L to R: Me with a photo of me at ISTE 2012, as a panelist at #140edu conference, my newest tattoo freshly finished

I recently heard a conversation on the BAM Radio Network entitled, “Teachers, Tattoos, Piercings and Provocative Dress: Fashion Anarchy vs Fashion Fascism?” As someone who has spent a large portion of her life as a non-conformist, I definitely connected with the topic. First, let me say that I believe that the way teachers dress for school sends a message to their students about how they feel about their students and how they feel about their job. I am NOT saying that teachers have to always look like they are heading to an important business meeting. Teachers need to be free to sit on the carpet, do an art project, monitor recess and walk around the classroom all day. However, we still need to keep in mind that what we wear does matter.

That said, I think I finally learned how to dress myself at age 22 when I started to realize that, as an adult, I was being judged and mistreated by other adults, who assumed that I was 16 (I look young for my age). Now, ageism could take up a different post entirely, but in a nutshell, I learned pretty quickly that what you wear matters. Even now that I know how to buy clothes that (mostly) fit me properly and shoes that match my outfits, I still have a number of tattoos on my arms and legs that, during the winter months, can be covered up by long sleeves, but in the warmer months are on display. I have often gotten looks from people who look at my tattoos and then look at me with this puzzled expression, saying, “They let you teach with those?”

Luckily, tattoos have a lost a lot of the stigma they once had. Still, these kinds of reactions are very common. But before I answer the question, let me back up a bit.

In high school, I was in National Honors Society almost every year, I had mostly A’s and some B’s on my reports cards (Except for Pre-Calculus, which kicked my butt. It was the only C I’d ever gotten.), I was yearbook editor-in-chief, I was in French Club, Art Club and I took part in 3 high school musicals (before they were cool). Needless to say, I was a pretty good student.

I also happened to have a bright pink, pixie-style hair cut, wore spikes and black eye makeup, wore clothes that I bought at rummage sales and wore nothing but sneakers and boots. From the outside, I looked like your average Goth/Metal/Punk kid. A misfit, if you will (a big wink to anyone who gets that joke). Anyone who didn’t know me would immediately judge me by my appearance. That judgement would stick until they actually had to interact with me and realized that I was a lot smarter than I looked. This trend continued when I entered Oberlin College, a place known for individuality and non-conformity. I went to school with some of the smartest, most passionate and engaging people I’d ever met. We may have looked like a bunch of crazy hippies, but we were smart, engaged, motivated and passionate students.

Oberlin, at the time, did not have a school of education, so I was not on a direct path to becoming a teacher. Though I did spend a large amount of time volunteering in classrooms, I did not spend four years thinking about what my classroom would look like or worrying about whether a school would hire me with tattoos, piercings and stretched earlobes. There are many teachers out there, like me, whose decisions earlier in life when their career path was either unclear or not clearly teaching, may have modified their bodies in some way. This does not make them unfit for the job. I would argue that there are more people turning to teaching as a second career than ever before. No one should have to change who they are and who’ve they’ve been just because they chose to change careers.

For most of my youth I was judged by how I dressed and how I looked. At the same time, once I opened my mouth, people were forced to change their perceptions. I keep this in mind when I am quick to judge young people, and I keep this in mind as an adult judging other adults. I will not pretend that I am free of stereotyping (is anyone?), but in the back of my mind I always remember that things are not always how they seem.

Which brings me back to the radio show.

I had the unique experience in high school of working four days a week in an office building, and after my freshman year of college I worked as a temp as a secretary for an HVAC company. I learned how to “code switch” my appearance when necessary (though my pink hair started to show through at my temp job as the black dye started to wash out). I learned early on the art of work clothes vs play clothes, though I’m sure that I was barely successful in pulling off “work clothes.”As a professional adult, I strike a balance between maintaining a professional appearance while also expressing my individuality. My experiences have shown me how important appearances are, but they have also shown me that it is important that professionals are able to maintain their individuality because, in the long run, what matters is how well you do your job. Honestly, if someone won’t hire me because of my tattoos, I probably don’t want to work there anyway. Instead of sending the message to our students that in order to be a professional you have to look a certain way or lose your individuality, we should be modeling for them how to do your job well, have a professional attitude and demeanor, dress the part and still be able to express your individuality.


  1. Excellent post and one that needs to be shared with high school kids and pre-service teachers. Appearances often help determine first impressions, whether that’s right or wrong, I don’t know, but that’s how it is. It took you a while to realize how your appearance impacted your professional career. Do you think students need to realize this a lot earlier than you did? I do believe that where you work (geographic location) has an impact on how people look at you. You teach in an urban setting, but I wonder what the views of you would be from others (parents) if you taught in an upper class, suburban setting. Would they look at you differently, even after they got to know you? I think they might.

    • marybeth

      Thanks, Chad.

      I think about that sometimes. As a product of suburbia and having attended suburban high school, I’m not sure. I’m at the age now where many of my friends are parents and live in the suburbs. They also have tattoos and piercings. I’m pretty sure that, even in the suburbs, for every parent who looks at me like I have two heads, there’s one that looks at me with recognition.

