Teaching with Tattoos

When I got my first full-time job as a teacher, I tried starting the year as “professional” as I could be. I went to work (most days) with my shirt tucked in, rarely wore jeans, and never…never wore my earrings. With the warm fall weather and no A.C. in my stuffy room, I constantly remained cognizant about the position of my short sleeves and where they fell upon my arms. Every few minutes, I would adjust my sleeves to make sure that the tattoos on the biceps of both my arms weren’t peeking out. When my students caught a glimpse, they would, in an awe-like fascination, question me about my ink. I would bluntly shoot down or slyly evade any questions about the matter. I thought, if my students were so rapt by the site of a tattoo on a teacher, how would my fellow colleagues react? And what about parents? I maintained the schism between the real Matthew Morris and Mr. Morris until a few things began to reveal to me that: it was not only okay to be who I am, but I should champion being me!

It was not until completing my first parent-teacher interviews that I decided to go to school with my earrings in. Why? It wasn’t one particular parent but it was just the general aura of the teacher/parent relationship that spoke to me. A strong teacher-parent relationship is one built on trust and honesty and I could feel that the parents of my students were real with me and also trusted me. So I didn’t want to be a fraud to them. Teachers must understand that parents understand that you are more than your job. I had to start living that.

Next came the teaching with tattoos, so to speak. Now I wasn’t wearing tank tops to school, but after that first year, I became more comfortable sharing a few stories about my tattoos. A group discussion about the nature of one of my tattoos actually became the theme for a week-long Social Studies unit. My latest tattoo, on my right forearm, became the subject of an art lesson last spring. Yes, I used my own tattoo to teach an art lesson. It has taken four years for me to become comfortable as a teacher in front of my colleagues and students in my own skin. Hopefully stories like mine will help future teachers make the transition faster. More importantly, I hope my presence, right in front of my students’ eyes, will help dismantle stereotypes that society will try to teach them.

Getting more tattoos has been a site of constant conflict for me, especially as a Black man. Education is a very conservative industry. But without opening up certain narratives, we find ourselves repeating hegemonic stereotypes. But certain stereotypes, especially those of Black males, must be interrogated and broken down. And the classroom is a ripe place where not only students, but teachers can take personal agency in breaking down harming views about individuals in society. Yes, I have a few tattoos and may cling to a particular type of urban Black masculinity. BUT I am also educated, articulate, and represent something more than the boxed-in stereotype that society wants me to be. Yes, I am a teacher. But my job does not define who I am.