Who am I?

Masks and masking in international schools.

Matthew Savage looks at why students in international schools might choose to mask their real self and the consequences for student wellbeing.


“Now does he feel his title

Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe

Upon a dwarfish thief.”

(Macbeth, Act V, Scene ii)

Whilst it has roots in the anti-racist work of Frantz Fanon, use of the term ‘masking’ is commonly associated with the neurodiverse community. It provides a metaphor to explain how neurodivergent people commonly feel they have to wear a mask in order to fit into the society they inhabit, for fear that being their authentic self will lead to, at best, isolation, and, at worst, attack.

I saw this first hand in my autistic daughter’s behaviour, both as a young child before she forged her mask, and as a teenager when she had, for the most part, learned to wear it convincingly. Even in Primary school, however, she would typically fall to the ground in inconsolable tears before she had even made it through our front door at the end of the school day: wearing a mask is exhausting!

Masking in international schools

I often share the story of a Third Culture Kid (TCK) who joined as a teenager one of the international schools I have led, having attended seven schools in six different countries before they enrolled with us. I saw them spend their first fortnight closely scrutinising their peer group, to work out precisely whom they needed to be in order to be liked and successful there.

Subsequently, and every day, they wore a carefully constructed mask, and it had precisely the desired effect: quickly, they became one of the most popular students, and, as a result, they found their place in their new society. However, I later found out that the strain of doing so daily meant that they would go home and sob with their parents every evening. They had worn masks for so long, it was hard to see and celebrate what lay beneath.

Authentic or masked?

My youngest child, who is transgender, teaches me so much every day about not only the trans community but also the cisnormative world they inhabit, and how we must adapt it such that everyone can belong and be loved unconditionally. Much of my learning is about language – the source of so much power within any society – and I recently learned about the word ‘boymoding’.

This is behaviour a trans girl will, inevitably, choose or be forced to adopt, to pretend to the world that their life is rooted not in their true gender identity but in the incongruent sex they were assigned at birth. Antithetical to ‘passing’ (when a trans person is seen for their authentic self), ‘boymoding’ is suffocating, a mask whose weight and danger is one cause of the mental health crisis amongst trans young people.

A hidden problem for educators

However, over the years, it has become increasingly obvious to me that masking is commonplace among many other groups. The overwhelming pressure to conform, comply or perform in the world today, be we child or adult, is such that most of us will wear our own masks, often thickly and well, in a variety of situations. This is true, for example, on our social media timelines, consciously and constantly manicured and curated for best effect.

One of the more common causes of masking today arises from societal attitudes to mental health. Even as we chip away at other stigmas and prejudices, it seems to me that the taboo of mental ill health remains, as strong as ever. For my part, whilst I openly and intentionally share much of my personal story, I do not yet feel safe or able to share the story of my own mental health.

All of this causes a problem. As educators, we seek to develop positive relationships with all of our students; we want to be able to see them, hear them, and know them, so that we can adapt our provision such that they can belong, succeed and thrive. However, if they are wearing multiple masks, how can we hope to achieve this? If they do not feel able to be themselves, how can we, in turn, know who they are? And what if we cannot be ourselves either?

Even once we start better to cultivate safe spaces where students and staff can take off their masks, we also need to consider how to meet this ‘unmasking’ in an affirming and genuine way. In a way where they feel comfortable not only to lay down their masks but also to leave them safely out of reach. It is important to ask ourselves and each other, how can we best show up when others are ready to do this?

Wellbeing conference, March 2023

These questions will be explored in detail and depth in Leuven, Belgium in March 2023. ‘Thrive 2023: The Wellbeing Conference for International Schools’ aims to provide a safe space in which for educators from across the world to immerse themselves in wellbeing-focused professional learning. To disrupt, provoke and inspire each other’s thinking, and to interrogate, challenge and reflect upon their own, for two whole days.

It is common for conferences to signpost a wellbeing pathway. As a result, wellbeing has to jostle and compete with a relentless focus on other priorities. However, Professor Ferre Laevers, Dr Sadie Hollins and I decided that this needs to change. That it is only when we are able to #thrive that we can enjoy positive wellbeing, deep learning and a happy and successful future. That it is time for talk of wellbeing to shift from the periphery to the centre, time to put and keep #WellbeingFirst.


We hope you will be able to attend this ground-breaking event, which will take place at KU Leuven on 18 and 19 March 2023, in association with COBIS and ISC Research. Further details are available on the conference website at thrive2023.org. Registration is now open, and ‘early bird’ rates are available until the end of November. Workshop proposals will also be invited, from 1 December 2022.

In the meantime, I ask you to reflect further both on the masks your students, and, indeed, your peer colleagues, may be wearing, and also on the masks you are wearing yourself. Why is each mask being worn? What treasures lie beneath? And what would need to change to render that mask unnecessary? After all, as the world increasingly sheds the actual masks of the pandemic, isn’t it high time we addressed the metaphorical masks too?


Matthew Savage is proud and excited to be organising ‘Thrive 2023: The Wellbeing Conference for International Schools’, with Dr Sadie Hollins and Professor Ferre Laevers. To read more about Matthew’s work, which will also give a flavour of the conference itself, a selection of his recent articles can be found here.



FEATURE IMAGE: by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Support Image:   by John Hain from Pixabay


Further reading from Matthew in ITM:

Return of the mask

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