I toyed with the idea of calling this post ‘How to Wind up a Fierce Woman’ but a) that’s clickbait for trolls and b) I didn’t want to be wholly responsible for my female colleagues being on the sharp end of well-meaning advice from people who take things too literally. So I settled for something a little less likely to cause ructions between the male and female of the species.
The advice I outline here comes from a range of sources: male, female, internet and child. I think the fact it comes from such a wide range of the human spectrum shows that something is ingrained in our consciousness about being female in the teaching profession. I stress that the advice I have received from actual human beings, as opposed to advice from the uncontrollable behemoth that is Google, has always been well-intentioned and drawn from kindness. But, as the well-known saying goes: “The best advice is this: Don’t take advice and don’t give advice.” (Quote attributed to everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Chaka Zulu – who knows, right? It’s the Internet!)
No Advice More Important Than This
It started on a fairly sunny day in September when I walked into school for the first time as a fully-fledged, almost functional and not-at-all scared adult embarking on my unqualified year as a teacher. My mentor, grizzled and fierce (actually fierce, rather than F.I.E.R.C.E), told me in no uncertain terms that she was about to give me the best advice she had ever been given in her own career. Clearly, I was about to receive manna from the Gods. She pursed her lips and appraised me in that way people do when they think you’ll do. “No bellies, boobs or bums,” she said. And that was that. I had been told. I looked at the male NQT next to me and he gave me an embarrassed half-smile. I wanted to pat his arm and tell him that the advice wasn’t meant for him. Then I spent the next year wearing polo necks and loose-fitting trousers, despite working in a 1960s-built comprehensive school building without air-conditioning.
Avoid Death By Shrillness
Training can be joyful, especially when lunch is provided and it is more than a foil tray of stale sandwiches and some sad looking grapes (if anyone knows why we get grapes at every training event, please do let me know. It’s bothering me). In my early days as a qualified teaching professional, I attended many training events and quite frankly, not enough of these training courses understood my thing about the sandwiches and the grapes. What they did manage to do was provide me, a relatively anxious person, with a complex about the pitch of my voice. Because, as all women are told when they start to teach: all children hate shrillness and if your voice remotely resembles a tin-whistle on steroids, you will fail in the classroom. I can’t remember how many times I heard that a deeper voice, the human equivalent to the humble double bass, a dulcet baritone in fact, would instantly mean that children of all genders would respond to the transmission of my instructions quicker than you can say Pavarotti.
In any case, I became hyper-conscious that my authority rested on the concealing of an inherently female characteristic – the higher pitch of my voice. Anyone who has met me will tell you that I sound pretty average as far as pitch goes, but that didn’t stop me attempting to lower my tone by an octave or two. I had to stop deliberately lowering my voice because I kept only remembering to change the pitch half way through sentences and the kids pointed out that it sounded like my voice was breaking.
To Get A Job, You Have to Smell Like a Man
When I decided to try my hand at some of the leadership malarky I had been diligently reading about (I dare you to shout “teacher’s pet” – I’m over that now), I was invited to several interviews. The word ‘several’ indicates quite clearly that I did not get the first promotion I went for. What does a Naughties twenty-something do when they need advice and they are too ashamed-slash-proud to ask their work colleagues? Ask the Internet! A quick google search using the term ‘job interview tips for women’ is like falling into a rabbit hole lined entirely with pages from Cosmopolitan. Ladies, if you are looking up golden nuggets to help you through an interview process, try not expect anything more than advice on the clothes you should (a mid-heel apparently) and should not wear (shock, horror: do not wear cargo pants). God forbid you might want advice on anything else. So, on reviewing my wardrobe and referring almost exclusively to dubious advice websites for women seeking promotion, I came to the honest conclusion that my wardrobe was both traditional and conservative (see: No Advice More Important Than This). There was one piece of advice that baffled me which, oddly enough, did not prevent me from following it.
Women are more likely to get a job if they smell like a man. Of course, if it is on the internet, it must be true, even if it does sound like a headline from The Metro. Cue testing of my collection of half used bottles of perfume the night before my interview to see which one smells more ‘musky’. I hate the fact I even wrote that word but it is the word the article used. A higher musk content smells more masculine and therefore, when you walk into an interview room and work out where the chair is without withering into a musk-wafting heap on the floor, the interview panel will take one sniff and be fooled into thinking, lo, this is not a woman with her own skills and intellect, but a man! And you will be hired forthwith.
I didn’t get that job the next day. Something about lack of preparation, said the nice lady on the phone and I nearly told her that I had spent three hours spraying myself and washing it off to do a dry run of perfume-trickery.
Don’t Be So Emotional, Dear.
Fast forward a few years and I have managed to wheedle myself into a senior leadership position. I thought I was past the whole rubbish-advice-because-I’m-just-a-girl. I had been fighting a running battle with some Year 10 boys on taking their trays in the dining hall. Said Year 10 boys had decided that this was a hilarious game to play with the newbie SLT member and would pile their trays up in the middle of the table, wait until I had turned my head and then bolt for the door. One day, in the midst of my lunch duty, I moved faster than they did and managed to speak to one of them. He did surly well and walked away from me. I caught up with him later and gave him an extensive telling off that included the possible consequences of not taking his tray (no tray = detention = wasted time = failure in all GCSE subjects = no college/university = no income = no significant other = lonely forever all because of a tray). Okay, so not all of that, but close.
A well-meaning colleague and this time, definitely male, colleague sidled up to me and said the immortal words and a smirk: “have you calmed down yet?” I responded with surprise, because, yes, I was surprised. I had been feeling quite chipper. He then explained that he’d seen me shouting earlier and decided to stay away from me until I had simmered down. “You know, they respond much better when you are less emotional,” he continued.
I wish I could say that this is advice he gave to all those new to the post, but a withering part of me down in my soul knows that is not true. The implication that my highly-strung emotional female self had escalated the situation stung like cheap tequila.
But this time, because I am in my mid-thirties, so the teaching equivalent of an aged steak, I did not change a thing. I have learned my lesson over the years and learned to accept that the way I choose to present myself as a woman in teaching is no one’s business but my own (and now yours, reader). I no longer wear polo necks, I speak in my normal voice without worry and my perfume is just the right side of musky because I like it that way. If I succeed in teaching, it is not despite the fact I am a woman. It might have something to do with the fact I work quite hard and I’m still a big ol’ swot who wants to be the best at everything I do. That might just be it.