J'can grooming policies are irrelevant in this modern era
Men are more marginalised than women as far as grooming requirements are concerned.

The education sector is one of the most critical industries in the country, but to what extent has it been fulfilling its mandate? We continue to have significant shortages in the requisite equipment and personnel to help our children and graduates obtain the quality education they should receive.

We have a minister who is often referred to as "Failedval" and labelled as out of touch with respect to the real concerns facing the education and youth portfolio. There are talks that Prime Minister Andrew Holness may be reshuffling his Cabinet soon, and many people are hoping that more energy will be placed in the Ministry of Education and Youth (MOEY).

There really needs to be greater leadership and management of the portfolio and a sense of coordination and standardisation across educational institutions, especially regarding common policies that affect students' learning and development. After all, we are talking about the public sector. While institutionalised culture and climate may vary here and there, the application of directives from the MOEY – the highest authority in this context – must govern all public institutions. But what we find is that many administrators and educators still continue with business as usual and do their own thing, often with no rebuke for breaching the established standards.

GROOMING POLICY

Barbados leads again! A few days ago, Barbados' Education Minister Kay McConney updated her country on the new grooming policy to govern public schools. The previous policy was almost three decades old.

An editorial published in Barbados Today on January 13, 2023 under the heading 'Finally the hair victory many advocated for' captioned the following: "The decision, as outlined in the Ministry of Education's new National Grooming Policy, to allow students to wear dreadlocks and cornrow hairstyles uncovered at school was extremely long in coming. Barbados is a country populated by people of African descent. The frowning on and opposing our God-given hair in the most natural state is something that should have been dealt with firmly long ago."

Barbados' context, just like many other Caribbean islands', is quite similar to that of Jamaica's. Why then do we continue to drag our feet in relaxing our archaic grooming policy? There have been different cases brought before the courts concerning hairstyles, numerous newspaper articles written on the matter, and several fora held to talk about the issue. Still we are extremely far from making any meaningful progress.

We are stagnant because of educational administrators and stakeholders.

We are the products of our education. The Church and the school system, for many years, have perpetuated this hard-and-fast rule about "proper" grooming, particularly in terms of hair and dress code. They have fed us with this philosophy of their version of standards and professionalism, which is archaic and closed-minded. Anything contrary to this lifestyle is considered blasphemous, and those who resist to conform are labelled rebellious and a threat to society.

If we are to elevate our thinking, we must fix our education system. But many of those who are at the helm of the system are the biggest "hold-downs" in Jamaica. The system is also sexist against males, who are the more marginalised of the genders in terms of grooming.

The teachers' college system must lead the charge as they continue to maintain these ridiculous rules in the name of "modelling the expected behaviours". That is the only justified excuse they can give, which is absurd. In 2023 they expect learners to conform to a servile mentality despite iconic reggae singer Bob Marley's charge to "emancipate yourself from mental slavery".

If we continue to instil these ridiculous principles in our preservice teachers, the cycle will continue as they will enforce the same values when they become full teachers.

Is there a place for rules and a grooming policy? Absolutely. But there must be meaningful rationale. It cannot just be that "the system has been like this for years and it will not change", as a human resource manager at a teacher-training institution told me recently.

I received a copy of the dress code governing the same institution and I initially thought it was for the students, but to my surprise, it was for staff members. I was appalled that adults were being policed in such a manner.

The preamble states: "It is imperative that all members of staff in the college be appropriately attired and well groomed for the office and for business and professional assignments. Appropriate dressing for school business and office purpose may contribute to the development and maintenance of socially acceptable skills in the working environment."

The following modes of dress are considered inappropriate for the school and office (for males): jeans pants and shirts, ear or nose rings, designs in haircut, hairstyles and cornrows, sandals and sneakers, pants below the waist, sweat pants, shoes without socks, polo shirts, T-shirts and "ganzies", and shirts outside of pants (except bush/shirt jackets).

In the event that any of these commandments is breached, staff members "should be sent home by their supervisors to change into appropriate office attire and return to work by 11:00 am or forfeit the day. An officer who repeats the offence twice will be subject to disciplinary action".

Of course, some of these modes go without questioning, but one cannot help but think that this tertiary-level institution is operating like a primary school.

They believe that their rigid dress code policy "may contribute to the development and maintenance of socially acceptable skills in the working environment". On the contrary, the culture of the workplace is evolving, so their teachers may have a hard time fitting in.

In fact, I am very annoyed at this policy because education is supposed to enlighten and help us to be independent thinkers. But, in this instance, it is a form of social control. It is not surprising, though, as this institution is linked to a conservative religious denomination. The Church is very good at indoctrinating people.

Teachers' colleges need to remember that they are not only preparing teachers for the local workforce. Many of our graduates migrate to work in other cultures and systems. Can they enforce some of these ridiculous rules in those jurisdictions?

One of my mentees, who is currently studying at a university in Canada, told me that he had a difficult time settling in with regard to the hair policy. He was used to his low-cut hairstyle while attending high school in Jamaica, so it was weird for him to see males with high afro-like hairstyles in Canadian schools.

What do hairstyles and slim fit pants have to do with learning and competence? We keep barring males from educational institutions and employment opportunities because of trivial matters. Have we even stopped to consider that for many of them their self-esteem is tied to their hairstyles and the manner in which they dress?

Jamaica will lose many qualified and competent workers to migration because of things of this nature.

Having done my first degree at a teachers' college, I refuse to be a part of a system that limits students in such a way. We need to stop feeding them with this nonsense. We must promote critical thinking. We must question and challenge.

I had the opportunity to work in a senior role at one of these training colleges for a week, but I could feel the eyes staring me down each time I moved about because of my hair and slim-fit pants. In fact, one of the vice-principals said to me, "Are we wearing the hair like that?" The human resource manager called me to her office and said she was facing constant pressure to talk to me about my attire as she was being bombarded with complaints. She told me to cut my hair at the weekend as I could not be introduced to students in devotion the following Monday looking the way I did.

I decided that at my mature age I would not be bowing to such a ludicrous system. Therefore, I penned the school administrators a nice e-mail informing them of the ridiculous nature of the system, reminding them that they are the ones in need of my skills and I am not short of job opportunities.

Oneil Madden is interim chair/head of Department of Humanities and lecturer in language(s) and linguistics at Northern Caribbean University. He is also a PhD candidate in applied linguistics at Clermont Auvergne University, France. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or maddenoniel@yahoo.com.

Oneil Madden
Oneil Madden

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