule must be able to show that their unusual appearance represents an attempt to convey a message, an idea, or a belief, not simply and individual choice. 

But does a school have a legitimate interest in suppressing a student’s individuality? We can understand that protecting a school’s ability to function, to maintain health and safety, and to promote achievement are essential, but where does a student’s appearance or choice of pronouns enter into this analysis?

I think that many schools confuse convenience and tradition with bona fide educational interests.

Yes, it may be a pain to have non-gendered washrooms, to remember to refer to students by their chosen pronouns (particularly when those pronouns may change on an irregular basis), to get used to the sound of a person’s speech with a newly pierced tongue, and to see boys with hair to their waists figuring out how to tuck all of it into a football helmet. But does it matter? How much time and energy do you actually want to focus on this?

When I was working with pre-service teacher-candidates, the professor asked a class what they thought the job of a teacher was. These student teachers came up with a list that included: be a good role model, maintain a safe space, ensure that rules are obeyed, patrol the halls to keep strangers out, communicate with parents, etc. Oddly (I thought) not one student suggested that teachers should teach!

But how to teach? Is there more to teaching than disseminating information? There must be. The job of a teacher is to encourage students to think critically about the subject matter that is presented – and about the world in general. By treating students with the respect they request and deserve, however odd or uncomfortable they may appear, a teacher opens the door to questioning, to consideration, and to an understanding of equality and diversity. As John Stuart Mill said in On Liberty, “Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

Schools should not be about arbitrary rules. Schools should be about learners and their learning. Rules enforcing conformity can only get in the way of a teacher’s real job. Teaching.