Sunday, December 9, 2012

Dressing Up and Dressing Down Teachers

Much ado has been made about a proposed teacher dress code for my school district as non-teacher leaders formulate a new employee handbook to replace the expiring teacher contract.

A few weeks ago, school leaders unveiled a three-page draft of a proposed dress code for school employees to replace the current one-line (“wear appropriate dress”) policy. The proposed draft has been met with some push back from educators. The push back has been met with some push back. The teacher dissent is viewed as much ado about nothing by some school leaders. The dressing up of teachers feels like a dressing down.

Undoubtedly, the current employee handbook discussions distract all of us from the eight ball of school reform. Nonetheless, between nothing and the eight ball is a worthwhile discussion about professionalism in public education.

The local push to “codify and standardize” the teacher dress code syncs with the national trend to make public education more like the business world. Understandably, the external image is important to those in market-driven fields. First impressions are essential for repeat business. Encounters with repeat customers and clients can be sporadic. Even in markets frequented often by repeat customers--like grocery stores or coffee shops--relationships with customers can be superficial with the focus on the exchange of goods. I do not cast stones at businesses and other professionals that follow a prescriptive dress code.  In a money-goods/service exchange, the exterior image is essential to survival.

In the teaching world, however, the external image matters little. It is a challenge to help those who have made a career in the market world, yet regulate our schools, to understand this difference. Learning is intrinsic and often one of life’s most intimate experiences. The external has no value in the intimate teaching-learning exchange. In fact, the real value of such an exchange is in the process--which is beyond measure (and this discussion). Dress matters not in learning.

In the school world, teachers and students interact on a near daily basis in often-authentic ways. When my own children trek off to school year, I hope they land teachers that are engaging, passionate, tolerant, adaptive, collaborative, organized, experienced, and creative. I never ask my kids what their teachers are wearing. Most students, teachers, and parents know that the charade of professional dress does not make for effective teaching and learning. In the education world, authenticity matters most. I have yet to see a tribute to a high-achieving teacher that mentions how well dressed they were.

The dress code rollout has been pitched as “raising the standard of professionalism” for local teachers, yet attempts to “codify and standardize” an ideal like professionalism vitiates the very ideal. Rules are, most certainly, a reflection of values. However, too many rules can undermine what we value. My school district has made some solid efforts to foster student-centered learning. Professional dress is a sidebar to student learning and should be treated as such in an employee handbook.

Other professional values come into conflict with a prescriptive dress code. Looking beyond appearances for value is essential to my job. All walks of life enter my classroom everyday. I am so conditioned to seeing varieties of people that I am mostly oblivious to different styles of dress. I learned in culturally responsive trainings, provided by my own school district, that imposing one’s view of success on the larger society can be insensitive.

Dressed for success varies in so many contexts--especially in a public school. The current liberal dress code policy ("wear appropriate attire") promotes learning about diversity and tolerance and sometimes-good discussions about and between different cultures. An egalitarian dress code is empowering and a model of success in its own right. I spent almost 30 years learning and teaching in Catholic schools. In retrospect, my insular life sometimes boxed in my view of success. Since converting to public education I have grown to embrace the diversity, including the diversity of dress, found in public school communities.

Instead of dressing down teachers by imposing dressing up policies, school districts should embrace a broader view of teacher professionalism, yield to professional educators, and
let the learning commence.


  1. As someone who teaches school law, I know that this concern pops up frequently. I wonder if there were instances of 'inappropriate' dress that fostered your administrators' move in this direction?

    1. Thanks for the follow up question, Scott.

      The short answer to your question is "no." The HR director is on record as saying the inappropriate dress problems have been minuscule.

      Our union president reports that he has only dealt with one dress code issue in the past 5 years and that situation was resolved through union channels and the teacher acquiescing.

      I am not sure how closely you have followed developments in Wisconsin under the leadership of Gov. Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature. Part of the controversial legislation that led to a failed recall attempt of the Governor allows for local districts to replace mutually-agreed upon contracts with district-created employee handbooks in relation to working conditions.

      The new-found power is being utilized in some districts in radical ways and moderately in others. My district is unique because teachers have had a contract until June of 2013. Local officials have had time to develop changes, yet few are sure where things are headed. Outside some opening listening sessions, school staff and their union have been largely excluded from the handbook's development.

      Employees are having new rules developed for us, about us, and without us. The dress code is just the beginning.

    2. I'm sorry. Absent a glaring and recurrent problem, this doesn't warrant a change in policy. There are probably other more important policy issues upon which to focus. Plus one of the first rules of leadership is 'pick your battles because you only have so much leadership capital from which to draw...'

  2. With all of the challenges facing the District--increasing class sizes, potential expiration of collective bargaining, heightened scrutiny and demands from the State, etc., it is unfortunate that the school board has spent so much time on this issue. Should we spend so much time assessing students? How can the District attract and retain the best employees? To what degree should instruction be scripted, and to what degree should teachers be allowed to exercise professional discretion? There are more pressing issues that affect learning with which the Board should be grappling.

  3. I worry about the clause on no political views. Is wearing a jea shirt expressing a political view?

  4. Do you think wearing a jea logo expresses a "political view' ? That would be against policy but a similar jsd shirt would be fine. Seems like a freedom of speech issue to me not a dress code issue.