      Then again, I also am thinking primarily of schools in the Northeast. I wonder what perceptions would be in a different part of the country.

      • I do believe, and it’s wrong, that despite your amazing credentials, you wouldn’t get hired in some upper class schools simply because of the tattoos. It’s not right, but I think it’d happen.

        • Mary Beth

          And as I state in the post. “I wouldn’t want to work there anyway.” 🙂

    • marybeth

      Also, see the update. I actually worked in an office in high school four days a week and that experience taught me what professional dress meant, though I hardly pulled it off 🙂

  2. I’ve been copying Dr. Seuss for years: “be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

    I prefer to were sweatvests and/or ties on a daily basis, but that doesn’t stop me from lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling when I need to teach the origins of the Cartesian Coordinate System or running up and down stairs to talk about slope. Gotta be mobile while teaching, right?!?

    • Mary Beth

      That Dr Seuss quote is in my email signature for a reason 🙂

  3. MB,

    Wonderfully stated post. Culture is shifting on the view of tattoos and what they mean, but there are many that still assume the worst. Teaching high school, I remind students that the decisions they make now when it comes to body modification is something that will come up later in life, but you should always be proud of who you are and not hide it from the world.

    I also think your tattoos are awesome.

    See you around,


    • I think Nick is doing the right thing by talking to his students about their “now” actions impacting their future. I really don’t think kids think about this, especially when it comes to what they post online. I agree about being proud of who they are, but there is still an impact, right or wrong, about appearance when it comes to getting that job. I’d hate for kids to realize, too late, that the cool tattoo they got in high school or college is preventing them from doing what they want in life.

      • Mary Beth

        I completely agree. Kids will see my tattoos or talk about the tattoos their parents or family members have and I always stress that they wait. I tell them of friends who have body art they regret and I remind them that it is something they will have forever. I hope that, coming from me, that those words will stick.

    • Mary Beth

      Thanks for the kind words on my artwork, Nick 🙂

      It’s amazing, when I think back on HS, how everything is *now.* It’s so hard for kids to think about anything past the immediate future or care sometimes for that matter.

  4. Klint Kanopka

    Solid post. As much as it sucks, appearance matters. I teach at the same school Brian does and happen to be VERY heavily tattooed. For my first year and three quarters, or so, most people had no idea. Observant kids could see bits and pieces poking out, but they stayed covered. They’d pop out during teacher-student basketball games and when I got matching shirts for my whole AP Physics class, but they mostly stayed hidden. My style of dress isn’t strict business, it’s more J. Crew meets classic workwear. But as an active and hands-on physics teacher, I’m constantly getting my “big boy” clothes dirty, so I try to balance rugged with classy. I project a professional image, and it’s obvious that I take pride in what I do and my position.

    Now I’m comfortable enough in the school community to roll up my sleeves when it’s hot, but it’s important to project a responsible image. I find that people being exposed to heavily tattooed people makes them less excited around tattooed people. I also feel good that I’ve talked a few people out of hand and neck tattoos or tattoo parties or some of the other “lower” aspects of tattoo culture.

    Brian’s Dr. Seuss quote really hits the nail on the head. While Chad may have a point, that sort of judgement based on appearance is the same antiquated line of logic that fuels the long history of institutionalized bigotry in our culture. Professional and successful people challenging societal norms are important to breaking stale traditions. I’m proud to be a part of that.

  5. Aaron

    I don’t have anything against tattoos or people that have them for that matter but how can having tattoos be considered a sign of nonconformity? In a lot of circles tattoos are the height of conformity. I mean a lot of people get tattoos as a symbol of belonging to a certain group. Tattoos are fine for people who want to get them but in the 21st century there are really people who believe they are a bold sign of individuality?

    • Great point, Aaron. Many times, tattoos do actually represent someone’s affiliation with a group. I would definitely argue, though, that tattoos are sign of individuality. Have you ever asked someone about one of their tattoos? 9 times out of 10 you will hear a story about an event or a person that meant a lot to the person displaying the tattoo. Every tattoo holds a story of some kind that reflects the values and life of the person it decorates. That’s my perspective and that of most people I know with tattoos. That said, it may not hold true for everyone.

      Just curious, what would you consider a ‘bold sign of individuality?’ That phrase got me thinking.

  6. I did 20 years in the Navy and until (what seems like) a few years ago military vets and people in jail/gangs SEEMED like they were the only ones with tats. So asking anyone my age, or older, to immediately ignore tattoos is an uphill battle. That said, most of the female teachers I work with have at least one tattoo. It’s just part of life now. Being frank, anyone with a tattoo has to prove themselves to me before I will take them seriously. I usually say “poor thing” to myself when I see someone with a bunch of tats. I don’t visually make a big deal out of it, when I meet someone, it’s just a quick “check” for who this person is in front of me. I’ll never get a tattoo and I’m always honest with how I feel about them with my students and coworkers. It’s just part of who I am. Don’t get me started on what goes through my head when I see a person smoking, with tattoos. (I’m smiling while I wrote that last one, by the way.)

