Kindergarten teacher suspended and reassigned over his tattoos & blackened eyes

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A French primary school teacher is all over the news this week for getting suspended from a job last year because of his appearance. Sylvain Helaine, 35, a.k.a. Freaky Hoody, lives in Palaiseau, which is somewhere near Paris, and has his face and entire body tattooed, including his tongue and gums. His eyes have even been surgically blackened (somehow).

He says that after 12 years of teaching at Docteur Morere Elementary School in Palaiseau he was moved from his position teaching kindergarten after a parent complained that he scared their child. Apparently, the parents of a three-year-old child complained to educational authorities that their son, who was not taught by Helaine, had nightmares after seeing him. He was reportedly suspended and then informed him he would no longer teach kindergarten children, but he still teaches kids six and up.

Helaine said in an interview with Ruptly that he thinks the decision is “sad,” “unfair,” and “xenophobic.”

And he is quoted by Reuters as saying, “All of my students and their parents were always cool with me because basically they knew me. It’s only when people see me from far away that they can assume the worst.”

Since this happened last year and he seems to still have a job, I’m not sure why this is making the news now. But it raises some good talking points about picking your battles and how that will affect your career, and demonstrates that there are at least two sides to everything:

One one hand… Life is about picking battles. You might not think it’s fair that people are going to judge you based on your appearance but they are going to. So, the question here is whether one wants to go to battle with the world over their right to look a certain way. If you’re willing to die on the tattoo (or eye blackening) hill, by all means do so. But do keep in mind that you might have to. And not everyone can afford to do that. Helaine can probably afford to because, according to the Daily Mail, he’s spent £35,000 (60,000 CAD) on his body work so far, but if you need to feed your family you might have to balance your decisions differently.

Also, it’s interesting that, despite the clichés people love to trot out about tattoos being for the working and/or criminal classes, the reality is that covering yourself with tattoos and blackening your eyes is kind of a bourgeois thing to do. It costs a lot of money and is a choice people can really only afford to make if they can afford to be turned away from jobs and/or are of the creative class.

Speaking of choices, when we say “appearance” we usually mean “life choices.” Helaine’s appearance isn’t something he can’t control, like the colour of his skin, his height, or a disability. He made the decision to go out and cover himself in tattoos and it’s a bit disingenuous to act surprised that some people are going to be put off by that decision.

We all need to weigh our visible life decisions and how they might affect the way others perceive us. Because the way you see yourself and the world is not necessarily how others see you and the world.

On the other hand… If Helaine is a good teacher, his employer could probably have gone to battle for him. The school missed an opportunity for a teachable moment and to show its support. A better way of handling the situation would have been to hold a school-wide event and have Helaine introduce himself and answer any questions parents and children might have and attempt to address their fears. As someone who has been thrown under the bus by an employer (client) in the past, I feel this keenly. (And as a marketer, I can’t help but think what an amazing branding opportunity this could have been for the school. But I actually know nothing about how French schools work or are funded, or how using Helaine as a poster boy would have been useful. I just think he’d make a cool poster boy.)

At the end of the day, though.. your battles aren’t always yours. The school has to answer to the parents of the children. Everyone has to answer to someone. This is another thing to keep in mind when picking your battles: that there are all kinds of stakeholders involved in these sorts of decisions.

The better we all understand the reality that nothing is entirely about us, the better off and more successful we will all be.

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