Do clothes maketh the teacher? Musings on what professional dress for teachers

9 82 cardigan sequin pants
Image used under creative commons licence.

A few weeks months ago the twitterverse in New Zealand was awash with indignation when a young court reporter was asked to leave the media bench of a high profile media trial as her gold sequinned pants were deemed inappropriate for occasion. Depending of your point of view, the pants were either a symbol of the younger generation’s complete disrespect for the authority of the court or sexism in action.

The case of the sequinned pants got me thinking about teaching dress code.

One of the tips that inevitably is passed on to newbie teachers, particularly younger ones, is that you need to dress professionally. Of course this inevitably opens up a huge can of worms as to what professional dress for teachers actually is. Some schools, at least in New Zealand, don’t particularly care if teachers have tattoos, dreadlocks and flip flops while others think that professional dress is nothing short of teachers showing up in business attire every day.

One of the easiest ways to gauge acceptable dress for a school is to look at what other teachers are doing and follow that. However that doesn’t really leave much room for teachers to develop their own own individual style and as the disco pants show us, one person’s awesome can another person’s inappropriate. And the thing with teachers is that it isn’t just the senior management of a school that will weigh in on teacher dress. Politicians, parents and in particular students will quickly voice an opinion on what they think is acceptable teacher attire if given the opportunity.

Which leads to an important question do clothes maketh the teacher?

I don’t buy into the argument that teachers will be accorded more respect if teachers dressed more like lawyers, accountants and the important people who work in offices. Schools are far different from offices. Offices tend to be well heated and the inhabitants usually sit at their desks all day.

On the other hand, I spend a lot of my time either sitting on the floor or walking around the classroom checking in on groups of students. Then there’s lunchtime duty and P.E classes which may or may not involve walking across a muddy field. What’s more whenever there is an art activity, I almost always end up with paint on my clothes. The outfits I wore as an office drone don’t really work for me in the classroom as the dry-cleaning costs alone would be enough to put me off wearing a lot of my old clothes.

As a recent transplant to Wellington my primary concern isn’t keeping my clothes clean but rather keeping warm. My students might be walking around shorts and polo shirts in the middle of winter while I am shivering under two or three layers of clothes plus a jacket. The classroom door opens straight out into the elements so even with heater on an icy blast of Wellington wind is ushered into the class any time someone enters or exits the room.

There is a school of thought that teachers are role models for students and we dress relays how seriously we take our jobs. However as the case of the sequinned pants demonstrates, professional dress doesn’t necessarily equal professional behaviour with a ‘serious’ newspaper committing some dubious reporting of the story. Teachers shouldn’t be relying on their clothing alone to gain respect.

Nevertheless clothes do matter. In a past life I’ve been on hiring committees where a candidate’s attire played a part in a decision to say “thanks but no thanks” by the hiring committee. The rather sage advice I had handed down to me; if you can’t see over it, under it or through it you can wear it otherwise forget it, is probably a good to follow for most new teachers.

Can you get away with being a bit more offbeat in your fashion choices? At my first placement there were teachers who had dreads and tattoos and no one seemed to care as long as good teaching and learning was happening. But then being in a trendy liberal part of Auckland such things weren’t ever going to be a big deal with the local community. So yes there are schools that will hire teachers that are bit off-beat in their fashion choices and more importantly teachers who do a bang-up job in the classroom even if they happen to sport some body ink.

Nevertheless for any teacher who outwardly embraces any form of counter-culture, you are probably going to have to compensate for your weird appearance by being hard-working. The best way to get away with being a weird-looking teacher is to be really good at your job so that’s what people focus on.

If you’re more lax with regards to your work habits, then outwardly embracing counter-culture as a teacher is going to be more of a challenge, because then you’re the weirdo teacher with dreads. So yes you can deviate away from the traditional teacher ‘look,’ in certain places but you will probably need to overcompensate a bit with more hard-working awesomeness.

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One thought on “Do clothes maketh the teacher? Musings on what professional dress for teachers

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  1. Timely, and Interesting musings.
    I plan to wear either jeans and a tshirt to school/work or chin’s and a nice casual shirt. The jeans, runners and tshirt are part of my teaching strategy. Although, I must admit that I have never found this strategy in any text book – let me be the first.

    The majority of my English students know me as the Special Education teacher that can level with them and use (appropriate) humour to get beyond their “mask(s)” ultimately developing a trusting relationship where work can be achieved. Yes, my personality as a teacher is quirky as designed by me, and is somewhat true to who I am. The jeans are intended to create a more relaxed atmosphere particularly at the beginning of the school year, and my tshirts have sayings on them that I intend to use in discussion with my students – supports their learning and the curriculum expectations. For example, in my profile photo I am wearing a Adiddas tshirt that says “all me.” This saying leaves a lot of room for discussion about themselves and where they are at in their life/educational process – grade 9s and big new high school to grade 12s thinking about life beyond the walls of high school. Ultimately, developing a strong positive sense of culture – establishing the classroom environment, expectations etc. – will begin to develop the beginning of our community for the semester.

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