    • Chris, as someone with tattoos, I also hold my own stereotypes. There is not ‘one kind’ of person with tattoos, but there is also not just ‘one kind’ of person with a Burberry scarf or a polo shirt and khakis. These are things I have learned along the way. While I would never wear Burberry if my life depended on, you can imagine what goes through my head when I see someone with a Burberry scarf drinking Starbucks 🙂 <–also smiling

  7. You are the real McCoy. I didn’t know. I was at Beloit College 70 -74 and we had a bit of this and that.
    I didn’t get into Antioch which was great as the students went on strike in solidarity with the cafeteria worker that year. Imagine spending tons of cash and loan dollars to support a labor strike.

    I can’t comment on the TATS…. It never fit my style but fits yours very well I would say.

    • Thanks, Bruce. I remember well the tales of Antioch, our ‘sister school.’ I have fond memories of Ohio. It gets a bad rap sometimes, but I found it beautiful!

  8. Jeff Martin

    Hi Mary Beth, I found your blog/link off BAM radio. I’m a HS teacher in AZ and also teach at a local university part-time in the teacher ed department. This is such a great topic to discuss and one I will share with my students. Thanks for sharing your story I was also a bit of a rebel in HS, but I was more afraid of my parents. This was probably the only thing that kept me from tattoos…that and I’m adverse to pain of any kind!

    I’m a huge believer in professional dress in the classroom…always. Kids absolutely do treat a teacher differently if they are too casual in his or her dress. I’m a 6’5″ 290lb male and probably wouldn’t have an issue of disrespect regardless, but that’s really not the point. I take my job seriously and have worked really hard at my craft. With that, I really don’t think kids today would treat me any differently if I did have tattoos. This, as you well know, is a completely different world than 20 years ago…than even 10 years ago. The stigma isn’t there as it was in the past. I guess the point of this ramble is if you dress professionally and give your kids the respect they deserve, you will have not issues and have the opportunity to let your skills shine. Good luck to you! -Jeff Martin Gilbert, AZ

  9. Your “misfits” line did not go unnoticed. Some offspring would have bad brains to think that you might clash and create social distortion because the tats, they really would have nofx on the kids learning and the stooges that might not hire you because of your germs were probably rancid cramps anyway (that’s nine bands in there :).

  10. Mary Beth,

    Just discovered your blog and am thrilled to read this post. I am in my late 30’s and just going back to school to become a teacher after 15 years in the workforce. When I started working my first “real” office job, in the mid-/late-90’s, women were still expected to wear panty hose with skirts and dresses and never wear sleeveless tops. My one discreet tattoo stayed hidden and it wasn’t an issue. Nowadays, bare legs are perfectly acceptable on a summer day, and business dress in general has become a lot more casual. (At least here in the DC area.)

    That said, I still do think it’s important to convey a professional image to students, parents, and colleagues. I have found that even on days when I was working from home, how I dressed affected even how I would think of myself… hard to take myself seriously in yoga pants, whereas if I am dressed smart-casual even at my own dining room table, I am more likely to take my own work seriously. And even though I now have two tattoos myself, I will judge someone who has large, unhide-able ink as someone who does not take themselves seriously as a professional (unless that person is actually an artist, a bartender, etc.). It’s one thing to have tattoos that can be covered up if necessary (if you’re called to speak at a congressional hearing, you want to be remembered for what you said, not your ink), and another thing to have profanity scrawled across your neck. There’s a wide variety of tattoo’d people out there, who display varying degrees of judgment in terms of what/where they have them.

    I also often think about the unique position teachers have as role models. I am planning to teach high school English. I think there is as assumption among students that their teachers have been put into place in part because of their suitability as a role model. (“Well, if my teacher did/does it, it must be fine…”) This is why it’s so crucial that a teacher never be seen smoking by their students, etc. I think it’s true that you probably have more credibility with your students in terms of talking them out of certain kinds of body modification, since you aren’t one of those boring, square grownups who can’t possibly understand youth culture. But I wonder how this same thinking spills over into the rest of our identity as teachers. For instance, I got pregnant during my senior year in high school. My daughter was born when I was 18. Kids are smart — if they find out I’m 38 and my oldest child is 20, they can do the math. So am I open about it, and use my story as a cautionary tale? Or should I be concerned that it makes it look like that kind of thing is okay…? I hate to be so remote and distant from my students that I don’t share any details from my personal life (and I do have a lot of wisdom to share from my experiences!), but I also want to make sure I stay firmly in the role of authority figure. It’s a tricky balance, it seems to me.

    Sorry to get off on a tangent, but these issues seem related, to me. Glad I found your blog!

    • marybeth

      Laura, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think teachers are in the unique position of being role models for positive personal identity and filling the mold of what society deems acceptable. We need to portray professionalism in every way but also model how to be an individual thinker and not lose our sense of self. Not easy!

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