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Can Teachers Have Tattoos?

Can Teachers Have Tattoos?

You think you want to be a teacher but you’ve got some ink.  But, you wonder, “can teachers have tattoos?”  

The answer is of course!  Go right ahead!   But also, maybe not so fast.  The ability to have a visible tattoo proudly displayed for students and parents to see depends on the district and its policies but acceptance and hiring of tattooed teachers is becoming more common as society becomes more accepting of differences outside the box thinking. 

How Did Tattoos Even Come About

The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word “tatau”, meaning to mark or strike.  Tattoos have been discovered to date back at least as far as 5000 years to The Iceman, who was found to have over 50 when he was unearthed in the Alps in the 90s.

Ancient Egyptian figurines and tomb art indicate that tattoos were almost exclusive to women.  The varying theories are that prostitutes would have tattoos to protect them from sexually transmitted diseases and that women would strategically place tattoos on their bodies as a means of asking for protection during pregnancy and birth.

In ancient Greece, tattoos were, at times, considered to be status and nobility symbols.  Other ancient cultures, like those of Rome and Japan, used tattoos to signify belonging to someone through devotion, slavery, or as punishment for being a criminal.  Crusaders would tattoo crosses on their hands to indicate they wanted a Christian burial if they were killed in battle.  Tattoos were used for centuries as non-verbal representations of one’s vocation, status, and beliefs.

In the 1700s, Polynesian body art was discovered by Royal Navy sailors and thus began the wave of tattooed sailors from both the British and American Navy.  Tattooing spread to merchant fishermen and then to land-bound tradesmen.

Despite the seemingly honorable military connections, tattoos were kept closely related to those who were considered to be the lesser groups in society like sailors, modest, blue-collar tradesmen, and acts in sideshows.  This unfortunate association with being distasteful has held on through the centuries and bled into modern-day associations of tattoos.

As more and more people from varied walks of life get tattoos and challenge the long-held narratives of just what kinds of people have tattoos, these negative associations are beginning to diminish.  Also, as discrimination for any reason is under a microscope, many people are turning a blind eye to tattoos that, most of the time, do not cause anyone else any harm and are usually benign acts of self-expression.

Common Motivations for Getting Tattooed

Common Motivations for Gettting Tattooed - Teacher Tattoos

As previously stated, when tattoos came about in the United States, they were often associated with criminal activity, deviant behavior, and lower socio-economic trades and vocations.  These days, people get tattoos for a myriad of reasons that are not tied to their trade.  Some may be motivated by rebellion, attention, impulsiveness, or addiction.  Others may get tattoos as a means of artistic expression, implying status, or announcing group affiliation.  Still, others may use tattoos to display a personal narrative.

Tattoos can represent memorials for loved ones, religious beliefs, and mark specific times or events in life.  Most recently, tattoos have even found a following in permanent cosmetics and even bodily advertising space.  No matter the motivation, tattoos are nearly guaranteed conversation starters.  There is usually a great story to be told or a lesson to be learned that goes along with the displayed word, picture, or art.

Tattoos also create emotional responses in people and can act as a form of social branding.  How many tattoos a person has, what the tattoo depicts, and how big it is add to the emotional response of the visual receiver.  Tattoos can cause people to think the inked individual is tough, impulsive, easy, a partier, or that they lack ambition.  Conversely, tattoos can also lead people to think that the individual is strong, creative, artistic, open-minded, and trendy.

Of all tattoos, neck and face tattoos are less well-received than tattoos found on other places of the body.  Some studies state that up to 38% of Americans have some type of tattoo.  In a society that is constantly seeking individuality and self-expression, tattoos fit the bill.

Why Might Tattoos Be Prohibited and Is That Even Legal?

Teachers tend to live under a microscope and are viewed as role models for the young minds that fill their classrooms.  Because tattoos have long held negative connotations of criminal activity, rebelliousness, and gang affiliation, seeing a tattooed teacher can give one pause because these are not generally characteristics that parents want in the teachers educating their impressionable children.

Because of the aforementioned emotional responses, tattoos can be viewed as unprofessional or they can be outside the image that a district or company wants to convey.  That’s why some districts or companies have policies regarding employees and visible tattoos.

What about rights?  What happened to self-expression?  Tattoos and other body art do not fall under the protected categories named in the Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964.  As a refresher, the Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, race, national origin, sex, and religion. These are considered protected classes.  Other federal laws also prohibit discrimination due to age and disability and more recently, some state and local laws go even further and protect employees from discrimination based on marital status and sexual orientation. Tattoos do not rank among any of these more immutable, lawfully protected, characteristics of a person.

While many do not, school districts and other employers for that matter, are well within their rights to have an employee tattoo policy prohibiting visible tattoos.  In districts that do not have tattoo policies, a teacher may still be asked to cover up a tattoo that is considered offensive, profane, or inappropriate for the school setting.

Times are Changing

In the early 2000s, districts like the ones in Joplin, Missouri and Tulsa, Oklahoma had dress codes that stated tattoos were prohibited and to be covered.  These days, both districts’ dress codes simply state that teachers must dress professionally and in a way that does not distract from the learning process.  One must assume that with the language now removed, tattoos are more accepted within these learning communities and not considered distractions from the learning.

With teacher preparation programs declining in enrollment and some colleges of education suspending their programs, as well as teachers leaving the profession at an unheard-of rate, districts cannot afford to be so picky when it comes to putting a certified teacher in the classroom.  A tattoo does not interfere with one’s intelligence or ability to act professionally and follow educational best practices while molding young minds.

With the increased push to end discrimination of various kinds in the workplace, those with tattoos are finding some momentum with this movement.  Tattoos no longer negatively impact job opportunities as much now as they have in years past.  In some cases, a tattoo, and even the story behind it, will be what seals the deal on a new job offer.

Tattoos Can Open Doors and Discussions

Tattoos allow unique opportunities for conversations between teachers and students.  As teachers are given the chance to explain the meaning(s) behind their ink, it can serve as a unique ice breaker with kids who may relate in some way to the stories.  Tattoos can increase a teacher’s humanity in their students’ eyes.  Students sometimes forget that teachers are people with lives and emotions outside the school building.  Learning from tattooed teachers can help students develop acceptance of those who live life outside the box and can help to open their minds to the different kinds of people who have tattoos and the various reasons for getting them.

As you can see, nothing is stopping a teacher from getting a tattoo and some may argue their students are better for it.  There are also fewer things standing in the way of getting and keeping a job in education, especially as the numbers of classroom vacancies climb.  A few districts remain in which a teacher may be required to cover their ink.  However, in the majority of American school districts, maxed out administrators are so relieved and happy to simply have a qualified educator interested in filling one of the countless open positions that a tattoo is neither here nor there.

Written by Kelly Hammarlund

Kelly Hammarlund is a middle school teacher in the midwest. In her spare time, she is broadening her horizons by writing blog posts, descriptive copy, and immersing herself in other freelance writing opportunities.

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