It may not be fair to judge a book by its cover, but it happens everywhere you go, even in the classroom. But as educators, is the way we dress really that important? According to the University of Scranton, it's quite important. How we dress can present an image we don't necessarily intend. Unfortunately for me, I had to learn that lesson the hard way!
Who's the Teacher?
There were no rules or guidelines regarding teacher attire in the large, rural high school where my teaching career began, so I followed my colleagues' casual approach to classroom style, which sometimes included jeans, sweatshirts, and sneakers. This style was affordable and comfortable, and it worked well for me until the day I was pulled over for speeding.
Within minutes of leaving the school parking lot one day, the flashing lights and siren of a patrol car were signaling me to pull over. The state trooper, who was intimidating and clearly impatient, practically barked at me when asking for my license. He reprimanded me for several minutes about speeding before finally letting me go with a warning.
The following day, when the last students had left my classroom, I looked up to see the same trooper in my doorway, hat in hand. "I've come to apologize for my behavior yesterday," he said in a much friendlier tone. "I was telling my family at dinner about stopping some high school kid for speeding, and I remembered your name from your license. I asked my son Scott if he recognized it, and he said, 'Dad, that's my English teacher.'"
"Oh!" I said. "You're Scott's dad?" He nodded. "I thought you were a student," he said. "I'm sorry I gave you such a hard time. Just take it easy on the road."
I wasn't surprised by his assumption. I had been wearing a short denim skirt, sleeveless shirt, and sandals, and my hair was pulled into a ponytail. But while some young teachers might have been flattered to be mistaken for a high school kid, I was annoyed. I was a fully licensed teacher with a master's degree! I realized that if I wanted to be treated like an adult, it was time to start dressing like one. I didn't rush out to buy suits and heels, but I did step up my game so that if someone walked into my classroom, they'd be able to tell who the teacher was.
Finding a Balance
A couple years later, I took a job in a suburban school district where there were expectations for teacher attire. Men wore ties and jackets, while women wore dress pants or skirts. Needless to say, the students and adults in my new district had very clear expectations about teacher attire—and that did not include sweatpants. As a young teacher, I didn't have a lot of money to upgrade my entire wardrobe, but I didn't want to look as though I were wearing an older-person costume either! I realized that I could still shop at the same places as long as I made different choices.
I learned that when the unexpected occurs, such as an impromptu confrontation with law enforcement or an unhappy parent, dressing professionally is a big advantage. It may have taken nearly getting a speeding ticket to change my outlook, but I've never regretted adopting more professional attire. And on the rare occasions when I'm at school in jeans or sweats—field days or the faculty-student basketball game, for example—the kids really get a kick out of it.
Of course, what's most important is how a teacher treats kids, not how he or she dresses. But dressing appropriately removes any confusion about who's in charge, which makes kids feel safe. And frankly, looking good makes me feel good and more confident as a teacher.