The haircut helps

chaos_donutshot_175x175My haircut – a red double Mohican for those who’ve not met me yet – is literally what was left over after I cut my dreadlocks off in about 2004. This was around the same time as I made my peace with the fact that my record label wasn’t earning me a living and took on my first full-time teaching gig.

Almost exactly 10 years ago, I started work on my first full time music project called In Tune, an outreach project working with excluded children and those with behavioural issues. This was in a time before the economic crash – the budget to run it was more generous than anything I’ve run since, and the freedom to manage it however I wanted was exciting and terrifying in equal measure. With the support of an excellent, trusting boss and a phenomenally accomplished technician, we went into a a dozen schools & pupil referral units, working with students that other teachers were struggling to engage.

I remember turning up to my first school in a suit with my hair flattened into as close to a normal haircut as I could managed – something I’d only ever done previously for funerals and job interviews. I felt self-conscious for the first 2 weeks of teaching. In the third week, one of the students asked me if I ‘always looked like that’. I explained that, no, normally I had spiky hair and wore combats and a hoodie. When he asked me why I wasn’t always dressed like that, I didn’t have a good answer for him, so I agreed that if we got all the work together for the end show, I would come into the school with my hair how it normally looked.

The day of the show, I remember the mood being very different when I arrived with the Mohican in full effect. The students thought it was fantastic – they didn’t see me as much as an authority figure or a teacher, more like an artist, a mentor, or just a helper. Well, this is interesting, I thought…

The In Tune project was excellent experience for me, as we went into schools for 3 weeks at a time, working intensively with the same group of students, so I had an incredible opportunity to put together a programme of study and continually revise and improve it as we went from one school to another. That refinement included my demeanour and personality in the classroom too. First, the suit went – suits are designed for people who don’t do any manual labour, and the teaching I was doing involved lots of running around making films, playing instruments, choreographing dances, basically anything to reengage disinterested students. Then the Mohican started to make a permanent appearance, so right from the beginning, the students I was working with realised I wasn’t the same as the other teachers they’d worked with. I was aware that this didn’t always go down well with the faculty staff, but I wasn’t there for them, I was there for the students they’d given up on.

And what a wide range of students they were… I had some students with profound emotional issues, and I had some incredibly sweet kids who had just fallen foul of the school system and found themselves labelled as being troublemakers. I had a knife pulled on me during a lesson observation, and I worked closely with a student who had been given a months’ detention for dyeing his hair black. The one unifying factor was that the less I acted like a school teacher, the less they acted like naughty school children.

I’m not being down on teachers here – they’re not given a great deal of choice when it comes to deciding how they deliver their lessons, and that’s certainly not something that has got any better over the last 10 years. Some children just don’t get on well at school for a variety of reasons, and the fact of the matter is that there is so little choice for students if the default doesn’t fit. Normally what happens is that a student gets in so much trouble they’re moved somewhere else, and only then does the system consider changing.

gamelan-poster-A4_1We were able to do great work with In Tune by creating these little bubbles of alternative provision within mainstream education, tiny temporary autonomous zones that allowed us to focus on what the students wanted to do and build outwards from there. I went on to do my postgraduate research on these issues, and it’s been a cornerstone of how I teach ever since. The Mohican helps, because it’s a demonstration that you don’t have to follow rules to become successful, and it sure helps people remember who I am more than a suit and tie.

Whilst I have your attention, a final reminder that tomorrow I’m starting my collaboration with Jonathan Roberts to create an augmented Gamelan orchestra – if you are aged between 15-25 or know someone who is, drop an email to learning@cheltenhamtrust.org.uk and we’ll see you at the Cheltenham Pump Rooms – and to whet your appetite, here’s a video of the kind of instruments we’ll get a chance to play with!


Until next week,

Lee, 10/4/16